By John Wilcockson
Is this the year? Is this the year that the stars will be aligned for George Hincapie on the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix? Is this the year that the tall 34-year-old American can follow up his two sixth places, two fourth places and his runner-up spot (of 2005) with another big performance on Sunday? Is this the year he can win?
To find out how Hincapie is feeling about the task ahead, VeloNews went to see Hincapie Thursday evening at Team High Road’s hotel just outside Ghent. The verdict: He’s feeling great and totally relaxed. In fact, Hincapie didn’t even ride his bike Thursday. He used the long, cool sunny day to recover from the big efforts he has made these past few weeks in a series of hard races.
Hincapie’s spring season has included the Amgen Tour of California (winning the final stage), Tirreno-Adriatico (getting back into the rhythm of European racing), Milan-San Remo (with the lead pack over the top of the Poggio), the Three Days of De Panne (fourth in the final time trial), the Tour of Flanders (fifth place after featuring in what had looked like the winning break before Stijn Devolder took off) and Ghent-Wevelgem (helping team sprinter Mark Cavendish after being strong on the Kemmelberg).
We first asked Hincapie about Friday’s traditional reconnaissance of the pavé (the different sectors of cobblestones) in this Sunday’s 259.5km French classic.
VeloNews: Which sections will you be riding?
George Hincapie: We’re starting in the Arenberg [Forest], and then doing a two or three hours ride after that.
VN: That should take you pretty much to the finish, as it’s 100km from there to Roubaix ….
GH: We probably won’t get that far. We’ll probably get 80K. The last ones I know well anyway.
VN: Right. Though you didn’t ride Paris-Roubaix last year, and this year’s course is the same as 2007. There were one or two changes made then, mostly before the Forest.
GH: Yeah. We’re gonna see before the Forest in the car. I think they said we’ll get out of the car right after the Forest. We can’t go in the car through the Forest … but I know that Forest well. I’ve done it a bunch of times!
VN: Having done the first two cobblestone classics this week, who do you see as being your opposition on Sunday?
GH: There’s a lot of guys. [Alessandro] Ballan’s riding really well. And [Tom] Boonen didn’t win Flanders. So he’s gonna want to try to win Roubaix. [Fabian] Cancellara’s made for that race and he’s showed that he’s really good this year. And I’m sure there’s a bunch of guys I’m leaving out, guys that always ride well. I think [Magnus] Bäckstedt is riding really well. I think he might be up there.
VN: After Friday’s ride on the course, what will you being doing Saturday?
GH: Just easy. Right now, I’m just maintaining form. Can’t really train much. Just want to stay healthy and do two or three hours tomorrow decent, and probably two hours Saturday, just easy.
VN: When do you go down to Compiègne from here in Belgium? I know some of the teams, including CSC, aren’t going down till Saturday.
GH: No, we’re going right after the ride tomorrow [Friday]. Go straight there.
VN: Have all your seven teammates ridden Roubaix before?
GH: Yeah, they have, all of them.
VN: That’s good, because I know that wasn’t always the case in your U.S. Postal/Discovery Channel days …
GH: No. On other teams, no. But these guys are all really experienced. They’ve done good Roubaix’s.
VN: I don’t know if you’ve seen the weather forecast, but tomorrow and Saturday is supposed to be the same as this, and Sunday it’s supposed to rain, with a southwest wind.
GH: Yeah, somebody just told me that. That’s gonna make for as hard a Roubaix as you can imagine [laughter]. But that’s okay. Should be good for me.
VN: You’ve ridden well in the rain, but probably your very best chance of winning was your last Paris-Roubaix two years ago when your steerer cracked and you crashed out of the race. Because at that point your team was the strongest in the break. You had three guys with you.
GH: Yeah, in 2006, the team was really good. It’s always tough to say what was going to happen, but I would definitely have finished with the first couple of guys, for sure. I mean, I felt good and I was in a great position. So … It was a bummer.
VN: When you’re in the race like that, are you in control, telling the other guys what to do, or asking them for things? And you had Dirk Demol as team director looking after you then. Who will you have this Sunday?
GH: Here, we have Brian Holm and Tristan Hoffman, and this past Sunday [at Flanders] we had Allan Peiper. So all these guys have a lot of experience as well. They’re good at keeping the guys informed, and telling us what’s coming up. Tactics, as well. But, mainly, I’m the captain on the road, and they want me to say what I think, as well.
VN: Do you all have mic’s as well as earpieces?
GH: Yeah, everybody.
VN: So do you talk to your teammates when they’re further back in the group, or wherever?
GH: Yeah, you can talk to them. But I prefer to just go look for them lots of time, and save doing it on the mic. But if it’s crunch time and you don’t want to lose position, then, yeah, you say something.
VN: What food will you eat during the race — take with you and pick up at the feed zone?
GH: Cakes, power bars, gels. And, if it’s cold, chocolate.
VN: What sort of chocolate?
GH: Mars bars, lots of sugar and some fat. We try to mix it up a little bit.
VN: And what do you drink?
GH: The sports drinks and water. Well, start with the sports drink and water, and take whatever you get from there on.
VN: Do you like those sports drinks?
GH: Some of them I do. After a while they get old, but better than water sometimes.
VN: Does it help having your dad here to support you?
GH: Yeah, it really does … my dad and my brother. When those guys decide to come, I totally try to put pressure on myself to try to do well for them. So hopefully, Sunday, things will go well.
VN: If it come down to three or four guys, how will you approach the finishing sprint in the velodrome? Because that’s how you lost to Boonen in 2005 …
GH: What I always do is work on my sprint a little bit. But I just gotta hope that I have more energy. I think those guys were still trying to get a placing on Sunday [at Flanders], and I was able to beat them pretty easily. It just depends on how they arrive. On paper they’re much better sprinters than me … at least Boonen is, for sure. But after 260Ks there’s no guarantees. He was on a super day that day [three years ago] … If he arrives tired, then I have a good chance.
VN: But it’s a different kind of sprint on the track, with the bankings …
GH: Yeah, yeah. It’s a different sprint but when you arrive after 260, it’s not like the track sprinters. They’re so focused on every little detail. You arrive at the velodrome. You’ve got to look for your opportunity. I will definitely probably want to lead it out … with not too far to go. That last corner on the banking, with 50 meters to go after 260K is a long ways. So if you lead it out you want to make sure you have enough power to take it all the way to the finish.