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An interview with George Hincapie, December 7, 2007
George Hincapie: Heading to new pastures
Retaining motivation is a test for every rider towards the end of their careers. George Hincapie has been competing for longer than many in the professional peloton but, thanks to a change of scenery, he's determined to have a strong season in 2008. Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes spoke to the American about his move to Team High Road.
It takes a considerable amount of courage to change a decade-long pattern. Eleven years isn't quite a lifetime, but George Hincapie has been with the US Postal Service/Discovery Channel setup for all of that time, making it the team of choice for the bulk of his 14 year pro career.
2008 will be different. The now 34 year-old rider is changing teams for only the second time in the period since he joined the paid ranks with Motorola in 1994, choosing earlier this year to strike out on a new path rather than play it safe. At the time that rumours first surfaced that he'd be joining T-Mobile [now Team High Road], the Discovery management was still sounding positive about the chances of continuing with a team in 2008. Hincapie could have waited – and probably would have ultimately been offered a job by Johan Bruyneel on Astana - but he wanted to try something new.
"I've been on the same team for a long time," he said, speaking about his decision to leave Bruyneel and the others in the Discovery Channel group. "I was always wondering what else was out there. Then Bob [Stapleton] came along with T-Mobile and his vision for cycling, which was very attractive to me. We started chatting about it and I just thought it would be a great place for me to go."
Of all the riders on the US Postal Service/Discovery Channel line-up, Hincapie was probably the one most closely associated with the team. He was the only rider to be on the squad for every one of Lance Armstrong's seven Tour de France victories and so deciding to strike out for something new is a big move.
"It is definitely good," he enthused, speaking by phone towards the end of November. "I feel really motivated for next season. I had a great time with Discovery Channel and Postal Service, but I think I needed a little change to get a different sort of motivation.
"I think this team is relying on me a lot to mentor some of the younger riders, as well as getting some results of my own as well. At this part of my career, it is important for me that I can still have that sort of belief in me. It's important that people want to see me do well, to be performing, helping guide some of the younger riders and being involved in the technical aspects of the equipment. That is going to be important for me, and it is definitely a motivating factor."
Hincapie met up with some of his new team-mates at a small T-Mobile rider presentation held two days before the Elite road race at the World Championships in Stuttgart, but unlike some other new recruits, he has a head-start on settling in, having ridden with Roger Hammond for two years and knowing some of the other riders.
"I've obviously known Roger for a long time," he stated, referring to the Briton's stint with Discovery in 2005/2006. "I know Bradley [Wiggins] too and I have spoken to Mark [Cavendish] at some races this year. Right now it is great and I'm sure it is going to be the same when we all get together at the end of season camp. I am looking forward to that."
Hincapie duly attended that camp, held in late October in Cologne, Germany, and came away with a very good impression. "The atmosphere was good. Everybody seemed to get along really well. The team seems super-organised, from the equipment to the training programmes, the nutrition... they definitely want to be on top of that. So I was impressed with what I saw.
Though the season had just ended and the start to racing in 2008 was still three months away, Hincpaie was a little surprised that things were moving so quickly. "I have been on the same team forever, so my equipment hasn't really changed - it has evolved, but it has essentially been with the same company. But this year I got my time trial bike and my road bike already at the first training camp in October, so it was early.
"At this point we have already been to the wind tunnel once with the time trial bikes as well, so they are definitely staying on top with the equipment. Bob Stapleton wants to make sure that we have the best of the best... he is not sparing a penny there."
There has been quite a element of change since that team meeting. At that point of the year the riders were being fitted for their new T-Mobile clothing; however, now that the sponsor announced its withdrawal from the team, the distinctive colours will no longer be seen in the peloton.
Though the team is moving forward under the name Team High Road, and Stapleton has taken over ownership, the lack of a title sponsor means the team will operate under a reduced budget, limiting the race calendar somewhat. The team's ProTour license is currently under examination by the UCI's financial auditors, adding another element of instability.
Hincapie had commented on the uncertain situation prior to the announcement, saying that he felt Stapleton would do what he could to prevent the team folding if the sponsor withdrew. "I am sure he is doing every possible not to let that happen. He is a real serious person, he is a great businessman, he loves the sport and he loves this team. I couldn't see him just giving up."
Once it was confirmed that T-Mobile would stop but the squad would indeed continue, he expressed relief. "I'm just happy that the team is going forward. We will make the best of the situation."
Hincapie's high points
After years of riding with one of cycling's strongest teams in history, Hincapie has plenty of fond memories to choose from as a career high point. "Being a part of seven [consecutive] Tour de France wins stands out, definitely," he said, thinking back to those July performances by Armstrong. "Also taking a stage win in the Tour [he won at Saint-Lary-Soulan (Pla-d'Adet) in 2005]. In general, being a part of some of the team victories is very big... it really has been one of the best in the history of the sport."
His final season with the squad was hampered somewhat by a crash in the Tour of California, forcing him to miss out on the Classics, but did have some successes. "Looking at the 2007 season, I broke my wrist at the beginning of the year. As a result, I missed races I normally do really well in. Then I had to take a working role in the Tour... I did a great job there for the guys, so I was pretty happy with that. Winning the Tour of Missouri was also important."
Hincapie has become a strong stage race rider but his first love is still the Classics, specifically Paris-Roubaix. He had a bad crash in 2006 when his steering tube sheered off, sending him tumbling onto the cobbles and out of the race with an injured shoulder. Bad luck struck again this year, and he had to miss the race this year due to his wrist injury. With career results of second, fourth, fourth, sixth, sixth again and eighth, it's his both his biggest personal goal of the year and his favourite event. Nevertheless, he is able to be philosophical about the past two editions.
