This guy is SO cool.
Strange that so many of the "passionate" sports threads lately have been about cycling. I wonder how which sport carries more of an obsession to it. Perhaps both in their own sadistic ways.
2005 Professional Athlete of the Year | George Hincapie
Despite titles at every level and in multiple disciplines, the Greenville resident redefined his career on a July day in France
By BOB GILLESPIE
GREENVILLE — Six mornings a week, every week for the past six years, George Hincapie has done exactly what others in his adopted hometown do: He gets up and heads off to work.
Along the way, he often sees neighbors en route to their jobs.
They smile and wave to each other, sharing familiarity, a spirit of community, the commonality of their workaday experience.
Except Hincapie’s job is not like theirs, not at all.
Most of them wear suits or dresses, not Spandex; most drive cars rather than peddle a racing bicycle. And where their “workplace” might be a desk, his is a 70- to 100-mile stretch of road winding up and around Paris Mountain.
“I prefer to go around the mountain first, to warm up,” the 32-year-old says. “But it’s a great climb. I do it every week on my way back” from a ride that lasts 4-5 hours.
Hincapie also trains in the nearby North Carolina mountains around Caesars Head and on routes between Cashiers and Brevard.
“I love the training here,” he says. “It’s one of the best in the country. That’s one reason I moved here.”
No, Hincapie is not your standard Upstate 9-to-5er. As the world learned this past summer — and to a lesser degree each of the past seven summers — he is one of the finest professional cyclists in the world.
He is a man who for each of those seven summers stood on a level with — if not a respectful two steps behind or a protective distance in front — one of the greatest cyclists of all time, Lance Armstrong.
When Armstrong claimed his record seventh consecutive Tour de France title in July, Hincapie was there, just as he was for the first six. His job for the Discovery Channel team was to clear the road for Armstrong. In the arduous sport of team cycling, he was the equivalent of — for the benefit of his Upstate neighbors — a pulling guard or blocking back.
But this year, two things happened. First, Hincapie won a stage of the Tour, becoming only the eighth American to do so. He did it in the 15th stage, a torturous mountain stretch. He did so with Armstrong’s blessing, indeed, with his backing. And he did it on TV, his winning smile beamed home to family and friends via the Outdoor Life Network; the offensive lineman scored a touchdown.
After the Tour, Armstrong followed through on his earlier announcement and retired.
Poised to step into his place, into a seat that now means something to American sports fans after decades of soccer-like indifference, is George Hincapie.
“The team is talking about supporting me on the Tour,” the transplanted New Yorker says, relaxing on a rainy December morning in his new, 4,500-square-foot Mediterranean-style home near Paris Mountain.
“It was a hard seat to fill (and) they all want to see what Lance has done. But I think I can do a lot better (than Hincapie has in the past), not having to work as much as I did” to clear the way for “The Man.”
It is Hincapie’s time, perhaps, to be “The Man.”
“I’m really happy for him,” said Sean Petty, chief of staff for USA Cycling. “He’s finally getting the recognition he deserves. He’s a hugely talented rider who managed to get incredible results while riding in support of Lance.”
Being in the spotlight is not totally foreign territory. Hincapie has been “The Man” for years in classics racing, one-day events that are held across Europe each spring. There are more than 80 such races. But he acknowledges the Tour de France is, attention-wise, a different beast.
“How far I can go, I don’t know. I haven’t been in that position,” he says. “But it’s an exciting thing.”
It also is why Hincapie is The State’s S.C. Professional Athlete of the Year for 2005. In a sport that most South Carolinians barely knew existed a decade ago, he is the right man at the right time to ride the wave of cycling’s growing popularity.
It is a role he has prepared for, if sometimes unknowingly, all his life.
AN ACCOMPLISHMENT UNLIKE ANY OTHER
Ricardo Hincapie and his wife, Martha, left their native Colombia because, like many there, he needed work. He found it in New York City, where he spent 30 years in a mailroom at United Airlines. The job provided homes for his two sons, Rich and George, in Queens and later on Long Island.
Ricardo also passed along his love of cycling.
“My dad raced for a long time as an elite amateur, and he got my brother and me into it,” George says. “It was kind of a family sport for us, a thing we could do together every weekend.”
Of the two boys, George was the most successful, starting at age 12.
By the time he was 15 and a Junior National Track Cycling champion, he had caught the eyes of USA Cycling and was going regularly to the Olympic Training Center.
“I was lucky in that sense; cycling is expensive, and we never had that kind of money,” he says.
By 16, George was Junior National Road Cycling champion. Three years later, he won the national road championship. By then, he had been a friend for five years of a young cyclist from Texas: Armstrong.
That friendship bloomed, starting in 1996, into something almost mystical. Hincapie was Tonto to Lance’s Lone Ranger, the loyal sidekick who sublimated his ego and ambitions to the team’s greater good. He says there are no regrets.
