Photo by Scott Schaffrick
Before I was a cycling journalist, I was a cycling fan, and before I ever got serious and interviewed George Hincapie, I met him at the inaugural San Francisco Grand Prix. He was on the Embarcadero as the race staged, surrounded by a throng of cycling nerds who were asking him to sign Lance's book. I was there with my sister, and both of us were more excited than kids at Christmas to be attending our first big bike race.
Always a truly dedicated sports fan, my sister had been following cycling for longer than I had, and Big George was her favorite. She was too shy to ask him, but despite her objections, I took it upon myself to embarrass her beyond her wildest imaginings by asking him if she could have her picture taken with him. When he agreed, I threw her up on the hood of US Postal's car next to him. Afterwards, she never stopped telling me how much she was going to kill me… until she saw the picture. In it, George, his arm around her shoulder, is smiling the most affable, sincerely good-natured smile imaginable, and it's been on her bulletin board since then, right next to that picture of her with the Stanley Cup.
George won that day. He crossed the line rubbing his hands together gleefully, with all the pure pleasure of a happy 15 year old boy. As George's father came with him onto the podium, beaming with pride and kissed him, and George prepared to spray the photographers with champagne, I thought of all the vivid beauty and color of the day, the thrills and the suspense, and finally, the sweetness of the hard fought victory, and decided I wanted to be involved in this brilliant sport.
A little less than a year later, George was my first interview. I asked my questions via e-mail before and after George's rough ride in 2002's Paris-Roubaix, and he sent me back answers that were full of humility, sincerity and a true love of the race and the sport of cycling: answers that were like his ride that day - all heart. My point is this: as a journalist, one strives for objectivity, but if I have a sentimental favorite, it's George Hincapie. So, as it was for all of George's supporters, news of his early season illness this year was heavy news indeed, and all the spring classics seemed just a little less thrilling without another all-out assault on the bergs and cobbles by the tall, dogged New Yorker.
Unfortunately for George, a whole host of symptoms, including sinus trouble, a persistent low-grade fever, and a general lack of energy and stamina conspired to keep him off the bike from April through mid May. Missing his favorite races was hard for George, but harder still was not knowing what was making him so sick. "I always felt like I was on the verge of having a fever," says George, "My breathing was always off, and my heart rate was always high."
For a guy who'd been tearing it up in the saddle since he was thirteen years old - a racer noted for his consistency, and the strength of his constitution - being unable to ride with his usual fortitude, and not knowing why, took a toll on him mentally as well as physically; leaving him disoriented and unable to recognize himself in some sense.
"I just felt really confused all the time," he told me, "it felt like I wasn't in my body - like I was in someone else's body. My body just wasn't working right and it was really hard for me to go through that."
Catching up with George earlier this week as he prepared to head off to France for the final countdown to the tour, he sounded like a new man. When I first reached him, he was getting a haircut: "Nice and short," he said. "Call me back in 15 minutes," he told me, "then I'll be on the massage table, and we can talk."
Perhaps it was an especially good massage, but when I got him on the phone, the George I found on the other end of the line was relaxed, confident, and full of motivation for his return to the bike - and with good reason. Recently, Hincapie's done some impressive bike racing for a man who's been out of commission for months, scoring a sweet 7th place in the G.C. in the Tour of Belgium; and most recently, putting in his final bid for inclusion on the defending Champ's tour team with a very strong ride in the Volta Catalunya, making his presence felt in both the mountains and the flats, the breakaways and the sprints.
George Hincapie is back. He's on his game, and ready to rumble in US Postal's drive for five. Here, he gives us the low-down on what made him sick, how he came back, who Postal will be watching on the road in France, and why he didn't take that job on The Bachelor.
You were sick for such a long time this year - what, in the end, was the cause?
Well, It was a mix of a bunch of things, but what it basically was in the end was this parasitic infection that turned into a respiratory infection. It would go from my lymph nodes into my lungs, and even after we killed the parasites, it still leaves a lot of toxins in your lungs, and once they die off, you have to get rid of all of that, too.
Finally, I found a good doctor, though, and it took a long time, but once we started working with him, it took about a month to get better, but before that, it was basically just, 4 months, of no progression. It was really hard.
Your brother Rich told me a couple months ago that he'd never seen you like that - he sounded worried - did your family take good care of you, too?
Yeah - my Dad came out and saw me for awhile, and I was with my brother a bunch, and my friends in Greenville were always coming and checking on me, and I had friends from all over calling and coming to stay with me, so I wasn't by myself for much time.
It took you a long time to discover the cause, too! When you left Europe and went home to Greenville, what did you do?
Yeah, it did.
When I got home, I would just rest. When I first got home, I went to several different doctors, and I think everybody has different doctors, some that work better for them than others. I saw some doctors that didn't work for me, but I wouldn't say they wouldn't work for other people.
Finally, I just met someone who made it his life's goal to fix me, you know? He was just so passionate about getting me healthy - he would just shut down his office for a week, and just stay with me at my place every other week.
