Lieutenant to the disgraced Lance Armstrong, and a rider whose own use of performance enhancing drugs was laid bare in the US Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation into the activities of the US Postal cycling team, Hincapie, the reserved Omega to Armstrong’s win-at-all-costs Alpha, was the source of perhaps the greatest disappointment when the scandal broke. Say it ain’t so, George.
By the time Armstrong and his former team-mates were unmasked, however, Hincapie was six years into a second career as a clean rider, serving a new generation of riders competing – and winning – on merit. His service as road captain to the likes of Mark Cavendish at HTC-Columbia, and to Tejay Van Garderen at BMC Racing is a much a part of the Hincapie story as his time with the vilified US Postal squad.
When RoadCyclingUK calls at the beginning of a non-descript month for cycling, with the peloton engaged in glorified form-finding exercises in Portugal and the Middle East, Hincapie’s voice comes clear across a line from South Carolina. A New Yorker, whose even tone confirms the natural aversion to bullshit for which the city’s natives are famed, he laughs bitterly as he replies in the negative to the question, did he and his US Postal team-mates even realise what they were doing was wrong?
And there is humility and a still genuine surprise in his voice when he recalls the gamble taken by Highroad Sports’ boss, Bob Stapleton, in granting him the opportunity to prove himself as a clean rider by acting as road captain at HTC-Columbia to fledgling talents in whom the methods he had pursued with his former team-mates would have inspired revulsion.
“Before this whole USADA thing there was a real big shift in the peloton and it went from being the majority of people doing that stuff back then to now the minority,” Hincapie tells RoadCyclingUK. “The culture has changed. It’s not accepted in the peloton. If somebody feels like someone is doing something, they’re immediately called out and blackballed.”
In the city
Hincapie first began racing in New York’s Central Park, a far from ideal location and one he confesses to considering a disadvantage at the time. As his career developed, however, the chaotic nature of a location that would occasionally place runners and even cars on the same section of tarmac as the riders would pay dividends. Positioning became one of the key weapons in Hincapie’s arsenal, whether fighting for himself in the cobbled Classics or guiding Cavendish through the melee that typically ensues in the final two kilometres of a stage destined to be decided in a bunch sprint.
While New York City may have lacked the scenery, tranquility and varied terrain enjoyed by Hincapie’s rivals, its culture offered the young rider a greater awareness of the sport’s heritage than those of his countrymen. Surrounded by European influences, and steeped in the cycling heritage of south America, thanks to his Colombian father, Ricardo, who would invite some of his nation’s greatest riders to stay at the Hincapie house, the young George grew up with little doubt of the status enjoyed by cycling in countries outside his own. He is quick to credit the support of his family, too. His parents supported his fledgling career, and that of his brother, Rich, “100 per cent”.
Despite growing up steeped in the history of Colombia’s escarabajos, and watching the likes of Luis Herrera and Fabio Parra “put Colombian cycling on the map”, the 74kg Hincapie enjoyed his greatest personal success in the cobbled Classics. Nothing, he admits, had prepared him for the scale of support enjoyed by the Ronde when he arrived in Flanders for the first of seventeen outings in arguably the most prestigious of all cycling’s Monuments. The knowledge of those who lined the roadside (“The fans know the names of every guy on the team”) made a profound impression. The cobbles of northern France would provide another theatre for Hincapie to display his talents as an individual and to draw on the positioning skills honed in the chaos of races in Central Park. He would notch seven top 10 finishes in the Queen of the Classics, Paris-Roubaix.
The cobbles of northern France would provide another theatre for Hincapie to display his talents as an individual and to draw on the positioning skills honed in the chaos of races in Central Park
Counting as a given the physical attributes demanded of a rider hoping to succeed on the pavé, Hincapie identifies character, will, and motivation as necessary ingredients. The ability to survive the moments of extreme fatigue commonly encountered even at the midway point of a 270km race, and continuing to push to a stage when only the strong remain is essential, he says. An appetite for the task at hand is similarly non-negotiable. Much of the field can be discounted before the race begins, he continues; dispirited riders sent to the race at the behest of their employers. “Throw a little rain or snow on top of that,” he laughs, “and they’re totally done before the race even starts.”
The highs and lows experienced by a professional cyclist during the course of a stage race, or even an entire season, can occur in a single day of Classics racing, such is its severity. The concentration and focus demanded by a race often lasting some seven hours can be as debilitating as the physical effort, Hincapie says. Periods in which the rider is no longer certain of the strength in his legs are inevitable, and the ability to make it through these mini-crises, essential. “It’s important to push through those bad moments and really just rely on the type of rider you are,” Hincapie explains. “The Classics riders are guys that have an incredible amount of endurance, and an incredible amount of focus throughout a seven-hour period.”
