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An interview with George Hincapie, March 20, 2004
Recharged and ready to rumble
"I can definitely be a World Cup contender"
George Hincapie (US Postal Service presented by Berry Floor) is easily the most accomplished classics rider America has produced. Tall and softly spoken, 30 year-old Hincapie is a respected rider within and outside his team, his results and work ethic speaking for themselves. Cyclingnews' Chief Online Editor Jeff Jones caught up with the Classics contender and Tour de France domestique de luxe shortly before the ill-fated Omloop Het Volk.
George Hincapie would prefer to forget about the spring of 2003. A respiratory infection compounded by a co-existing parasitic infection wiped him out for the first third of the season, including all his favourite spring classics, and he was only able to start racing again towards the end of May. But it didn't take long for Hincapie to reach his top level again, and he was a valuable rider in the US Postal team in the Tour de France, where Lance Armstrong won his fifth in a row.
Hincapie is more than a super domestique though. A past winner of Gent-Wevelgem as well as multiple top 10 finishes in many of the big spring classics, Hincapie is reaching the age where his strength and experience should see him reap even bigger rewards from these races. And there is no doubt that he is looking forward to April 2004.
"It was hard for me to miss the classics last year," Hincapie says with a grimace. "I hope that this year, being in a great team, that I can be part of it. There's some tough competition out there and you need to be a 100 percent fit and a 100 percent healthy - you can't be missing any aspects in your condition. I hope that I can ride there in April and be ready to go."
Although Hincapie was plagued with a stomach infection at the beginning of this season, he is now over that and has already notched up an impressive fifth place in Paris-Nice, one of the few riders to survive the CSC onslaught. And he wasn't as concerned this time around about being sick early in the season. "One thing I did learn last year is that I was very worried about being sick, and it took me so long to get better that once I was healthy last year, two weeks was all it took and I was in great shape again. So I knew there was still time for April."
The 2002 Paris-Roubaix
As far as learning experiences go, the 2002 edition of Paris-Roubaix was one that Hincapie will never forget. On a cold, wet and muddy day, Hincapie found himself with his then teammate Tom Boonen, chasing eventual winner Johan Museeuw over the pavé. With 18 km to go, Hincapie suddenly slipped while on Boonen's wheel and fell into a ditch, all chances of a win completely gone. Hincapie remounted and finished sixth, while Boonen claimed third behind Museeuw and Steffen Wesemann, who later caught Boonen.
"I learned a lot from 2002," recalls Hincapie. "I felt so good then that I forgot about the little things, like how much to eat and how to keep warm and not waste energy. I felt so strong that I felt like I didn't need that. I really learned a good lesson there. Even though you can be super good in Roubaix, you still have to remember the basic principles of racing and not to get too caught up in the media and the hoopla of the race. Try to look at it as just another race."
Hincapie still has good rapport with Boonen, who left US Postal at the end of 2002 to join Quick.Step-Davitamon, even though he still had a year left on his contract. "Yeah, Tom's a good friend," says Hincapie. "We speak a lot in the races and we have a good relationship. He's a funny guy and we get along well. If I was in his position I would have done the same thing. It was a big deal for him to race for a Belgian team and it was a normal decision for him. This is a sport where you have to be happy and supported wherever you go; you have to feel like you belong. I have no ill will towards that move and I think that was a very respectable thing to do."
Tom Boonen is regarded by many as the next big thing in Belgian cycling, and Hincapie agrees that he has progressed at Quick.Step, particularly as a sprinter. "Yes, definitely," Hincapie says firmly.
"He was always very fast in training camp. If he had a good leadout he could win bunch sprints. I think he can be a good classics rider. I think he's already shown that already. He's young and he can do a lot. I think he can be... he will be one of the best guys. He's pure talent."
Roubaix or Flanders?
Although often considered to have a love affair with Paris-Roubaix, George Hincapie would equally love to win the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders). Though when asked, he finds it hard to pick between the two: "The Tour of Flanders is definitely a hard, hard race and normally there aren't any luck factors in the Tour of Flanders," he says. "If you flat then also that's bad, but in Roubaix there's so many crashes and so many flats that there are a lot more variables. Both of the races have such great history and are so hard in different ways that it would be tough to choose one. Either one would be huge for me."
Racing in Belgium and northern France definitely holds an attraction for Hincapie, who did his first Omloop Het Volk 11 years ago (and finished in the top 20). "The roads and the positioning - for me it's a battle," he says with a gleam in his eye. "You go and race in Spain and you can lie in the back and you can move up for the climbs, but here you always have to be concentrating. You always have to know where you are and how you... if someone moves in front of you - can get it back. It's always fighting for position and it's real exciting. I like it.
"My favourite climb? Probably the new one we did last year, the Koppenberg. I like that climb. The climb I hate? Good question. It's not really a climb, but the section of the Mater," says Hincapie, referring to a tough, three kilometre long section of cobbles near Oudenaarde.
Post spring: Tour time
George Hincapie is a little different to most classics riders in that he backs up every July to race the Tour de France; he is a crucial member of Lance Armstrong's team, and would not trade that position readily. But contending for a one day classic and riding at the front in a three week tour are two different things - so how does Hincapie usually recharge his batteries after a tough spring season?
"Normally I take 8-10 days off where I just ride every other day, really easy," he says. "Then I start doing specific training where I do a lot of threshold training and a lot of training in the mountains, and normally that works really well for me. I don't race for six weeks, just rest and start training hard. I'll be doing the national championships and some races in America, probably five races, then Catalunya and then the Tour de France."
He ponders: "I think that's why I require so much time off...
"After the Tour, I just hang on through the month of August and I'm pretty dead after that. Last year, I did it (the second half of the season) because I didn't race in spring. If I have a normal season, I feel pretty good in August but then September rolls around and I just can't even train any more."
But for this coming April? "I think if I'm healthy I can definitely be a World Cup contender. I trained well this winter and I know that if my body feels good, I'll be strong."