Tuesday, March 1, 2011

George Hincapie: profile of BMC Racing's captain America

When he starts his next Tour de France, George Hincapie will be 38. His chances of winning a monument, a task that has eluded him in his 18-year career, are receding fast. So what’ s still motivating the nicest guy in the peloton?

Out of this experience emerges his standing and popularity among other riders. After nearly two decades inside the bubble of professional cycling, he’s managed to remain a popular face with experienced riders and newcomers alike.

“I don’t try to make enemies,” said Hincapie, “but if someone crosses me, then I definitely don’ t go out of my way to be friendly to them.” It’s a mild strategy and one that’s led to suggestions he’s not tough enough to win more races but it has contributed to his longevity in a backbiting environment.

Phinney, who’s still to be blooded in the pro peloton, is sure of his road captain’s status among riders: “Everybody you ask is going to tell you that he’s the nicest guy in the world.”

He’s right – that’ s exactly what riders say.

Hincapie says the high points of his career have been to be part of Tour-winning teams but the cobbled classics are where the softly spoken New York native has emerged as more than the loyal helper. He’s won Ghent-Wevelgem and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. But the monument he covets above all, Paris-Roubaix, has eluded him. Bad luck and circumstances beyond his control have his peppered his career. In 2006, his steerer tube snapped while he was riding with what appeared to be winning form. The image of Hincapie sitting forlornly by his bike on the Mons-en-Pévèle cobbles is an enduring one.

Hincapie turned pro with Motorola in 1994 and according to Jim Ochowicz, who ran the team initially, he considered himself a sprinter.

He quickly found his niche in the classics, recalls Frankie Andreu, already an established sprinter on the team at the time. The pair rode together until the end of the 1996 season, when Andreu moved to Cofidis.

Andreu would later claim under oath that in 2005, he had heard Armstrong talk to doctors treating him for cancer about taking erythropoietin (EPO) as a performance enhancer. But, from the beginning, Hincapie was always a popular, if rather straight-laced, member of the team, says Andreu: “He was a super-nice guy. He was young and motivated. Cycling was his life and he fitted into the team well. It sounds corny but he was a well-mannered, good kid from good parents.”

If there’s an illustration that cycling is his life it’s the fact that he met his French wife, Melanie, a model and podium girl, at the 2003 Tour de France and the pair now have two children.

Despite being young and quiet, his passion for the cobbles was evident from the start: “Doing the classics for a first or second year guy can be overwhelming but he loved it. He loved the fight, the grit, the dirt,” recalls Andreu.

His first three attempts at Paris-Roubaix, between 1995 and 1997, didn’t foretell of the consistency he would later achieve in the race as he didn’t finish higher than 21st. But in 1999 he came fourth and a remarkable record began. Apart from two missed editions and the abandonment in 2006 due to the steerer tube incident, he never finished outside the top ten again until 2009.

With the results came responsibility.

“He wasn’t a leader that dictated,” says Andreu. “He was quiet but he let his legs do the talking. If you end up in the first group every time, you don’ t need to tell people.”

But the first group was as good as it got. For all his ability, a victory in Paris-Roubaix or Flanders still eludes him. That slice of luck which is said to be crucial to a victory has been missing.

“I don’t know if it worries him,” continues Andreu, “but it’s a thorn in his side. I think it’s something he always wanted to achieve. All the pressure from his fans and because everybody keeps talking about it – I think that weighs on him a lot.”

It could have been different. During that series of top tens, Andreu says Hincapie should have focused on those first two weekends in the April, the same way Armstrong did on the Tour. To do so would have meant leaving the familiarity of US Postal and its latter incarnation, Team Discovery – and that wouldn’t have suited his nature, believes Andreu.

“George likes to be comfortable. He had a couple of chances to join a couple of incredible classics teams and if his number one goal at the time was to win a classic, it was a mistake not changing teams. But with his personality, I think it would have been difficult for him. He likes knowing what to expect.”

Hincapie himself recognises his chances of winning Flanders or Roubaix – or any of the other classic for that matter – are disappearing. He will need to get lucky. At BMC, he’s not the undisputed leader. Alessandro Ballan is back, having been ruled out of last year’s spring classics through a team suspension while an Italian doping investigation ran its course, and the team is packed with strong classics riders.

“The road will decide who is leader at the classics, absolutely,” says Hincapie. “We’ll see how Taylor Phinney adapts to the distance but he could be a very good player in our team as well as Greg Van Avermaet, Karsten Kroon, Marcus Burghardt – all these guys have been top ten in one of the classics. So for me, I’m just excited about being on the team. If on the day I’m the best guy, then that means I’ll have a great chance of winning the race with those guys behind me. Or if they’re better than me, I’ll be just as excited.”

That willingness to forego his own ambitions has made Hincapie a valuable team-mate to successive Tour leaders. He was Armstrong’s most loyal ally and instrumental in helping Mark Cavendish win 10 stages of the race in 2008 and 2009. It’s as a domestique de luxe where he has carved out a niche for himself.

“I still feel really good,” said Hincapie at the team launch in January. “For some reason I still feel better than ever and that’ s a good sign for me. And I know as I get older my chances for winning races are less and less but I can still help my team-mates better than most people in the peloton. For me to win a stage, I know that I’ve got to get in a lucky break and, if that happens, use my experience. If that happens, that’ d be wonderful but I know my main priority will be to help Cadel [Evans] make the podium or better.”