Three weeks, one race
To the casual observer, there seems to be little to connect the Spring Classics with the Tour de France, but to the trained eye of the men who contest both, there are striking similarities. For Hincapie, who can count seventeen Tour finishes alongside his record seventeen finishes at the Ronde, the opening week of cycling’s greatest race contained the chaos of a cobbled Classic every day for seven days. “There’s so much on the line,” he recalls. “It’s the biggest race in the world, the riders are willing to risk everything – crashes, illness, sickness – just to win a stage. I just found myself comfortable on those early stages of the Tour de France; I just felt at home. There was chaos all around, positioning was a big factor, and I was really good at shepherding our team leader around those conditions. I found my niche in that.”
He identifies the “sheer experience” of seventeen Tours as the provider of the skills necessary for other aspects of the race. Asked which exacted a greater physical toll on a 191cm Classics specialist – the cobbles or the cols – and Hincapie refuses to draw a distinction. The Classics and the Tour held equal importance, he says. Pain and suffering were simply part of the job description, regardless of the event. Competing in a race barely known to the non-cycling public will pit the professional cyclist against the best in the world.
I gotta testify
Hincapie’s Tour career is inseparable from that of the man he helped guide to ‘victory’ seven times, and he has refused to criticise Armstrong, even to USADA. If the path taken by a rider who began racing as a kid in Central Park to having his own blood transfused seems unfathomable to the outsider, Hincapie confesses that it was no clearer to those at the centre of affairs. “As an insider, when that all started happening, you kind of felt that in order to remain in the sport you had to do that,” he says.
“It wasn’t that you were trying to get one over on your peers, on other teams. When we all decided to go that way it was because we had seen people in the peloton talking about it, openly doing it. It was one of those things where unfortunately the sport just became sort of [caught] in this downward spiral.”
This cannot be a topic for which he has any enthusiasm, although he replies with a firm “of course,” when it is raised. His answers are direct, matter of fact, and free from self pity. Only when asked if he knew at the time that his actions were wrong does his tone alter. “No!” he answers, with a short, incredulous laugh. “At that stage, it almost felt like you were trying to just be in the system, and if you didn’t do those things then you were going to be left out of the system. That’s how it felt. And looking back on it, it’s so wrong that we thought that way and that, unfortunately, most of the peloton thought that way.”
There are two areas of the subject, however, on which Hincapie is emphatic. The first is what he believes has been a portrayal of cycling’s EPO era as the actions of a single team. The second is the peloton’s decision to heal itself long before the USADA investigation. “We did as a whole peloton decide that this is enough, this needs to change,” he says. “I do think that historically people will look back and say that there was a change among the riders before there was a huge outside influence. The riders decided.”
Meet the new boss
Hincapie’s move to High Road Sports in 2008, the team newly acquired by American entrepreneur, Bob Stapleton, he says coincided with a shift taking place in the sport; a period he defines as starting around 2006 and 2007. “I knew Bob Stapleton was taking over a team. I knew he had a real passion to change the sport and I wanted to be part of that change,” Hincapie says.
“For him to believe in me, and know that I could still ride, still be an important member of a team, still be a good mentor, and still perform well as a clean rider – and he believed in me in that and I was able to prove that….” Hincapie recalls the experience with enthusiasm, still in the laconic drawl of the New Yorker, but in clauses that gather pace and run into each other like the carriages of a runaway train. “It was amazing how much fun I had on those teams.” The sense of a rider with a weight lifted from him is palpable.
Not that life at Highroad was easy. Hincapie recalls “a tonne of pressure”, of staff unhappy on the rare occasions when the team didn’t win. The focus solely on competition, however, made the weight of expectation easy to bear for someone with Hincapie’s dark past. “There wasn’t any of the other stuff that you had to worry about,” he remembers. “Even though it was still going on in the sport, we knew that we were part of a change and we were part of a team that was leading the change. Those were really proud moments in my career.”
To the casual observer, there seems to be little to connect the Spring Classics with the Tour de France, but for Hincapie, who can count seventeen Tour finishes alongside his record seventeen finishes at the Ronde Van Vlaanderen, the opening week of cycling’s greatest race contained the chaos of a cobbled Classic every day for seven days
Hincapie’s memories of HTC-Columnbia are unblemished. The team was one entirely without infighting, he recalls. On days when the objective was to ride for Kim Kirchen, Kirchen was the sole beneficiary of the team’s efforts. And on days (more frequent, one suspects) when Cavendish was to be the focus, then everyone was riding for Cav. Hincapie laughs at the memory of riders he describes as “way too crazy” for him to follow from the 5km to go marker until the very closing stages. “But I always told them that I would find them with 2km to go. Just leave me alone and I would get to them. The great thing with HTC is that no matter what, we were always together when it was important to be together.”
