George Hincapie Feature: Heading towards a Tour de France record
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Friday, January 27, 2012

George Hincapie Feature: Heading towards a Tour de France record

by Shane Stokes at 9:41 PM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Interviews
 
American veteran to back Evans, Gilbert and Hushovd in 2012

George HincapieWhen he clicks into his pedals and accelerates out of Gaiole in Chianti for the start of the Strade Bianche race on March 3rd, George Hincapie will be raising the curtain on his nineteenth season in the pro peloton. To put that into perspective, his new BMC Racing team-mate Tejay Van Garderen was all of five years of age when Hincapie inked his first pro contract with the Motorola team in 1994.

It’s been an extraordinarily long career for the American rider. Yet, as was revealed on Friday, expectations that this would be Hincapie’s final season are a little premature. He told VeloNation that he hasn’t ruled out continuing past 2012, with a final decision on that set to be taken later this year.

Whatever Hincapie decides at that point, he has a big racing programme ahead of him and plenty of important work to do. He’ll ride alongside the team’s big guns such as Tour de France winner Cadel Evans, 2011 world number one Philippe Gilbert and the 2010 world road race champion Thor Hushovd, acting as road captain in many instances, guiding them into position at important points, and also driving the pace when tactics deem it necessary.

Hincapie has outlined his likely race programme and he’s down to do many of the team’s top events. That’s a reflection of his position on the squad and shows that, despite being 38 years of age, he is seen as an important cog in the mechanism of one of the world’s biggest and highest-budget teams.

“I am starting off with Strade Bianche, then Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan Sanremo, Gent-Wevelgem, Flanders and Roubaix,” he told VeloNation from the team training camp. “I will come back to the US for the Tour of California and the national championships, then go back to Europe for the Dauphiné and, hopefully, the Tour de France.” After that, the USA Pro Cycling Challenge is also on his list.

Last year Hincapie started his sixteenth Tour de France, equalling the participation record set by Joop Zoetemelk in 1986. If he’s part of the team next July, he’ll be the only rider ever to begin seventeen editions. That’s a target in itself, but there’s more too.

“As regards goals, I would love to win something along the way,” he explained, mulling over what he wanted to achieve in 2012. “But my role has changed a bit on this team. It really relies on me to captain the races I am at, and shepherd these news guys along, such as Gilbert and Thor in races like the Tour of Flanders and Roubaix.

“If the opportunity arises, of course I would love to take something for myself. But I will probably be going into these races with different intentions.”

Hincapie was able to race for himself on several occasions last year, most notably in the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. He was first across the line at the end of the 211 kilometre queen stage to Aspen, outsprinting Van Garderen (then with HTC Highroad), Garmin-Cervélo’s Tom Danielson and three others. He went on to finish fifth overall in the race, 53 seconds behind Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack).

“It was nice to go there and win the longest stage, and probably one of the hardest stages. What also made it special was that it was in my home country,” he said. “It’s far away from where I live, but the fans were phenomenal at that race and it was a great feeling to come across the line first.”

Tour is top memory:

George HincapieThat result was his top personal success, yet he picks another event when nominating his best memory of last year. Riding into Paris with Cadel Evans in yellow was what makes him most proud, with that achievement being the ninth time he has been on the team of a final Tour de France winner.

Seven of those were with Lance Armstrong, making him the only rider to be on each of the Texan’s Tour-winning teams. The eighth was with Alberto Contador and Discovery Channel in 2007, with the most recent being Evans’ triumph last July.

Because the latter was less of a favourite than Armstrong was during his run of success, Hincapie agrees with the suggestion that his victory in Paris must have been in some ways more fulfilling than those of previous years.

“Absolutely,” he answered. “We were obviously hoping that Cadel would win the race, but we definitely didn’t have any guarantees or anything. We didn’t know how Contador was going to be riding, or the Schlecks. We knew that it was going to be a big battle until the end. In fact, we didn’t know until after the time trial that he’d do it – even before the time trial, we weren’t sure he could pull that much time back on Andy.

