American-based BMC Racing is aiming to bring world champion Cadel Evans overall victory at the Giro d’Italia this month, but the country’s only Pro Continental team will also be sending a powerful squad to the Amgen Tour of California in search of stage wins. Leading that team will be U.S. national champion George Hincapie.
Hincapie has raced every edition of the most important race in America. He won two stages in the inaugural edition in 2006, when he finished fourth overall. His other California stage win came in 2008 when he outsprinted breakaway companions Rory Sutherland and Jason McCartney.
The sole instance in which Hincapie didn’t finish California, in 2007, remains one of the race’s most courageous performances. After an early crash with Discovery Channel teammate Tony Cruz, Hincapie helped defend teammate Levi Leipheimer’s overall lead against several dangerous attacks by Team CSC. After the stage he discovered he’d spent the day riding at the front with a broken wrist.
For the second time in four years, Hincapie returns to California in the stars-and-stripes jersey of the national champion. This year it will be alongside BMC teammates Marcus Burghardt of Germany, Steve Morabito of Switzerland and 22-year-old American Chris Butler, Hincapie’s training partner for the past month in their hometown of Greenville, South Carolina.
“He’s one of the guys we’ve been nurturing along,” Hincapie said of Butler, a student at Greenville’s Furman University, who started the year on BMC’s under-23 squad but instead was called up, and delivered, finishing 47h at the Giro del Trentino last month. “He’s only been racing a few years, but he’s a good climber.”
With the exception of a late-April trip to California to participate in AEG Sports’ “Breakaway Ride presented by Specialized,” featuring the California tour’s stage 2 route from Davis to Santa Rosa, Hincapie has been home in Greenville with his wife and two children since finishing his classics season at Paris-Roubaix.
Though Hincapie described his Roubaix performance as “disappointing”, early season highlights included fourth at Ghent-Wevelgem and sixth at the Tour of Flanders — results to brag about for most any rider, but less so for Hincapie considering he has won Ghent-Wevelgem (in 2001) and finished third at Flanders (in 2006).
With Evans and BMC’s strongest stage-race squad in Italy, the team — which is based in Santa Rosa — is sending stage hunters to California. Hincapie said he hopes to win at least one stage, with an eye on the stage into Santa Rosa he previewed just two weeks ago.
“The Giro is the biggest objective of the season thus far for Cadel, and I think he’s got a great shot at winning, however the Amgen Tour of California is also very important for BMC,” Hincapie said. “(BMC Bicycles owner) Andy Rihs is very interested in the U.S. market, we’re based in Santa Rosa, and we have a lot of American riders. I think I can win one or two stages. It’s a harder Tour of California than in years past.”
Like stage 2 into Santa Rosa, Hincapie thinks stage 3, from San Francisco to Santa Cruz, could suit him well.
“Both of those stages are tough, and I don’t think it will be a big field sprint for either,” he said. “If I make it to the end with the best climbers, I think I have a shot.”
Hincapie also likes stage 8, the closing 84-mile circuit through Thousand Oaks, Westlake Village and Agoura Hills that includes the steep switchbacks of the famous Rock Store climb.
“It’s similar to the national championships course in Greenville,” he said. “And it comes at the end of a hard eight days of racing. When I won in Pasadena that was also at the end of a hard week. That typically suits me. A lot of guys are tired, and it’s easier to get into breakaways — it’s less about luck, and more about who still has the legs.”
In terms of how the race will be ridden, Hincapie said the presence of Leipheimer, a three-time winner and defending champion, and Mark Cavendish, the sport’s top sprinter, will mean all eyes will be on RadioShack and HTC-Columbia to control the race. Hincapie knows each of these teams well, having ridden for both.
“RadioShack is sending a very good team, with Lance (Armstrong), (Chris) Horner and Levi (Leipheimer). I don’t know who else they are sending, but just those three make them one of the strongest teams in the race,” Hincapie said. “And with Cav, on the sprint stages, he’s the guy everyone is looking at. So it will be easy to figure out who is willing to do the work.”
Beyond Leipheimer, Hincapie pointed to Saxo Bank’s world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara — the winner of both Flanders and Roubaix last month — as a major GC threat.
“If Fabian is going like he was last month, he can win the overall,” Hincapie said. “I don’t think the climbs are all that hard, and he won the Tour of Switzerland last year, which had some tough climbs. If he’s in good form he can be one of the favorites.”
As for the race’s date change, from February to May, Hincapie said he’s all for it.
“I think it’s great,” he said. “The last few years the weather was atrocious, so moving it to May can only help that. And for me, at this time of year I’m usually getting back into training, back at home. The weather in Greenville has been great, which is nice because I’ve been training harder than I used to at this time of year because of the date change. There will be more fans on the road because of the better weather. I see nothing bad about the date change, it’s all positive.”