Paris-Roubaix preview: Can George Hincapie win big at the 'Hell of the North'?

His time has come.

George Hincapie is the strongest American contender ever to line up for Paris-Roubaix, the Queen of the Classics.

Hincapie couldnt find a better stage than the 100th anniversary of Paris-Roubaix, April 14, to prove to the cycling world not too mention his USPS team and team leader-turned-super domestique Lance Armstrong that he is not just a big-time race rider but also a big-race winner.

Hincapies fantastic talent and the support he receives from USPS Armstrong rode Flanders last week in strong support of George, a rarity for the Tour winner make him a No. 1 candidate for success, but that tag line wont apply to him much longer, and in fact could be starting to wear just a bit thin. It is time for Hincapie to win no more near-misses, no more excuses, just win the big one.

Yes, Hincapie has won important races. The designated USPS classics man won the semi-classic Gent-Wevelgem in 2002 (Mario Cippollini won this year's edition), along with the inaugural GP San Francisco, and the USPRO national championship a few years back.

His best finish in Roubaix was fourth in 1999. But important races are not the same as big races, and Paris-Roubaix is among the biggest.

The tall, strong sprinters physical talent is not in question; it is Hincapies mental preparedness, his race savvy, his will to win against the best in the business that has yet to be proven.

Until he lands the big prize, hell be questioned, like all other fabulously talented riders who dont quite win the big one, Why didnt you win, when you had everything going in your favor?

An unfair burden?

The best person to answer that question is none other than Hincapie.

Following his fourth-place finish at the Tour of Flanders on April 7, a race in which he was clearly one of the three strongest riders nearing the finish but didnt manage to launch his own attack, Hincapie had this to say about his performance:

"Everyone was capable of winning. I felt very confident I could win the sprint from the others. I was definitely sure of myself. When [eventual winner Andrea] Tafi attacked [and rode clear], I was defeated in my head and it blew my morale. I felt I let the opportunity slip by.

"I need to forget about it and take advantage of my state of condition at the moment. I felt really great I was really sure of myself. I never had felt that sure of myself before," Hincapie said.

Hincapie, of course, isnt the only motivated contender for the toughest one-day race of the year. Last weeks Tour of Flanders winner Andrea Tafi, a Paris-Roubaix winner in 1999; former Flanders winner Peter Van Petegem; and two-time Paris-Roubaix winner Johan Museeuw also will lay a winters worth of training on the line for this race.

The proud Italian Tafi could tell Hincapie a thing or two about winning the big race. Tafi has built his career on snatching big victories after the naysayers have pronounced him out of contention. The cobblestones of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix have been his main successes.

"Physically, I am on top, an exultant Tafi said this week following his Flanders win. And mentally, I will be even more motivated thanks to this success in the 'Ronde.' Tafi is not finished! And even if I were to stop today, I could not argue that I haven't had a beautiful career."

Beautiful career without a doubt, with his brilliant solo ride to victory in 1999 a jewel atop his crown.

Another man from whom Hincapie might take a lesson on winning the big race is perennial Paris-Roubaix favorite Museeuw, second place at Flanders last week. Museeuw, too, has built a career around winning the big one.

Museeuw, 36, shattered his kneecap on the wicked cobblestones of the Arenburg Forest in the 1998 race, almost died of gangrene, and then returned to glory two years later with a magnificent solo win. (His return almost tops a certain cancer survivors three Tour de France wins, but not quite, in one reporters humble estimation).

Then there is Hincapies teammate Armstrong, perhaps one of the most tactically astute and well-prepared riders of the peloton, who had only one small question about Hincapies Flanders race.

I think he was one of the three strongest, without a doubt, but things did not fall his way, Armstrong said. Perhaps he could have been a little more aggressive in the final five kilometers but he was totally confident in his sprint versus Museeuw and Van Petegem. I don't blame him for thinking this way.

On the eve of Paris-Roubaix, will Hincapie seize his opportunity? Only the cobbles will tell.

It is those cobbles that make or break a rider in Paris-Roubaix. The endless cobbles also known as pave come fast and furious toward the end of the race. There are 26 sections of bone-jarring cobbles dating back to Napoleonic times, totaling 51 kilometers between Paris and the Roubaix velodrome.

The best, and fastest way to get over the medieval stone roads is to hammer a big gear as long and as fast as possible. The 272-kilometer race ends with 2.5 laps around the mercifully smooth track.

To the French, this race will always be L'Enfer du Nord "the Hell of the North." The race earned the nickname when it resumed after World War I, and the route from the French capital to the Belgian border took the cyclists through a devastated landscape of shell craters, trenches and broken trees.

OLN TV broadcasts Paris-Roubaix live on Sunday, April 14, from 8:30 a.m. - 12 p.m. ET

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