King of the GC jungle

During last year's Dauphiné Libéré George Hincapie won two stages before heading to France to help...

An interview with George Hincapie, June 8, 2006

During last year's Dauphiné Libéré George Hincapie won two stages before heading to France to help secure Lance Armstrong's seventh Tour victory; this year, the week-long tour is one of Hincapie's final preparation races before he tackles France in July as one of Discovery Channel’s GC hopes. It was just before the Dauphiné that he spoke to Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes about his new role, life without Lance and that crash in Paris-Roubaix.

The 2006 edition of the Tour de France has the potential to be a very different experience for George Hincapie after spending the last seven Tours in the service of Lance Armstrong, helping the Texan take a record seven wins. But now, with Armstrong retired, the team will head to the race with no clearly defined chief. Instead, they will have a more open look - José Azevedo, Yaroslaw Popovych, Paolo Savoldelli and Hincapie himself will be the team’s potential GC riders, with support likely to be given to whoever is in the best position later in the Tour.

The notion of Hincapie as a candidate for the yellow jersey may seem a strange one. He’s better known as a Classics rider after all, with victory in the 2005 Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne and second in that year’s Paris-Roubaix to his credit. Improved performances in the mountains in recent years and good time trialling ability have seen his stock rise in stage races, however, to the point where he's being factored into some observer's Tour calculations.

"I kind of miss going out training with him, but the team has been successful up to this point, anyway." -Hincapie speaks about the Tour and racing, post-Lance

Last year he won two stages in the Dauphiné Libéré, including the prologue, before going on to take a mountain victory at Saint-Lary Soulan (Pla d'Adet) in the Tour de France. With a 14th place finish overall in Paris, 23'40" behind team leader Armstrong, it's prompted some to wonder what he could achieve if he wasn’t always expending energy riding for someone else.

This year, he may get his chance to find out. Around the time of last year’s Tour directeur sportif Johan Bruyneel first discussed the idea of Hincapie as a possible GC contender; now, almost twelve months later, the American is putting final touches to his Tour preparation at the Dauphiné. He’s looking forward to July, but is also a bit nervous about making any predictions.

“I have never been in this position before,” he told Cyclingnews days before the Dauphiné started in Annency. “I'm very excited about it but I'm definitely hesitant to say how well I will do. I just don't know. I'm pretty sure that I can do a lot better than last year, without expending that energy [riding for Armstrong], but how much better I don't know. Hopefully as good as I can be!”

“Going into the Tour, myself and Yaroslav [Popovych] will probably be the leaders. José Azevedo as well... he has been top five before, so you can't really leave him out,” he states. Double Giro d’Italia winner Paolo Salvoldelli has also been confirmed for the team, so he too has the ability to ride strongly.

At 6'3", Hincapie doesn’t have a typical grimper’s build. But he’s doing what he can to be as lean as possible for the Tour. Early this year he stated that he was at his lightest weight ever for that time of the year, and he says he will be “72 or 73 kilos” in July. That’s light for someone of his height, and similar to what Armstrong and Jan Ullrich clocked in at in the past.

In terms of what he will be doing between now and then, a balance of racing, training and rest will – hopefully – hone his form to perfection.

“As regards my preparation, I have been trying to climb a lot more in training,” he says. “I have been going to the Pyrenees every weekend since I came back from the US, just trying to get more comfortable on the longer climbs.”

“I don't have much time left now,” he continues. “I trained really hard the last month, so now I'll do the Dauphiné and the team time trial [ProTour event in Eindhoven – ed]. I will probably go see the Alps again with the team, have a little camp there; it will be after the team time trial, or perhaps before - I am not sure yet.

The Dauphiné this year is very difficult as well. I will probably have to do a good week after the Dauphiné; once that and the team time trial are over, the Tour will be coming up really quickly. I'll get in maybe one more week of solid training, and then the rest of the time will be trying to take it easy,” he explains.

“I'm looking forward to the Dauphiné, though. I think my form is pretty good. I haven't raced since my crash but I think I probably would not have competed anyway. Okay, perhaps I would have done the Tour of Georgia, but I've only missed a couple of races.”

That crash

The crash Hincapie refers to came inside the final 50 kilometres of this year's Paris-Roubaix. At the time he was in a select leading group and looking like a possible contender for the win. That all changed in an instant, however, when his fork column snapped, sending him careering to the ground. He clearly regrets what was a lost opportunity. “I was feeling great. I was in a great position, we had a bunch of the guys left from the team and so it was just really unfortunate for me. There were still three of us up there so it was tough to crash out.”

