Road

Hincapie is switching gears

George Hincapie is no stranger to the Tour de France. The popular American racer rode his first Tour in 1996 with Motorola when he was just 23, and he has been a fixture at the July race ever since. In his first year, Hincapie had a bad crash and didn’t finish, but he has made steady progress in each of the following years. In 1998, the spring classics specialist had one of his best Tours from an individual standpoint, narrowly missing a chance to wear the leader’s yellow jersey after featuring in a winning breakaway on stage 3. The next two years, however, weren’t about individual goals.

Each year, George Hincapie goes from classics captain to Tour worker

By Bryan Jew, Nazareth, Belgium

Photo: Graham Watson

George Hincapie is no stranger to the Tour de France. The popular American racer rode his first Tour in 1996 with Motorola when he was just 23, and he has been a fixture at the July race ever since. In his first year, Hincapie had a bad crash and didn’t finish, but he has made steady progress in each of the following years. In 1998, the spring classics specialist had one of his best Tours from an individual standpoint, narrowly missing a chance to wear the leader’s yellow jersey after featuring in a winning breakaway on stage 3.

The next two years, however, weren’t about individual goals. There was no pursuit of an early yellow jersey for Hincapie, nor any other individual honor such as a stage win. Not when your teammate is Lance Armstrong. After Armstrong’s comeback from testicular cancer, the past two Tours have meant one thing for Hincapie: working for the boss.

Hincapie, who has been in the paid ranks since age 19, approaches the Tour as a seasoned pro. Each year, his early season is dedicated to those spring classics — specifically the Tour of Flanders, Ghent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix — where he shines as the U.S. Postal Service’s team leader. Then, in May, Hincapie switches gears and devotes his energy toward getting ready to help Armstrong any way he can.

In the spring of 2001, Hincapie had one of his finest classics campaigns yet, including his first win at a major classic, Ghent-Wevelgem. Part of being a professional, though, is focusing on the task at hand. Despite his successes this spring, Hincapie says he won’t treat this year’s Tour de France any differently than last year, when his classics season was marked by crashes, injuries and a flat tire that prevented him from sprinting for third place at Paris-Roubaix.

“The job is always gratifying,” Hincapie said after winning Ghent-Wevelgem. “If Lance can do it again, or when he did it last year, it’s really gratifying to be part of that. It [his Ghent-Wevelgem win] won’t change my work ethic or my effort in the race in the Tour de France, but it is nice to have some personal results.

“To the cycling world, the Tour de France is the biggest thing, but you have the Tour de France, and then you have the classics, which in Europe are huge as well…so I’m grateful and I’m honored to have that role to play [as a leader in the classics].”

Once the classics are over at the end of April, a rider like Hincapie has to switch gears completely — both physically and mentally. He has to go from super-intense one-day races in demanding spring weather over cobblestone roads, to the different rigors of a three-week Tour over terrain that ranges from flat, windy plains to the high mountains of the Alps and Pyrenees.

For Hincapie, it means a short break back home in South Carolina before ramping back up. “After Amstel Gold [April 28], I go back to America and take a couple days, a week easy, not riding much, and then start training for Philadelphia [USPRO Championship on June 10], but basically for the Tour … and use Philadelphia more as a build-up,” he said. “I’d like to do well [in Philly] again, but it’s not the most ideal time of the year.

“Once I get to the Tour, I know it’s going to be hard work and trying to keep Lance ready, so there’s definitely a lot of training to be done in May, hard training!”

Hincapie won’t shy away from all that hard work, because whether it’s April when he’s the Postal team leader, or July when he’s Armstrong’s protector, Hincapie is a pro, through and through.