"I have done 11 Paris-Roubaix races and to come away with [missed chances due to] one collarbone and a broken wrist is not that bad. It is a dangerous race, but I have had a lot of success there. I still look forward to doing it. Anyway, I try to focus on the positive things that I have done, not crashing and other stuff."
Apart from races and results, Hincapie can also take satisfaction from the growth in popularity of the sport back home. His performances since turning pro have helped build interest, both because of his victories and also his dedication to the cause when helping Armstrong – and, more recently, Alberto Contador – to win the Tour.
"It seems like cycling in the US is getting bigger and bigger," he said. "I think this year the TV ratings for the Tour de France were a little bit bigger than last year's Tour. They think that this year they went up even more than when Lance did his last Tour de France. The sport is growing in general and you can almost see that from the races that are out there: the Tour of Missouri, the Tour of California, the Tour de Georgia. The calendar is getting pretty stacked up here in the US.
"Back when I was a kid and started racing, cycling was definitely an outsider sport. It wasn't a very cool thing to do for the kids. But now things have definitely changed - I wouldn't go as far as to say it is a household sport now, but there aren't many people who don't know what cycling is, who don't know who Lance Armstrong is and who don't know of the Discovery Channel and T-Mobile teams. It has grown tremendously here in the States, for sure. That's great to see."
Aiming high for the future
Since the season ended Hincapie took time out to recharge his batteries and then set about knuckling down again. "I took about a month off my bike and went on vacation with my wife. We went to the Dominican Republic and also went to New York and visited some friends. Apart from that, we were at home, really just enjoying being there. It's nice to be in one place after all the travelling during the year.
"At the beginning of November I started riding again, just a little bit - a couple of hours a day, as well as playing tennis and doing some gym work. I was having a little bit of a normal life too. Now I'm up to three hours [training] and I am starting to do some sort of specific exercises on the bike. I am doing more core work as well.
"The plan is now that I'm going to start riding my time trial bike a little bit more. I'll do that a couple of days a week. I will probably have to start phasing out the tennis, unfortunately, because I love playing! But once December rolls around I will have to stop playing tennis. I will just be doing the normal stuff to get ready for the season."
In changing from a team he has been with for 11 seasons to a totally new setup, there are of course new bikes and equipment to become used to. One of the issues is to make sure his position is millimetre-perfect, especially his time trial bike.
"It takes a while to fine-tune things," he explained. "Fortunately we have some experts in that field. If you left the bike to me and had me compare my new time trial bike to my old bike, it would be totally off," he said, laughing, "but the head technical director [of T-Mobile] flew down here from Germany and he has really helped me set up my position. It was about equal to last year's position, and then we went to the wind tunnel and changed some things around slightly.
"We didn't come up with the final position yet but we are going to try something new in the next month or so. I will be riding this position and trying to get used to it. There may be some more slight changes but the basics of the bike is very similar, as far as position goes. Steve Hed has actually been helping as well. He and I have been friends for a long time and I have already seen him one time this off-season. He is an aerodynamic expert, so I am getting a ton of assistance with things."
Slightly further ahead, he expects to travel to Europe early next year for the big get-together of the new season. That will help him further build his condition, as well as giving him an incentive at this early point. "We will probably have the training camp in Majorca as opposed to California," he said. "It seems it will be a little bit earlier this year so I will therefore have to be in a better shape a bit earlier... I don't want to be getting killed on my first training ride with T-Mobile!
"The training camp is a good time to get everyone together and do some good miles, where you don't have the same stuff going on as at home. You can really focus on training and recovery. It will be nice to have a training camp little bit earlier, in January, and have some different scenery as well. We had been in Solvang for the past 6, 7 years, so it will be good to do something different."
Hincapie will then fly back to the US and prepare for the Tour of California there. He lives in Girona during the season but will wait until after the American race before moving back to Europe. In 2008 he'll have no shortage of other riders to train with – with Team Slipstream being based in the Catalonian city, he estimates that there will be '30 to 40' professionals there.
It means that there will be a broad range of riders, both Classic specialists and Grand Tour riders. As he has done in the past, Hincapie is aiming to ride strongly in the two types of events. The one-day races appear to edge it slightly in terms of personal ambition.
"My goal is definitely Paris-Roubaix. I would definitely love to win another stage of the Tour de France, as well, and the Tour of California is important. But my big goal is certainly Paris-Roubaix and the other Classics."
In the past T-Mobile went to the Tour de France gunning for success with a former winner, Jan Ullrich. The new High Road team has now only a historic link to that squad, with very few riders and officials remaining from that time, and a strong, transparent anti-doping programme in place. Riders such as Michael Rogers and Kim Kirchen will aim for a top five place but there isn't the expectation – or the pressure – that one or other of them will stand on the very top step of the podium.
In the past Hincapie has been part of a team fixated on that number one spot. He thinks that with High Road, he should have more personal chances in 2008.
"This year I had to do a lot of work for [Alberto] Contador and Levi [Leipheimer], but in ‘06 we had a really open team. We had a bunch of chances. I think this year will be similar to '06. We have some guys for the overall, for top 10, top five placings. I think I will have a lot of different roles in the Tour. My first role and goal will be to try to win a stage. Then if it works out that I can help a guy like Michael or Kim Kirchen, I will be ready for that as well."
He's now about to start his fifteenth season as a professional. At 34 years of age you might expect that the motivation may be starting to fade but, thanks to his move, Hincapie sounds very fired up to take some big results in 2008.
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Images by Shane Stokes/Cyclingnews.com