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George Hincapie rides into his professional sunset at 2012 USA Pro Challenge

"I’m happy," he says. "It’s a great day to finish up my career … I just tried to really enjoy every kilometer,”

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DENVER (VN) — It ended fittingly. With a week of hard work for a teammate, a smile and a duck into the bus. It ended with grace.

Big George Hincapie hung it up on a sunny Sunday in Colorado, just as he came in: tirelessly riding the front.

“It’s been a long career for me. A good career. I’m proud of it. I’m sad to leave,” Hincapie said. “At the same time I’m excited to spend more time with my family and to start a new life.”

His life on the bike has been prodigious. After 19 years as a pro, Hincapie is the top American classics rider of his generation, winning Gent-Wevelgem in 2001 and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in 2005. In 2005, he was second at Paris-Roubaix and won two stages at the Critérium du Dauphiné and Tour de France. He’s ridden in five Olympic Games.

Hincapie (BMC Racing) rode on nine championship teams, guiding Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans to yellow. He brought that selflessness to every team he rode for, from U.S. Postal Service to BMC Racing, where he recently took long pulls in hopes of piloting Tejay van Garderen to yellow in Colorado, where he ultimately finished second.

It was perfectly fitting that Big George didn’t go changing.

“I’ve been focused. We’ve been really working hard to try to win this race. It meant a lot to Tejay. I’ve been spending a lot of time with Tejay over the past several months,” Hincapie said.

“We’ve been talking about this race for a while, so I was focused on that. I wanted to help him win. Which is what I’ve done my whole career. And I just wanted to not change the last week. I wanted to keep doing the things I’ve been doing.”

Hincapie finished well down in the general classification in his last race at 41st, but fans lining the Denver time trial course couldn’t have cared less. The barriers rumbled for Hincapie as he kicked down his final feet of road, the crowd aware of bearing witness to the curtains being drawn on a sterling career.

“Even at the start, it was quite emotional,” he said of the Durango start. “People were really giving me a good sendoff. And at the finish line as well. It meant a lot to me. I’m happy that I chose Colorado as my last professional race.”

Jim Ochowicz, the manager of the BMC Racing team, said Hincapie was an unrivaled rider of grit and class.

“It’s a rare breed. There aren’t many people like that in the sport,” he said. “I think he’s been a great role model for American cycling. In so many ways he’s been a leader, or a lieutenant, or an inspiration. A guy that everybody on the team can go to at any time for counsel, a word of advice, some mentoring. For me, a consultant. Somebody I can bounce ideas off of.”

Taylor Phinney, who won the Denver stage with a smoldering pace of more than 30 mph, appreciates the time he has spent riding Hincapie’s wheel.

“It means the world to me. Yesterday was one of the most special days of my life as a bike racer — up there definitely with the Olympics,” Phinney said. “It was made even more special by the fact that I got to ride up Flagstaff with George after we’d been working on the front for Tejay the whole day. George’s final, last-ever climb, with him. Just being able to sit on his wheel for one last time was really, really special and a huge honor for me.”

Another honor for the young American was riding Hincapie off his.

“I actually dropped him on the Lee Hill descent after we had gotten dropped by the Garmin crew, and he said that in 19 years of bike racing he’s never been dropped on a descent before until his last race ever, and it was by me. So, I’ll take that as a massive honor and a passing of the torch, so to speak,” Phinney said.

Miles of cobbles and French roads later, Hincapie leaves the sport, but he’s taken pieces of it home, and for good. He met his wife, Melanie, on the podium of the Tour de France, and they have two children. It’s his favorite moment of his cycling career.

“I’m happy. It’s a great day to finish up my career … I just tried to really enjoy every kilometer,” he said.

And though Big George is finished racing, he’s not finished riding.

“I’m going mountain biking Tuesday with a buddy of mine,” he said. “I still want to keep riding my bike. There’s no reason to stop.”