“The damage to my shoulder was somewhere between a grade three and a grade four separation, a borderline surgery case,” he explains, when asked about the nature of his injury. “If I had surgery I wouldn't be able to put any pressure on it for six to eight weeks, but without surgery I could pretty much put pressure on it right away. It wasn't going to make it any worse...anyway, I can always go back to get the surgery later if I want it. But it was pretty painful.”

“Since then, I have been doing a lot of work on my shoulder," he adds. "I didn't miss much time on the bike, so I should be fine there. My shoulder feels much better now. I have just been doing rehab and a lot of therapy on it since Roubaix and just trying to get it to recover. It was pretty painful for a good month, but has settled down now.”

At this time of year, Hincapie would normally be spending increasing amounts of time around Armstrong. He says that change is something which takes a bit of getting used to. “This season has been pretty different alright,” he states. “Right now, you start to notice the difference more because I would always train with Lance before the Dauphiné and the Tour. So that's a big change for me.

I kind of miss going out training with him, but the team have been successful up to this point, anyway. In the spring races we would never really race with Lance that much, so it hasn't been that much of a change there."

Hincapie knows that come July, however, things will be very different. “But I'm sure the Tour will be a lot different. There won't be much attention on us, and obviously Lance was the biggest star there. We still see him, though; he came to the Giro and saw the guys there, and we talk a bunch, too. He's still very interested in the team and is hoping that we do well," says Hincapie.

When asked about the effect Armstrong’s retirement has had on cycling in the US, Hincapie is hopeful that the interest in the sport is persisting. “It seems to be staying high,” he states. “At the Tour of California this year there seemed to be huge numbers of spectators, and from what I hear of it, everybody is talking about the Tour. There are a lot of good American cyclists, great American cyclists doing the Tour, so the interest is still pretty good. I don't know if it has been affected by Lance retiring or not.”

Le Tour 2006

One thing which will be affected, though, is the likely pattern of racing at the Tour. Previously Armstrong was seen as Top Dog and his team consequently had to take responsibility for this, driving the peloton along in order to protect their leader and increase his chances of winning. This year they won’t have that burden – at least not unless one of them wears yellow – and the prospects of an open, unpredictable Tour seem pretty high indeed.

“There are quite a few contenders this year - Ullrich, obviously, and Basso,” he says. “Vinokourov, Floyd Landis, Levi Leipheimer, Mancebo, Valverde, too. And hopefully I can throw my name in there, into that group.”

Hincapie continues by pointing out that, “Things should be different for us this time. I think it's definitely going to be up to the big, big favourites like Ullrich’s team and Basso’s team to really control the race. At the Tour that is very, very difficult to do, so it will be kind of fun to sit back and watch that. For once we won't have to worry about that, so that should help us.”

Ivan Basso has been in impressive form this season, dominating the Giro d'Italia with what was the biggest winning margin since Vitorrio Adorni’s 11'26' in 1965. The Italian was pinpointed last season by Armstrong and Discovery as a strong contender for future Tour de France victory, so much so that they tried to buy him up as team leader to replace the Texan.

However, his close relationship with Bjarne Riis meant that he stayed with Team CSC, signing a three-year deal which will see him don their red, white and black strip until 2008. Basso’s strong Giro form leads some to feel he will be the favourite for the Tour de France; Hincapie, though, says it will be no easy task.

“I think it will definitely be very difficult [to do the double]. Even just riding two Tours in one year is a difficult thing. But at the same time it never really seemed like he [Basso] was on the limit that much in the Giro, so maybe he's going to be able to bounce back and do it again. He was very dominant in the Giro, he was the strongest guy, so it will be interesting to see. But I don't know what he will be able to do the same thing in the Tour.”

In previous years, Hincapie and the riders on his team would head to France knowing that they had three hard weeks in store trying to win the race with Armstrong. This year that tag as favourites is missing, but his new personal goal of targeting a strong ride on GC means that he’s got other stresses heading into the Tour.

“In terms of the pressure I am feeling, I think it's pretty equal to what was there before,” he says. “A lot of people want to see how well I can do, but it has always been tough with Lance racing, either trying to win a fifth Tour de France, break the record number of Tours or, last year, just win another Tour. There has always been a tonne of pressure there. I don't know that I can say this year there is more pressure, I think it is probably about the same," he says.

“I think the Alps are going to be the key...the Alps and the time trials are probably the hardest part. The Alps come at the end and they're a lot harder than the Pyrenees this year. I haven't seen the Alps yet, but the stages in the Pyrenees aren't as tough as they were last year. So it's definitely the Alps and the two time trials which will be the key stages.

And finally, with Discovery so dominant in the time trials over recent years, how do things look in that department? "The amount of time trialling is good. I'm looking forward to seeing how I do there. Even in the Dauphiné, it will be a good test. How I do there will be a benchmark before the Tour,” says Hincapie.

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