By Andrew Hood
George Hincapie is enjoying his first crack at the Giro d’Italia.
The American national champion sat on the hood of the Discovery Channel team car Saturday morning as he soaked up the sights ahead of the start of the 254km seventh stage. The hilltop town of Spoleto was bathed in pink for the partenza and Hincapie was clearly digging the scene.
“I am really enjoying the Giro,” Hincapie told VeloNews. “The racing is good but it’s a lot more relaxed here than the Tour. This is just what I needed.”
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a complete surprise that Hincapie’s never raced the Giro during his long 14-year career as a professional.
The New Yorker’s focus has always been on the spring classics followed by the Tour de France. With his schedule fixed on those major goals, May was typically a recovery month and the Giro just didn’t fit in.
This year wasn’t supposed to be any different, but his crash at the Tour of California changed everything. Hincapie broke his wrist and was sidelined for his traditional charge through the spring classics.
“It was hard to miss the classics. I trained hard to be ready but I wasn’t able to go because of my injury,” Hincapie said. “I decided to come here to put in some racing miles. You can’t get training like this at home. It will get me in shape for the Tour.”
Hincapie, 33, was a late addition to the Discovery Channel team, stepping in for the injured Tomas Vaitkus.
The Ivan Basso controversy has dramatically changed the team’s goals for the Giro.
Discovery Channel signed Basso last fall to lead the team at the Giro and Tour, but his startling admissions that he was the infamous “Birillo” of the Operación Puerto doping scandal turned the team’s Giro plans upside down.
“It was a bummer, a real heart-break,” Hincapie said of Basso. “It was definitely a big hit for the team. We’ve just gotta keep moving forward and try to win races.”
Rather than going for the victory with the now-disgraced Basso, Discovery Channel is rallying around Yaroslav Popovych and José Luis Rubiera.
“Popo has finished on the podium before, so he can do pretty good,” Hincapie said. “I’m here primarily for training. If there’s an opportunity, I wouldn’t mind trying to win a stage. But the main thing is to get ready for the Tour.”
Hincapie popped to 10th behind stage-winner Robbie McEwen in a sprint finish in stage two, but he said that result doesn’t represent a return of his sprinting days.
“I was just staying in the front,” he said. “It was a crazy finish, up that hill and then back down into a tight finish, I just wanted to stay out of trouble.”
Hincapie is hoping the Giro will serve as a springboard for a strong second half of the 2007 season. He’ll also race the Dauphiné Libéré to hone his form before the July 7 start of the Tour in London.
This year, the road to the Tour goes through Italy for Hincapie.