All photos courtesy of Rich Hincapie
George Hincapie's impressive prowess on the bike is common knowledge amongst cycling fans the world over, due to his yearly faithful service as the mainstay of Lance Armstrong's stellar support crew at the Tour de France, as well as many years of determined, classic performances in the spring World Cups; but what many don't know is that for George and the Hincapie clan, cycling has always been a family affair. From racing and training together with their father, as little boys, to the launch of Hincapie Sportswear, their new cycling apparel company, George and Rich Hincapie have always been a team.
The Hincapie brothers inherited their love of the bike from their father, Colombian immigrant to the United States Ricardo Hincapie. Coming from Colombia, Ricardo had been racing from the age of 13, and when he came to New York City in search of a better way of life for himself and his future wife, Martha, he continued to ride. In New York, Ricardo met fellow enthusiasts and quickly became a part of the New York cycling culture, riding first for the Century Road Club, and then for Kissena. When his sons were old enough, it was only natural that they would come along.
"Every weekend, I would take the boys and the family to races, usually in Central Park, or Prospect Park," says Ricardo. Forty-seven years after his first race, Ricardo still rides and occasionally stretches his legs in local masters races. "I don't think too many people can make the same claim," he says, but forty-seven years in the saddle is not the only claim not many could join Ricardo in making. His two boys, Rich and George, have both grown into men that have made enormous contributions to the sport their father taught them to love.
The Early Years
"My dad brought his passion for cycling with him, and ever since I can remember, we've been going to races," says Rich, who started racing at the age of 9. His kid brother George joined him in the saddle when he was 8 and Rich was 12. Young George looked up to his brother as a role model.
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The start of a brilliant career:
George at the Skippy Peanut Butter Classic, 8 years old
"I just wanted to follow what he was doing," says George. "He was always doing such cool things - going away to national camps and races; I always just wanted to impress him, and that made me work hard. My brother was a huge influence on me. I could see his work ethic, and I was always really proud of him. I learned a lot from him and my dad."
Racing mostly in the Eastern US, with occasional travel to other parts of the United States and to Europe, Rich and George raced together as juniors, and became a feared killer combination, with Rich delivering George to victory in the sprints in the American criterium circuit's competitive field. "Junior fields were big back then," says Ricardo, "in races like Somerville, there was a limit of 150 riders, and if you didn't register early, you didn't race."
"We grew up with my dad, traveling around the country with us, going to races," says Rich, "he worked for United Airlines, so air travel was a lot more feasible for us. My mom was hugely supportive, too, and always had every detail prepared for us so that all we had to worry about was training."
When he was 14 years old, George went to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado, and the support and influence of his family when he was a boy would be the foundation of what would become a brilliant international career. As a junior, George won over 300 races, including 12 national titles and two medals at the worlds, a silver and a bronze. "George has become one of the top cyclists in the world," says Ricardo, "but the thing that stands out most in my memory from his career is the 1990 season, when, at 16 years old, he won 37 races, 24 of them consecutively. He won so much that I actually stopped racing myself that season to concentrate on his cycling, and watch him win every week."
Young George attacks, 1985
Remembering his early career, George credits his family for much of his success. "My family has always been so supportive, and it had a huge impact on my career. They didn't have much money, but they always did everything they could to make sure I had the best support at the races.
"This is a expensive sport," adds George, "it's not easy to get to races that are far away, but my family made a big commitment, and it always made me want to be as good as I could be. It's really important to have that family structure if you want to improve."
Rich and George raced together on the same teams until George went pro with the Motorola Cycling Team. At the same time, Rich went to college, graduating with a business degree from the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. He continued to race the American circuit, and sometimes in South America or Europe, while George made his first forays into international professional competition.
"I always wanted to be a pro in Europe," says Rich. "I gave it my best shot, but didn't really have it." Was it hard to watch his younger brother ride away with all the glory? "A lot of people ask me that," says Rich, "if it bothers me that George is so popular, but it's exactly the opposite. I can't even remember a time of jealousy." George agrees: "My brother is my best friend," he says. "We have been through a lot together, and there has never been any brotherly rivalry. We've always wanted the best for each other and continue to want that."
