When he rolls down the prologue start ramp in Liège just after half past four on Saturday afternoon, George Hincapie (BMC) will set a new record for appearances in the Tour de France. Just a day after turning 39, the New Yorker will be embarking on his 17th Tour, which will also be his final appearance in a race that he admits has been the making of him.
After BMC team backer Andy Rihs had pulled back the sheet draped over a custom painted BMC bike marking Hincapie's record-breaking appearance, the American reflected on his long career and looked forward to the Tour just ahead of him and a new life beyond.
"My first Tour was back in 1996, and I was just hanging on for dear life," Hincapie recalled during BMC's pre-Tour press conference. "I'd never realised quite how big the Tour de France was - the show, the media, the fans. I realised that nothing compares to the Tour in terms of worldwide exposure. I only made it through the first two weeks. I was hurting so bad that I was hoping that I would crash - and I crashed. Obviously I didn't make myself crash, but that's what ended up happening and I ended up with stitches in my head."
Having worked for many leading stars during his career, including Lance Armstrong, Mark Cavendish and Cadel Evans, he was asked who he felt is the most interesting? "They are all interesting in their own right," he said. "Lance because of his determination. Cav because of his wit - he's just hilarious. With Cadel, it's his sheer desire. He's had so many close calls. They were calling him 'Mr Second' and to come back at 34 years old and win the Tour is very impressive."
The American veteran then went on to outline his Tour highlights and regrets. "My biggest highlight was definitely meeting my wife. I met her in Paris in 2003 and now we have two children, and that's the most memorable thing for me. There are lots of other special moments as well. Any time you roll into the Champs Elysées, it's special no matter who you are or where you finish. It's such a hard race and you quickly understand what each and every rider has to go through just to get there.
"As for regrets, there are always things that you look back on. One of the memories that stands out now is from 2008 when I was in the breakaway over the largest climb in the race. With 1km to go I told myself I'd come back on the descent and I wanted to save energy. But I didn't know the descent well enough and the riders ahead stayed away - Cyril Dessel won that day. Something like that is a regret, when you think that you could have made another effort for two minutes and been right there. In 2006, I lost the prologue by one hundredth of a second, which is only one corner that you don't get exactly right. I joke with Thor Hushovd about it. He beat me that day and he's my teammate now, and I tell him I'm still really mad at him for beating me."
Asked what he would tell a guy doing his first Tour this year, Hincapie replied, "I'd tell him to be prepared for chaos. It's crazy. It's important to stay focused and not get too stressed, although it's always stressful. The first week or 10 days you have to try to stay calm and be safe."
Hincapie believes this year's BMC team is much stronger than the one that guided Evans to victory last year, particularly on the climbs. He explained his role this year will be to ensure that Evans stays safe, particularly during the opening half of the race. "My role as Cadel's escort during the first week is super important. You've got to know where you are at all times. You've got to know what's coming up in terms of the road gradients, which way you're turning, which way the wind's going. It's super stressful and you have to be 100% focused all the time. We have some guys that will look after him for the first 150km of the stage, others who look after him between 50 and 25km to go, and then it's usually me and one of the other guys who helps him during the closing 25km."
Hincapie said it had not been a sad decision to call a halt to his lengthy pro career. "I know some people might think that, but it's been 19 years and there's probably only a handful of guys who've done 19 years in any sport. I've got a bunch of emotions. I'm excited, I'm scared, and soon all I will have to focus on is going out on my bike and staying fit. I still love riding my bike and it's something I will never give up. My dad still rides three hours a day five days a week, and if he's still doing I'm sure I can.
"But every day we've come closer to this Tour it's definitely been emotional. It's really starting to dawn on me that this is my last Tour and I think it's going to get harder and harder as the race goes on. But I feel like I've prepared for this race very well, I think I'm ready and I'm not going to let the thought that it's my last Tour affect my performance. I know when it's time to focus that I can really block other things out."
He concluded by saying he is very happy with the way his career has gone. "But it's gone by quick. When I turned professional I hoped to do 10 years and here I am 19 years later."
And will we see him riding that new bike in the bunch in the coming weeks? "I don't want to ride my new bike. I just want to hang it up in my house. It was such an honour to get it."
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