Perhaps his greatest achievement on the bike was his win on the queen stage of the 2005 Tour de France which helped haul him to 14th in the final general classification. But it was in the blue-and-white US Postal Service livery that he became most famous as an ultra-reliable domestique, shepherding Armstrong to successive victories in the Tour and picking up individual wins in stage races such as the Dauphiné Libéré, the Tour of Catalonia and the Tour of California.

That team’s prolific success is currently under intense scrutiny by American authorities probing the inner workings of US Postal and whether it hid systematic use of performance enhancing drugs to help Armstrong win the Tour. In 2010, reports suggested Hincapie had been contacted by the federal agents investigating but it isn’t a subject Hincapie will comment on, preferring to trot out an answer about how much the sport is doing to weed out cheating and that he wants people to believe it is possible to win cleanly.

He was once inextricably linked with the fortunes of Armstrong and, upon the Texan’s comeback, described him as a brother. Yet they haven’t spoken lately – because of the arrival of Armstrong’s latest baby, insists Hincapie.

At the end of 2007 and after eight seasons of servicing the Tour ambitions of general classification contenders, Hincapie left the Discovery team and Johan Bruyneel for HTC-Highroad where he would stay for two seasons and emerge as a guiding light for young riders.

“At that point, I felt I wanted a change, I wanted to see what else was out there,” reflects Hincapie. “I needed a different type of stimulation, a different type of environment. I felt like I was just getting bored there.”

That new environment was focused on Mark Cavendish and Hincapie soon became an instrumental part of his lead-out train as well as a font of knowledge and experience. Hincapie almost secured his second stint in the yellow jersey too but was denied by seconds when Garmin-Slipstream brought the peloton under the time gap he needed.

Ochowicz spoke to Hincapie a few days after the event. “I spoke to him some days later. It was probably a bit too emotional afterwards for strangers to be sticking their noses in there but it obviously it was a disappointment.”

It was more than that. The wilful intent to frustrate Hincapie – the quiet, nice guy – hardened his popularity with fans and riders. And, for once, proof emerged that still waters run deep. “I was angry, definitely very angry about it. I was just caught in the middle of an attention battle between two American teams. It was very unfortunate for me but has it changed me? No, not really.”

When the American left at the end of 2009, Cavendish paid homage: “George has been an instrumental part of my success and my career and I’m really sad to not race with him any more. He’s been like a big brother to me. We’ve got on so well together in the last years. He’s such a big, big part of the team. He’s like the granddaddy of the team, he looks after everyone.”

In a piece of neat symmetry, Hincapie has wound up as the road captain at BMC Racing, under the control of Jim Ochowicz again. Hincapie said he was attracted by the squad’s ambitiousness. Where once it was riders such as Phil Anderson taking Hincapie under his wing, he’s now fulfilling that same role for others, including Chris Butler, his training partner when they are at home in South Carolina, and Taylor Phinney.

“You could say he planted the initial seed [about joining BMC] in my head,” says Phinney. “Last year, I went and stayed right next to his house in Girona for a bit last season and went out for a couple of rides with him. He’s just such a nice guy. He’s quiet but at the same time, he’s a leader and, you know, he gives me a little nudge if I’m doing something that’ s unprofessional.”

That role as guide has developed naturally and will probably spill over into retirement.

He still plans to be involved with BMC in some capacity, either through his brand of sportswear for the team or as an advisor. “The mentoring role in the team is not something I looked for, it just sort of came because of how long I’ve been riding and the respect that I’ve gained in the peloton.

“At moments like when I crashed twice in 200m last year, you think: ‘What am I doing?’ but then you think how great the sport is. I feel I’m lucky to have been around so long, I've been able to make a good life out of it, I met my wife through the sport, I’ ve made a lot of friends and relationships that I wouldn’t trade for anything, so the sport’s given a lot to me and I’m not ready to leave it right now.”

Andreu sees the key to Hincapie’s success as being his quiet, diplomatic persona. “He just rode his bike and never got into trouble – he never went off partying or crashing cars or doing anything stupid like some other guys. That’s not his personality and it’s been key to his longevity in the peloton and the respect other riders have for him. There are a lot of riders out there who are strong but assholes, and nobody wants to have anything to do with them. George is the opposite of that.”

Will he win the monument that he’s chased so ardently? Probably not. But as the capacity to follow the moves of riders 10 to 15 years younger diminishes, it’s replaced with a fatherly sense of responsibility towards the young riders around him. And he’s happy with that.

Passport details

Name: George Hincapie
Born: Queens, New York, America, 29/06/1973
Age: 37
Residence: Girona, Spain
Pro career: 1994-present
First team: Motorola
Current: BMC Racing

Career highlights

1998: Winner, US Pro Championship

2000: Second, US Pro Championship

2001: Winner, Ghent-Wevelgem;
Winner, BMC San Francisco Grand Prix

2002: Third US Pro Championship;
Third Ghent-Wevelgem;
Third Three Days de Panne;
Third Tour of the Algarve

2004: Winner, Three Days de Panne

2005: Winner, stage 15, Tour de France;
Winner, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne;
Winner GP Ouest-France;
Second Paris-Roubaix

2006: Winner, US Pro Championship;
Third, Tour of Flanders

2007: Winner, Tour of Missouri;
Third, prologue, Tour de France

2009: Winner, US Pro Championship

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