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By Andrew Hood
In Pla d’Adet, France …
Hincapie, team leader?
Could George Hincapie lead Discovery Channel next year after Lance Armstrong retires at the end of the 2005 Tour de France?
That might have seemed a crazy notion three weeks ago, but it’s gaining credibility as Hincapie continues to progress into a solid, all-round rider.
Even Armstrong said it’s not such a far-fetched idea.
“We always have these dreamers who say they’re going to win the Tour, so why couldn’t George Hincapie be in that position?” Armstrong said. “He’s a complete rider.”
Armstrong said he’s already discussed the possibility with Hincapie, but noted that he’d have to give up on his beloved classics.
The two have been friends since they were 17 and called him a “great guy, a great human, a great friend.”
“He finished second at Paris-Roubaix, won stages at the Dauphine, leads the group over the Galibier, wins the hardest stage in the Tour – the guy’s a machine,” Armstrong said. “What he’s doing hasn’t been doing since Eddy Merckx did it 20-30 years ago.”
Johan Bruyneel, sport director at Discovery Channel, suggested Hincapie might be better suited for week-long stage races, but he didn’t discount the idea altogether.
“It’s difficult to say. George is a great rider, but he’s never been in a position where he’s a leader of the team in a stage race,” Bruynee; said. “I’m sure if he could focus on it he could be one of the great riders.”
Pereiro says strongest man didn’t win
Oscar Pereiro was bitter at the finish line at Pla d’Adet after watching George Hincapie sneak ahead of him to take the stage victory.
“This is a sporting competition and sometimes the strongest man doesn’t win,” said Pereiro, who couldn’t respond when Hincapie punched the accelerator in the final kilometers.
“It was all day on the wheel, this is something you have to take notice of. I had hoped to drop him because I knew he would be strong in the sprint,” he said. “He said, ‘Let’s work together and try to get to the finish line,’ then it seemed like I was doing all the work. It just didn’t work out for me.”
Demol happy for Hincapie
It was hard to tell who was happier at the finish line, stage winner George Hincapie or Discovery Channel’s assistant sport director, Dirk Demol.
The former Paris-Roubaix winner has been close to Hincapie over the years, helping him develop into one of the strongest classics riders of today’s generation.
“George has always been helping Lance, today he got a chance to get in a big breakaway, so today George could go for his own chance,” Demol said. “When the break was more than 15 minutes, we knew that it would stay away. We just thought when a big group goes, let’s get one of our guys there, and when Lance comes up, it would be a big help. We didn’t think he would win the stage.”
Demol has worked closely with Hincapie, acting as the sport director for Discovery’s assault on the spring classics.
“He’s making progress every year in his climbing. If you work hard likes he’s doing, it pays back with the biggest stage in the Tour. It’s wonderful that he won,” he said Ullrich still aiming for podium
Throughout his career, Jan Ullrich has been dogged by criticism that he eats too much, but on Sunday, perhaps he didn’t eat enough.
Ullrich was following Ivan Basso and Lance Armstrong up the final reaches to the summit finish when he fell off the pace. He dug deep to finish ninth, but ceded 1:24 to Basso in the fight for the podium.
“I didn’t eat right on the stage,” said Ullrich, fourth at 5:58 back. “I lost some time on the part of the climb where I shouldn’t have. The last few kilometers were very hard for me, so I had to really struggle. I will put up a fight. I still believe the podium is possible. Believe me, I am happy about the rest day.”
To add insult to injury, Ullrich ran afoul of French police as he rode down the mountain following the stage. The gendarmes stopped him on the descent, but once they realized he was the 1997 Tour champion, they let him proceed on his merry way.
What happened to Heras?
As the favorites duked it out over the Pyrenees, one mountain goat missing from the mix was Roberto Heras.
The three-time Vuelta a España champion has been one of the biggest disappointments at this year’s Tour. He hasn’t crashed or been ill. It simply seems the skinny Spaniard just can’t match the high speeds of the Tour.
“Roberto has failed, that’s true, but we can’t reproach him for anything because he came here very motivated after making an excellent Tour preparation,” said Liberty Seguros manager Manolo Saiz. “What happened is that he simply can’t be at the front.”
Heras’s troubles continued in Sunday’s climatic stage across six gut-busting climbs on what should be his favored terrain, finishing 79th at 36:09 off George Hincapie’s winning pace.
“Perhaps Roberto just isn’t a man for the Tour,” Saiz continued in an interview with MARCA. “I have a hard time believing it, but maybe it’s true. We’ve made a different race this year. The team has been strong, we’ve been in the breaks, we’ve been aggressive, but Roberto hasn’t been able to return to his level.”
Heras finished fifth overall in 2000 and nearly won a stage into Morzine in his Tour debut. Afterward, he forfeited his own chances to race for victory in the Tour, signing a four-year contract to help Armstrong at U.S. Postal Service.
He broke his contract to lead Liberty Seguros in 2004, but failed to be a factor in the race. The team changed his preparation coming into this year’s Tour, but the result has been the same.
“He’s not going to abandon,” Saiz said. “He hopes to recover and be able to do something in this Tour.”
Horner enjoys front-row seat
Chris Horner is making all kinds of fans with his gutsy racing in his Tour de France debut.
Horner, 33, is just getting his first taste of big-time European competition. Though he raced abroad earlier in his career, he never raced a three-week grand tour. And he says that watching Lance Armstrong at his top level is something to see – he’s glad to have a front-row seat in the Texan’s final Tour.
“It’s a beautiful thing to watch. A lot of people say pluses and negatives about Lance, on whether you like his character or don’t like his character, but the fact of the matter is, the boy can ride his bike,” Horner said.
“You’ve got to appreciate the way he does it. Tactically, he’s done everything correct. He’s patient. Every year there’s talk, then we got on the first climb and there’s only one guy at the top.”
Horner’s hopes for a top-10 finish faded away in the Alps, but he hung tough in Sunday’s epic six-climb stage across the Pyrenees, finishing 31st at 14:02 back.
“I felt pretty good, so I just went ahead and played with it,” said Horner, who had been given the go-ahead to hang in the gruppetto. “We went up the fourth climb and the legs were feeling good, so I wanted to help out Leo (Piepoli) as much as possible and look out after him in case he had good legs to the finish. It was fun. It was hard.”
Horner still hopes to snag a stage win. Just minutes after the stage into Montpellier when he was caught 150 yards from the finish, when asked if there’s still hope, he said, “Heck yeah, there’s still eight days of racing!”
Basque fans attack Spanish TV truck
Rowdy Basque fans early Sunday morning attacked a truck belonging to Spanish national television, threatening to beat up the driver, according to reports on the Spanish wires.
“I thought they were going to beat me up,” Antonio Jiménez told the Spanish wire service EFE. “First they threw glasses of wine at me, then hit the side of the truck and finally started to throw rocks.”
The driver described the attackers as wearing orange T-shirts from the Basque team Euskaltel-Euskadi. A reporter said his car was pelted with eggs, coffee and beer.
“Later they opened the door and tried to drag me out, and I opted to start the truck and get out of there,” he said.
French authorities were notified and promised to give the truck an escort off the mountain at the conclusion of Sunday’s stage.
Tensions often run high among the fans from Spain’s Basque Country, where extremists are trying to use violence to create a Basque nation independent from the Spanish crown.