“He’s the only one to win (the Tour de France) seven times, and I’m the only one who did it every time with him,” Hincapie says. “We created history in the sport.”
Oh, there were times when he chafed at his countrymen’s lack of knowledge about his sport. He would find himself at parties or charity functions explaining what he did, and how the Tour de France was hardly the only bicycle race in the world.
But Hincapie is a realist. And so his moment in the sun in the mountains of France was “a huge bump” in his Q-rating that, he concedes, put everything else he has done in relative shadow.
“I’ve been racing professionally 12 years, won big races, races no Americans ever won,” he says. “But winning a stage of the Tour was 10 times bigger than anything I’ve ever done, 10 times more attention. It shows how popular the Tour de France is, how many people are watching.”
An audience of millions worldwide that day saw Hincapie join 100-150 riders attempting a breakaway from the main field. His decision was, he says, spontaneous; he felt strong, “super good,” and figured what better way to help Lance than with a quick head start? He also was prepared to drop back later to support Armstrong. But the Discovery Channel team had an 18-minute lead, so Hincapie received the go-ahead to try and win the stage.
“It was nerve-wracking,” he says. “At that point, there were 15 guys left in the breakaway, several guys who on paper are normally stronger than me on climbing. A lot went through my head: I didn’t want to mess up the chance.”
With a mile and a half to go, he knew he had a “really good” chance; then it was down to a final sprint to the finish, and Hincapie thought: “Wow. I think I may win this thing.”
Back in South Carolina, his brother watched on TV. In New York, his father did, too. And in his adopted hometown, a lot of relatively recent converts to cycling felt the thrill of seeing one of theirs do something spectacular.
NO SHOES ... OR PELATONS, EITHER
The front door to Hincapie’s home bears a sign: “No shoes,” with an accompanying “No zapatos.” His wife, Melanie, a former Tour de France employee from Dijon, France, came up with the sign, to discourage Hispanic construction workers from tracking mud onto the polished stone floors.
The house, with its high ceilings, subdued artwork on the walls and upstairs porch, could have been airlifted straight out of Spain, which makes sense since Hincapie’s European residence is Gerona, Spain.
On this day, he and Melanie and their 1-year-old daughter, Julia, have been in the place about two weeks.
“We’ve got a garage full of boxes,” he says. “I go through a box a day, putting away stuff.”
He calls it his dream house, and admits it represents where he is in his career and life: married, a father, settled into a community that has embraced him and at the peak of his powers. The downtown condo he lived in before was fine then, but this is now.
“When I look around, I think finally I have everything I worked hard for,” he says. “This makes working so hard for all those years a lot easier.”
He is content to train each day, making his rides, coming home to family, and waiting to see what happens next. Whether he becomes “the next Lance Armstrong” — a long shot in one sense; at 32, he says he will ride at most four more years — or not, he knows what he has achieved. And he knows others know it, too.
“Lance is an athlete who comes along once every century,” Hincapie says. “He’s like a Michael Jordan, a Tiger Woods. I’ve learned so much from him.
“I never imagined winning that stage of the Tour would have such an impact on my career, on my popularity in the U.S. I guess that win came at the best time possible: Lance’s last Tour, catching the attention of so many Americans in the sport, and (being) another American able to be successful.”
He smiles contentedly. “It’s worked out perfectly.”
For Hincapie, and also for others.
He and his brother run a thriving cycling-apparel store, Hincapie Sportswear, that sells and ships nationwide. Randy McDougald, owner of two Carolina Triathlon stores, carries Hincapie’s lines not because of his fame among cyclists but because he is involved in the local community, too.
“George does group rides on Tuesdays during daylight savings time, a big ride at (nearby) Donaldson Center,” McDougald says. “You’ll see him riding up to Saluda (N.C.), on Paris Mountain.”
Hincapie also chairs a local American Cancer Society event and attends other charity functions, shaking hands and chatting. “I’ve seen folks I know who aren’t riders come up and say hi, kibitz with him,” McDougald says. “And they find out he’s a genuinely nice guy.”
Craig Lewis knows. A professional cyclist, he has raced since he was 16. Now 20, he trains regularly with Hincapie, making those long treks up and down Paris Mountain.
“I couldn’t believe someone from Greenville had done what he has,” Lewis, a Spartanburg native, says. “He started mentoring me when I was 16. He helps me keep my life balanced, tells me all the mistakes he made. He’s coached me in every aspect of my life.”
Whenever Hincapie calls it a career and retires to his beautiful “dream house” near the mountain, Lewis will carry on the dream. He is young enough to aspire to be “the next Lance Armstrong” he believes Hincapie can do so, too. But really, he asks, does that matter?
“George, the way he trains, you can tell he knows he can do it,” Lewis says. “But he doesn’t have to be the next Lance.
“He’s George, and that’s as good, if not better.”