La-Roche-Sur-Yon, France: George Hincapie rode alongside Lance Armstrong on his record run of seven Tour de France victories — and is about to match a mark of his own at cycling's greatest race.
With the backdrop of a doping investigation in which Hincapie has reportedly implicated both Armstrong and himself, the American is about to equal Dutch rider Joop Zoetemelk's record of starting and finishing 16 Tours.
Hincapie, who turned 38 on Wednesday and now has a tiny hint of gray in his closely cropped dark hair, is a selfless workhorse who gained his greatest individual Tour glory with a dazzling mountain stage win up to Pla d'Adet in the Pyrenees six years ago.
Modest and soft-spoken, Hincapie was a bit reluctant to reflect on the record he's set to equal.
"With all this talk of the record, you guys are actually making me kind of nervous at the Tour — which I haven't been in a long time," Hincapie said Friday at a BMC team news conference. "I guess I haven't really dwelled on it that much."
For a rider who has spent most of his career in the background, it is a rare chance to take some of the limelight.
"It's an honor. When I first turned professional, I had hoped that I could do 10 years as a professional, and a couple of Tour de Frances," Hincapie said. "Being here 18 years later, and 16 Tour de Frances later, is something I never would have imagined."
Hincapie has been in the news for different reasons recently; after CBS' "60 Minutes" reported in May that he told federal authorities he and Armstrong supplied each other with performance-enhancing drugs and discussed them.
Armstrong has always denied doping during his seven consecutive Tour victories from 1999-2005. Hincapie has said he never spoke to "60 Minutes," but has otherwise declined to discuss the report.
He is looking forward to slipping into the background again at this year's race, where he will take on a lieutenant role again to help BMC leader Cadel Evans of Australia, a two-time runner-up at the Tour.
"My priorities here at the Tour are help Cadel try to win the Tour de France — he's been a phenomenal racer his whole career, and in the last two years, in my opinion, he's really stepped it up higher than he's ever been."
That doesn't mean Hincapie would pass up an opportunity for a breakaway if it suits him.
"I'd love to be in there, and to try to win a stage would be incredible," he said.
His peers and managers marvel at his longevity, and say he has evolved greatly over the years — now an elder statesman and voice of authority in the peloton.
"George has changed roles somewhere along the way here in his career and continues to be what I consider a still young George Hincapie," BMC president Jim Ochowicz said.
Asked if he felt young, Hincapie quickly answered, "No," with a smile.
While Hincapie has seen team leaders come and go and Tour routes change from year to year, there has always been one thing that remained a constant at the race.
"It's always been incredibly hard. The first Tour de France I did, I was kind of praying that I'd crash — it was that hard — and I did crash," Hincapie said. "Unfortunately, I had the eight stitches in my head and all that.”
"Now, I'm a lot more experienced, I'm a lot fitter, and I know how to gauge my efforts more," he added. "You know, in these three weeks, every little bit counts."
When he finally does retire from the sport, his fondest memory of the Tour will have nothing to do with being on the bike.
"I've got to say, not cycling-related: meeting my wife in Paris," he said. "I know that's hard to believe, but we met in Paris in 2003 and we've got two beautiful children, so I owe a lot to the Tour de France.
First Published: Saturday, July 02, 2011, 14:48