“But we kept to our guns, we kept with the same tactic that everything was possible and that we were going to do everything we could to get Cadel in the best position to make that happen. In the end it was very gratifying, and was a career highlight, for sure.”

One factor in that sense of achievement was that the BMC Racing Team took control of the pacesetting at certain points long before Evans captured yellow in that final time trial. It rode like a team with the absolute race favourite, something which led to some questions at the time. Yet in the end the approach was vindicated.

“Everybody was wondering what we were doing, why we were doing so much work all the time and always at the front,” Hincapie said, explaining the response the team received. “People were getting fed up with BMC, but we had a tactic, we stuck to it and it turned out to be the right decision.

“It is funny now to read people criticising that we didn’t have a team there, but during the Tour, people were criticising that we were doing too much work! Anyway, being part of the Tour de France winning team was definitely the highest point of the year.”

He also took satisfaction from more general things. “I was healthy and strong all season and felt that I played a real major role in the races I was at which the team won,” he explained. “That is becoming sort of my role lately, to make decisions on the road when the director can’t see what is going on. I feel I am doing a good job at that.”

Building up for 2012:

Hincapie is an avid tennis fan and used the off season to catch up on that. It gives him a mental break from cycling while also enabling him to keep active. He describes December as a struggle, saying that it is always tough when he gets back on the bike and is out of shape, but adds that things have been going well since.

George Hincapie“Now at the camp, I feel as good as ever,” he said, clearly revved up about the season ahead. “I feel really strong and healthy and so far it has started off really well.”

The team has been training in Denia in Spain, and there Hincapie has been able to get to know his new team-mates. Gilbert, Hushovd and Tejay Van Garderen are amongst those who have come on board for 2012, changing the structure of the team and boosting the expectations about what can be achieved.

Some have pondered how so many big guns will gel, but based on what he has seen thus far, Hincapie doesn’t have concerns.

“The atmosphere has been great. I have spent a lot of time in the same group as Philippe and Thor on the rides, and those guys are great,” he explained. “They are very easy going, they are always joking around on the bike, yet when it is time to do serious training, they are serious as well. It is a great mix and the atmosphere so far has been really fun.

“I have enjoyed spending time with them and I am really looking forward to racing with them.”

As regards the suggestion that the team may have too many chiefs and that riders such as the two Classic specialists might end up clashing, he’s doubtful that any such problem will occur.

“Philippe and Thor actually train together all the time….they know each other quite well,” he said. “I am sure they talk about that [Classic goals] all that time.

“In something like the Tour of Flanders, it is pretty easy to tell 200 kilometres into the race who is really standing out that day. As a result, I don’t think we will have a problem deciding who is going to be the guy for Roubaix. I am sure that Thor will be the number one guy there. Flanders…it really depends on what’s happening. I am sure Philippe is going to go in as the number one favourite. We will be looking to get him to the line.”

Both of those riders are tipped to compete in the Tour de France, and will likely chase stage wins there. However in July the undisputed team leader will be Evans, who is aiming to clock up his second successive Tour title.

Prior to moving to the BMC Racing Team, Evans had a reputation as a rider who choked at crucial moments, twice finishing second in the Tour when he didn’t perform as expected in the final time trial. However he had a very different mentality in 2011 and everything finally clicked; the trick now is to try to achieve the same result again in July.

Hincapie gives an insight into the Australian’s demeanour at this time of year. “He was kind of like this last season…he comes into the camp very relaxed and easy going. He doesn’t even stress over the training that much at this point of the year because he gets in shape so quick,” he said.

“He is there doing the work with the guys. He looks very relaxed. He has that little bit of confidence to him too that now he has actually won the biggest race in the world.

“But it is still stressful because he is going to want to win it again. We all want him to do that. Once it is time to concentrate, he will be 100 percent focussed.”

So too Hincapie, who is driven by the thought of once again being on a Tour-winning team. He’s one of the oldest riders in the peloton, yet knows that he is playing an important, influential role. As is the case with RadioShack Nissan’s Jens Voigt, that purpose gives him the determination he needs at an age when many others have already hung up their racing wheels.

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