American George Hincapie is on the verge of starting his 16th Tour de France - a feat which has only been matched by one other rider, Dutch legend Joop Zoetemelk. While Zoetemelk was one of the more successful Tour riders in history - winning once and finishing second overall six times - Hincapie has been partly responsible for eight Tour victories: seven by Lance Armstrong and one by Alberto Contador.
When asked by Cyclingnews what the significance of equalling Zoetemelk's record held for him, Hincapie replied, "It's more about how I feel a certain amount of respect from the peloton because of it. People know how hard I've worked over the years. And certainly the BMC Racing Team knows, too."
"It's really kind of an honor for me to be a part of [the Tour]. When I first became a professional, I had hoped to do 10 years and would have been happy with that. Eighteen years later and getting ready to start my 16th Tour, I'm still enjoying it and not taking anything for granted."
At age 38, Hincapie is not the oldest rider to compete in the Tour de France - that honour belongs to Jens Voigt, who turns 40 in September - but he is certainly the most experienced of Tour riders. For the second year in a row, his job will be to protect Cadel Evans and help him win the Tour, and few riders know how to do that better than Hincapie.
"In a race like the Tour de France, there are a lot of variables, so it's important to have a team that knows how to keep its leader out of trouble. We have one of the best teams in the world for Cadel. But there are a lot of things you have to be ready for, too.
"We're going to have a strong time trial team. A lot of the GC guys will be nervous about that day because time differences can be made. We also have a couple more climbers on the team this year to help Cadel Evans in the high mountains. We're certainly bringing a very complete team to the Tour that can help Cadel from day one all the way through the mountains and hopefully onto the podium in Paris."
The confidence that Hincapie displays going into the world's biggest bike race wasn't always there. Back in 1996, when he first rode the Tour with Motorola, Hincapie said he had no idea if he was ready for it.
"It turned out to be harder than anything I had ever done. Plus, the sheer spectacle of it was overwhelming – from the number of people watching to the incredible amount of media attention it gets. Now I'm used to it all. I know that if I arrive healthy and my fitness is good, I can handle it well. These days, I know I'm a valuable asset to the team. That wasn't necessarily the case the first year.
"There was so much newness going on [that year]. I also suffered bravely throughout that whole race. If I could go back, I would tell myself that one day I would be able to ride with the best, so keep pushing through."
Over the years, he's endured bad hotels, the sight of "grown men running next to me in G-strings" and endured endless suffering over nearly 54,000km on the roads of France. He's crashed spectacularly on the Col du Galibier and persevered in spite of the pain in 2008 - it was the low point of his Tour career. "I pretty much lost all the skin off one side of my body. Fortunately, I did manage to finish. But it hurt a lot more than when I broke my collarbone."
He's had high points, too; on top of his stage win on the Pla d'Adet in 2005, he's stood atop the podium after three team time trial victories and wore the maillot jaune for two stages in 2006, but he said his favorite memory is more personal.
"Certainly, [it is] meeting my wife [Melanie, a former Tour de France podium hostess] is something that I feel very fortunate about. Now we have two beautiful kids and the memory of meeting her is something that I will always cherish."
Having finished 15 of his 16 Tours, there are still things that Hincapie looks forward to. "I'm really trying to help our team leader, Cadel Evans, win the Tour de France. Second would be winning a stage of the Tour myself. But our first goal is to help Cadel win the overall. If I win a stage, it will be a situation that allows me to either get the pressure off Cadel or make the other teams work."
Other than that, the best moment of the Tour de France, to Hincapie and most other riders, is the day it's just about over.
"Every time I come onto the Champs-Élysées, there's a whole lot of relief and gratification and all kinds of emotions that come with knowing you are almost finished with the race."
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