His name is William Pettis, and originally, I went to see him in Memphis, TN, and I stayed there for ten days, but he knew that I was getting homesick and that I wanted to be back home, so he told me to go home, and from then on, he just came and stayed with me, and took care of me there.
I read that you moved away from things like antibiotics, and to eastern medicine…
Yeah, I drank all kinds of teas and things. At first I felt worse, but once I started, it took about a month to get better. It's crazy, but it works.
And now you're feeling all better?
Oh yeah, I feel really healthy, and I've been feeling really strong again. I'm feeling really good.
Where are you feeling strongest? You've had some great rides, and were doing really well in the sprints in Catalunya…
Yeah, well, I won't be doing any sprints in the tour, just because I have to focus everything on Lance, but afterwards there are plenty of races where I will.
But, actually, I think I was climbing better there than I ever have before.
Climbing even better than last year?
Well, in Catalunya, the day that I got second, I was away all day over the climbs. We just got caught in the last climb, and I was one of the only guys who stayed with the first group after we got caught, so yeah, I think so.
But your goals in the tour are all about helping Lance?
Yes. That's it.
You always ride with so much determination - last year in the tour, you really surprised people with your climbing. What keeps you motivated when you aren't racing for personal glory?
Well, I do set goals that are important for me, and for the team. Obviously, they're not as important as the Tour de France, and my goal now is to help Lance for the tour. After that, I'll do the World Cups, and the World Championships are a big goal of mine, so there are other races, other than the tour, that I place great importance on, and that keeps me motivated.
Also, being with Lance the last four years, I mean, it's really - you know, we don't get help from any other teams. We really have to have everyone just focus on one goal. It does mean a lot to me if I can do an outstanding job, and do things that aren't expected of me during the tour, and even though I don't get a result in an actual stage, it's still a result for me and the team, what I'm doing there. I consider it a result on my own if I can do a good job like that.
Also, we get paid to do that. I mean, that's why we're there: to work for him. That's our job, so to speak, and it is motivating, because we all know how hard it is, and it never gets any easier.
When I go out and train, it's easy to be motivated for that… but then you also hear things, like Beloki saying the Postal Team is weak this year and that motivates you even more. (laughs)
Why do you think they underestimate you guys every year?
I don't know… It's weird!
Who do you see as competitors to watch?
I think Ullrich is looking good. There are a lot of good guys this year, with Ullrich, Simoni and Tyler… Beloki - there's definitely a very strong field this year. I think it's one of the best in years.
But Lance looks as strong as ever, too!
(Laughs) We'll see, there are a lot of things that can happen…
There's a lot on the line this year - It's the Centenary tour, the 5th victory for Lance - going for the record… Do you get nervous at all? Are you feeling the pressure?
Well, it's really no different than the other years. The tour is always the biggest race we do all year, and there's always a lot at stake there, and it's always just as nerve-wracking and as much pressure as the other years. It's not really different.
And it never gets easier?
No, it never really gets easier. You get more experience, and all that, but it's always hard. It's a super hard race.
But the team is strong? What can you tell us about Floyd Landis for the tour?
Yeah, the guys are all riding really well… and yeah, Floyd's feeling great. I think he's just going to get better. He just came out of injury and he's been progressing since then. I'm really happy for him. We're really good friends, so I'm glad he made it.
When are you in France?
What's it like once you get there?
It's pretty crazy. You do all your health tests and team presentations, and all that, but, really, the days before the tour are kind of boring, because you're just sitting around waiting for it to start… counting the hours until it starts. You know, the first week is always so nerve-wracking, that you just want it to start as soon as possible, and get it over with!
The early part of the flat stages, like in the first week… those are your toughest moments, right? In America, we always miss that part, but it's when you're really working, isn't it?
Yeah - lots of times, especially if Lance is in the jersey, the early part of the stages are the hardest, because everyone wants to get in the breakaway. We can only allow people who are so far behind to get in the breakaway, so we're basically chasing everything down until something gets away that we're comfortable with, and that's a really difficult part.
What in store for you for the rest of the season, are you definitely riding the Vuelta?
Yeah it's for sure, in that I hope that will help me… I mean, obviously I want to help Roberto there, and also maybe I'll have a little more freedom to race some stages as well… but my intent is really on coming to the World Championships strong.
Do you feel like the World's course is a good one for you?
Yes, I do.
How long do you think you will continue to race? Do you plan to keep at it after Lance retires?
Yeah - definitely, I'd like to race another five years, if all goes well.
Ok, finally, what's all this I hear about how they're dying to have you on The Bachelor?
(Embarrassed laugh) Oh, not so much dying, but yeah, they wanted me to be on it, but I don't really have the time. It's six weeks of filming, and I don't really have that. Actually, when they wanted to do it was in January, which just isn't possible...
And, I just didn't feel like I could do it anyway...
You seem a little shy for duty like that, aren't you? Plus, it's such a strange situation!
Probably. Yeah, it's really weird.
Still, you're a good pick - the ladies love you!
(More embarrassed laughter) Thanks!
George, good luck! Have a great tour!