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Will an American Racer Conquer the Queen of the Classics?
By Jaime Nichols
Date: 4/12/2002
Will an American Racer Conquer the Queen of the Classics?

The American story of the 100th running of Paris-Roubaix boils down to two men: the United States Postal Service’s man for the Classics, and a consistently strong finisher, George Hincapie; and the double US Pro Champion wearing the Stars and Stripes and riding for Domo, Fred Rodriguez.

Fred Rodriguez is putting up the best results of his career in the spring races this season, placing second to the seemingly unbeatable Mario Cipollini first in Milan-San Remo, and most recently in Ghent-Wevelgem. Rodriguez rides Paris-Roubaix for the first time in his career this year, and I expect it will be an auspicious debut in the "Queen of the Classics."

Roland Barthes once wrote that form in the bike racer is that "privileged equilibrium between quality of muscles, acuity of intelligence, and force of character." His definition is an especially apt description of the state our Freddy finds himself in today, with the strength to ride with the leaders in tough races, the experience and intelligence to read the race and constantly improve his jump and timing, and the confidence to go for it. Rodriguez rides for a Domo team lead by the inimitable Lion of Flanders, Johan Museeuw, who will certainly be looking for a win after his disappointment in Flanders. While Fred may be called upon to sacrifice himself for his leader, there’s a huge advantage for him in riding for a team that sets these spring races as their first priority, and if he finds himself at the line at the end and free to go for it, I expect to see some good old fashioned fourth of July style fireworks. I would go so far as to say that should the race come down battle of sprinters with a good kick, the Domo team would be wisest to put their money on Fred.

Quite simply, this is turning into a revelatory season for Fred Rodriguez. Paris-Roubaix is a tough race, but Fred appears to be ready for it, and riding with a powerhouse team that includes the Museeuw and last year’s winner, Servais Knaven, he stands a brilliant chance of being a protagonist at the finish.

George Hincapie, as many of us know, has a score to settle with Paris-Roubaix. Anyone who saw his race last year knows that he rode brilliantly. In an edition of the race that made the meaning of the moniker "Hell of the North" crystal clear, Hincapie, covered head to toe in mud, survived a crash in the Arenburg Forest and two flat tires to wind up in a winning break heavily outnumbered by Domo’s finest. Isolated from his team, he could do nothing against Domo’s strength in numbers, but his ride was courageous, controlled, impressive; even heroic. Johan Brunyeel later said that George was the strongest on the day, but that Postal lost the race in the first section of pavé when George was separated from his teammates. Even strongman Ludo Dierckxsens, who also rode a tenacious race in 2001 in the break, was quoted calling Hincapie the strongest of the riders in the winning move.

There are those who say that Hincapie lacks the killer instinct, the aggressiveness and the grit to win in these races, and suggest that if he really wanted to excel in the classics, he would make the move to a Classics team. He has been offered a ride with Mapei in the past, but refused it, preferring to stay with USPS: he is happy there, his relationships with the team and other riders are good, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. In an effort to support Hincapie this season, USPS has stepped up its Classics roster, and Armstrong himself has been willing to change his proven training template to include a few Classics races in the role of Hincapie’s supporter. A longtime teammate and friend, Lance Armstrong, speaking of Hincapie in a recent interview for cyclingnews has said that while he thinks George has good prospects every year, he sees them "this year especially. I see a different George; he's tougher, he's trained harder. He's lacked ‘grinta’ in the past and I think he's acquired some of that." On the same note, Johan Brunyeel says that this year that we are seeing a "George that we didn’t know until now; he was always holding off and waiting to see what would happen. He has made a big step forward mentally."

Still, Hincapie’s rides in the Tour of Flanders and Ghent-Wevelgem were disappointments to him this year when he rode to 4th and 3rd place finishes respectively in those races. He has been criticized since the Tour of Flanders for riding too conservatively and failing to attack in the last kilometers of the race. He has had an impressive early season, but has to be a bit frustrated by coming so close to victory in these big races. Hincapie has ridden Paris-Roubaix nine times, placing in the top six for the past three years, and has said he knows the parcours like he knows his own back yard. It is his favorite race, and his desire to win it has been a focal point of his early season. Quoted in a USPS press release, Hincapie says that he will give every thing he has on Sunday, and will not "leave it to any ‘what ifs.’ I will risk everything on Sunday" he says, "and risk even getting a result if it means not leaving anything to chance."

As for Lance Armstrong, he says: "My money will be on Hincapie in Roubaix."

The riders can expect fair weather on Sunday, cloudy and cool, but with rain not expected, the race will be faster than it was last year, and less a simple matter of attrition; but rain or shine, it’s a very tough ride. With strong teams taking the start at Paris-Roubaix from Mapei and Domo, and many riders like Ludo Dierckxsens and Van Petegem looking fit and ready to present strong performances, both Fred and George’s chances for victory will come down strong riding, but also in part to good fortune and team success.

Rodriguez will be riding on a Domo team lead by elder statesman Museeuw, but riding as he has done this year he should be strong, though this is his first time facing "the Hell of the North." George has suffered in the past from a lack of teammates when he needed them most, and will have to hope that his US Postal colleagues are ready to support him with strong rides of their own. By all accounts the US Postal team is looking strong, and organized this year, and with the likes of 21 year old phenomenon Tom Boonen, and this week’s Circuit de la Sarthe 2nd place time trial finisher, Floyd Landis, who appears to be on form and likely to be putting his mountain biking skills to good use on the rough roads of Paris-Roubaix, there is a strong hope that George will finally have the team he needs to come out on top. If Hincapie does get the support he needs, he definitely has the strength to win.

One thing is certain: both Americans are strong, genuine contenders!

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