Life is pretty good for George Hincapie, despite his old and new team sponsors both departing from the sport this past fall. The two-time U.S. pro champ made his decision to leave Discovery Channel six months before the top American squad disbanded. And there was barely a ripple in his preparations for 2008 when T-Mobile pulled the plug on November 27 and Team High Road became his new squad.
At 34 and about to start his 15th pro season in the European peloton, Hincapie says he's not close to hanging up his cleats. In fact, he's about to take on a demanding new role as team captain and mentor at High Road after spending most of his long career as a team player.
"It's a big change," Hincapie said about his decision to walk away from the U.S. Postal/Discovery program after 11 years. "At first, I was hesitant to want to change, but at the same time I was also wondering what else was out there. I felt like I needed new motivation, a whole new start."
Hincapie began looking around about a year ago, just after Californian Bob Stapleton and his High Road Sports company took over the management of the T-Mobile team, which was looking to him to clean up its doping-tainted image. "I've been talking to [Bob] for the last couple of years," Hincapie said, "and he knew that I was supportive of his program. I think he's always liked me as a rider, so it was an easy fit. I made my decision [to join his team] in late spring."
For his part, Stapleton said of his multi-national squad, "A young group of athletes needs experienced teammates, they need people from whom they can learn, and [George] definitely has those qualities."
"This latter part of my career is all about how motivated I am," said Hincapie while talking to VeloNews in the spacious, second-floor living room of his Italian-style villa in the wooded hills north of Greenville, South Carolina. "I have the experience, and I know that I can still win races, it's just a question of how motivated I am. I wanted this change, and I also really like Bob Stapleton. I believe in what he's trying to do with the sport and the direction he's taking this program."
Hincapie needed the challenge of helping Stapleton's anti-doping efforts, mentoring young riders and shooting for important new race wins because his life had become a tad too comfortable. This lanky son of Colombian immigrants was well compensated as Lance Armstrong's first lieutenant during the Texan's seven years of winning the Tour de France, and his fame sky-rocketed after he won the Pla d'Adet mountain stage at the 2005 Tour.
He is happily married to Melanie, a Frenchwoman he met when she worked for yellow-jersey sponsor Crédit Lyonnais at the '03 Tour; he's the proud father of three-year-old Julia; and they live in Hincapie's dream house on the plush Montebello Estate near Greenville's Paris Mountain. But Hincapie has spent more time at home than planned in the past two seasons, rather than striving to win his favorite spring classics, because of injuries—a separated shoulder sustained at the 2006 Paris-Roubaix and a fractured wrist from the '07 Tour of California.
"I was one of the best guys at the classics in '06," he said. That should have been his turn to win Paris-Roubaix. In the week before the cobblestone super-classic, he was third at the Tour of Flanders and fifth at Ghent-Wevelgem (which he won in 2001). "And I was in a winning position in Roubaix," he said. But while in the winning move with two teammates and only 47km remaining, Hincapie was sent tumbling to the rough cobblestones after his Trek bike's steerer tube snapped, and he fell heavily on his right shoulder.Hincapie rides during Stage 1 of the 2008 Amgen Tour of California.
Had he won at Roubaix, Hincapie might have gone into his first post-Lance Tour with full confidence, but two months of physical rehab left him short on base mileage. He did wear the yellow jersey in the first week of the '06 Tour, but his high hopes fell flat in the mountains. "I was super-motivated to try my own chances in the Tour," he said. "But I really got to see what kind of special rider Lance was. When you're there fighting for position every day and going for every mountain stage, it's different than going for one mountain day and then sitting up on the next. It's a huge difference."
Hincapie went into the '07 Tour with different goals, but another blank spring left him short of his best form at the Tour. "I broke my wrist in California, so I was out of the races where I normally do well—Paris-Nice, Flanders, Roubaix—so that messed up my whole momentum for the year," he said. "I came back with the Giro [d'Italia]; I was strong there, got in some really good breakaways, but I was always a little bit off my game."
Aiming for Stage Victories
Hincapie plans to be on his game in 2008. "I'd like to start off strong, have a good Tour of California," he said. "That's important both for Bob and for me racing at home. So my big goals for the spring are California, Roubaix, Flanders—and I'd love to pop off a stage of the Tour. I know I can get top 20 in any Tour de France, but at this point in my career it's more important to go for stages."