Just so there is no confusion. I think Big George Hincapie, all 6' 3" of him, is a god when he puts on a cycling kit and steps into the pedals. For seven years, he was Lance Armstrong's lieutentant at the Tour de France, riding out in front in the flat stages, protecting him from crashes, pulling him up mountain after mountain, so Armstrong could be free to fly to the finish.
He's riding for Team BMC this year for a record 17th tour. He's also ridden for Motorola, U.S. Postal and The Discovery Channel.
When not riding for Armstrong, Hincapie, now 39, has won his share of races, including stages at the Dauphine Libere and the Tour de Fance in 2005. He won two stages of the Tour of California in 2006 and took the title and a stage at the Tour of Missouri in 2007. He's also won the U.S. Professional Road Race three times (1998, 2006, 2009). He's also been an Olympian 5 times.
He's going to retire after this year. He says he wants to go out on top and spend more time with his wife and kids, now 8 and 4.
You can find all this information on Wikipedia.
What you can't find online is a measure of the man. I've seen Hincapie in action, both on the bike and off. In additon to watching him ride every tour, I also saw him during the six-day 2005 Tour de Georgia. He truly was a team player on the road, riding in front for Armstrong as they screamed down a road or going first up one of the many hills around Dalton, Dahlongea and Rome in the northern part of the state so Armstrong could save his energy for the final push to victory.
As the peleton bore down on a few circuits Dahlongea at the end of stage 4, The Discovery Channel was in trouble. A lot of riders were packed onto to the road. Discovery was not in charge. Armstrong was furious at not being in the lead. I watched as George rode through the peleton (main group of riders), pulling Armstrong with him. With about 100 meters to go on the last lap, George pulled off, leaving it up to Armstrong to be the first one to the finish line. Armstrong didn't win, but the results were immaterial. Big George had set up a perfect launch pad for his team leader to take it.
Every morning, before the race started, fans gather around the team buses trying to catch a glimpse of their heroes. In 2005, it was all about Armstrong, of course, who was headed for his record-making 7th Tour de France victory, but George had his share of followers, too.
Mornings at the bus were a study in contrast.
Lesser know riders came out first, pretty much not getting too much attention. Then, Big George stepped off and the buzz began. Media swarmed him, but he always seem to find time for the kids who were hanging around. He posed for photos and knelt down to speak to them, up close and personal. The look on their faces was priceless.
Armstrong was the last to make an appearance and the first one to ride off toward the starting line. I understand why he couldn't linger and why he needed three body guards to keep the crowd at bay, but the kids who had waited for him were sure disappointed.
In today's stage 16 of his last Tour de France, Hincapie proved why he is one of the most respected men in the peleton.
He fell in the early part of the race. He left a lot of skin on the road, but got back up, rode to the medical motorcycle, got patched up and rejoined the peleton and took his position in front of last year's winner, Cadel Evans, who was having a horrible day on the bike (Evans had complained of a stomach bug). Before today, there was a slim chance - a very slim chance - that Evans could have stood on the podium in Paris. That chance died on the route through the Pyrenees, but Hincapie did his job and pulled his team captain to the finish line. And, as Evans crossed over, he reached back for Hincapie's hand, to thank him and to acknowledge the big man's efforts in getting him through what must have been the day from hell.
I will miss seeing Big George and his trademark white wrap-around sunglasses and lucky black socks riding like "a man possessed" at the front of a huge lead out train, taking his body to the limit day in and day out, pulling his guy ever closer to a possible stage win. Racing won't be the same without him.
Editor's Note: Hincapie's name has been linked to the United States Anti-Doping Agency's (USADA) case as a possible witness against his good friend and team leader Armstrong. If he did testify under oath that he and Armstrong doped, it will dimish his reputation as a rider, to be sure, but in my eyes, he'll always be the gentle giant who always did his job and took time to visit with the kids by the bus.
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