Hincapie joined the unfancied BMC Racing in 2010, then barely recognisable from the talent-laden squad it has become. A year later, he would ride into Paris as a member of team who could legitimately claim overall victory with leader, Cadel Evans, the first Australian to win the Tour de France. Hincapie recalls his role at BMC as still more the road captain even than at HTC. “In cycling, there’s a lot of split-second decision making, and even though you have some of the best directeurs in the world behind you, they can’t see exactly who’s going off the front, or who’s making a move, or if there’s a wind shift, or some kind of weather coming. They really relied on me to make a lot of those decisions.”
Hincapie’s memories of his time at BMC Racing are fond, but seem more firmly rooted in the achievements of a team that overcame the odds rather than the personal relationships he enjoyed at HTC. He recalls a team “begging” for entry to the Tour de France in 2009 and winning the race two years later.
One final season followed Hincapie’s Tour victory with Cadel Evans, and in 2012 he was to be the focus of attention as the peloton rolled onto the Champs Elysees. Not one to seek the spotlight, Hincapie says he accepted the honour only at the behest of many in the peloton. His final entry into Paris marked the end of two decades of participation in the biggest annual sporting event in the world, and given a history that can be described mildly as ‘mixed’, from listening to Armstrong’s excruciating ‘cynics and skeptics’ speech, knowing his own part in the most brazen deceit, to piloting Cavendish to the most emphatic – and legitimate – stage victories in 2009 on the same avenue, it would have been with mixed emotions that he rolled into the French capital for the final time. “There was a lot of memories on the road at that race,” Hincapie reflects. “Seventeen years of the Tour de France is a long time; it’s almost half a lifetime. I owe a lot to that race.”
Hincapie does not deny the personal relationships he formed at US Postal and later at the Discovery Channel team, but HTC is the team of whom has the fondest memories. Laughter is the experience he recalls first from his time on Stapleton’s squad, an interesting revelation given the absurdly high success rate and the pressure he says was exerted on the riders to continue winning. Despite occupying a similarly senior role with BMC Racing, making calls during the race as road captain, there is a more significant reason for the happiness with he looks back on his time with Cavendish, Greipel, Renshaw et al. “I feel that the real change in cycling was made in particular on HTC,” he says. “There was a real shift in cycling so they stand out more to me.”
The new cycling
Hincapie answers without hesitation when asked if cycling is given enough credit for having changed: “No, absolutely not.” What he describes as “the worldwide attention” focused on positive tests, once routine and now occasional, does not, he claims, provide an accurate reflection of today’s peloton. Hincapie elaborates by returning unprompted to the investigation that exposed his own past and destroyed the reputation of the rider who had once been among America’s most celebrated athletes.
“A lot of the USADA stuff, although it was important, they were talking about stuff that happened 10 years ago,” Hincapie says. “In the public’s mind, it was like it happened yesterday. To them it was like what the sport is today, which to me was so wrong.” There is a growing sense among those in cycling that it has become a doping touchstone for those not involved in the sport and manifestly uninterested in slaughtering any of their own sacred cows. Hincapie does not say so expressly, but seems skeptical that other sports might be similarly eviscerated. “If you did that kind of thing [USADA’s forensic enquiry into the activities of the US Postal cycling team] with another sport from 10 years ago,” Hincapie says, “who knows what you would find? But I don’t think you’d ever see that happen because people wouldn’t allow that.”
Farewell to all that
Retirement has brought Hincapie peace, if not tranquility. He runs a sports clothing company with his brother, and is at the helm of a development team. He still rides, “though not nearly as much as I used to.” Weekend outings with friends now accounts for most of his time in the saddle.
Learning to race in the municipal parks of a sprawling metropolis before contesting the Tour de France seventeen times; the cobbled Classics specialist of Colombian descent; the member of the most vilified team in cycling history who would serve as elder statesman in teams rightly celebrated for ushering in a new generation of clean riders – Hincapie’s career is one of contradictions.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, he told no-one about the illegal methods employed in his early career until he was exposed by USADA. But it is perhaps equally revealing that he made no great show of his reform, instead quietly pursuing a second career as a clean rider in the service of riders now rightly celebrated as champions of whom the sport can be proud.
“I think a lot of the young riders appreciate what happened so they’ll never have to go through those decisions again,” he says. “There’ll still be doping in cycling, of course, but it’s definitely not the majority of the sport anymore. It’s the minority, and it’s not accepted.”