Not following George to Europe didn't dampen Rich's enthusiasm for the sport. Nine years ago, he took over the organization of a local race in Greenville, the Michelin Cycling Classic; it has continued to grow every year, and is now part of that National Racing Calendar and a staple of the late season. He also runs a local series for all categories in the spring, and the new Heritage Criterium Series. His own experience as a junior made him want to give back to the sport that has meant so much to his family. "I've always had a philosophy of supporting juniors," says Rich, "I guess watching my Dad shell out as much as $100 per weekend for us still stuck with me. I've never charged any entry fees for juniors, and that policy will stand as long as I promote races."
Rich, Ricardo & George Hincapie 1986
Rich is proud of his younger brother. "It's great having a member of the family that's so successful," he says. "It really hit me this year when I was watching the Tour de France on TV, and my daughter, Isabella, was cheering 'Go Uncle George!' It was a great feeling. Even back in the early days, we all knew George would be a star. He is one of the most determined, most dedicated and hardworking people I have ever seen. Year after year, what he puts into the sport is incredible, and he's always been that way."
The admiration is mutual, and George continues to look up to his older brother, as well. Rich has a young family, and works full-time in addition to his pursuits in cycling. "Rich can do it all," says George, "I'm the lucky one; all I have to do is ride my bike!"
Family support is still important to George, and never more so than this year, when he was stuck down early in the season by a mysterious illness that left him exhausted, and unable find his legs.
Says Rich: "George's pre-season training started like normal, around November. I like that time of year, since I can ride with him; we're both out of shape, and although it's pretty normal for him to not feel good in November, he was still feeling bad in December and January, so we started getting worried.
"George, being George, kept putting in his hard days, thinking he was just out of shape; but after continuing to train hard, he was just not coming around. I think he first realized something was really wrong during his training camp in January."
George was suffering from a whole host of symptoms, including sinus trouble, a persistent low-grade fever, and a general lack of energy and stamina. He was having trouble breathing properly, his heart rate was always too high, and as someone who has led a very physical life as an athlete since childhood, his illness left him disoriented and unrecognizable to himself. "I just felt really confused all the time," he said, "I felt like I was in someone else's body. It just didn't feel like me."
"George had never experienced a long time off his bike," says Rich, "Ever. I mean, not even a bad crash or a broken bone, knock on wood, in more than 20 years of racing. He still went to Europe in the early part of the year thinking he just needed to get some races in, and that he would come around; but he just didn't feel better. Hearing that he was out of the Classics was tough for him to swallow, but by then, we were more worried about his health and there being the possibility of something pretty serious going on."
Exactly what was going on was still a mystery, though, and once George had made the difficult decision to can his spring season in favor of his health, he also decided to go home to Greenville, and began a search for answers. Finding them, though, was hard going. "It was pretty tough on him, since no one was giving him anything satisfying," remembers Rich, "except for that, maybe, he was just tired. George is very in tune with his body and he just wouldn't accept that answer from the countless doctors he saw.
"I think the toughest part for him was that, probably really for the first time, he was in a situation he could not control. He has raced and been on top of his game forever and if he was not going good, he would just work that much harder until he was flying. Not this time."
Three weeks before the Tour of Belgium, George hit rock bottom. He headed out to meet Rich for a ride at their usual meeting place at the bottom of the mountain he lives on, they'd been riding together occasionally; but George had been "pretty miserable" most of the time.
"That morning, we met in our normal spot, about 5 miles from my house, and started riding. After 10 minutes he said, 'I can't ride anymore. I gotta go home.' " remembers Rich. "I kept on going, but then I started thinking about why he'd turned around. He'd only ridden for 3 miles, downhill." Realizing that something was seriously wrong, Rich called his brother from his cell phone. "I had never heard him so upset," he says, "I turned around and went back to his house. There's not much you can say, but we just hung out for a while, and then I took my girls over that night, and I think it may have helped him get his mind off of what was going on."
While he was sick, George's family and friends rallied around him, and made sure he wasn't alone with his misery. "My Dad came out and saw me for awhile," says George, "and I was with my brother a bunch. My friends and family in Greenville were always coming and checking on me, and I had friends from all over calling and coming to stay with me. That really helped me. They made sure I wasn't alone much."
In his search for a solution, George had turned to an alternative, eastern medical approach. That day, he called his doctor, who immediately drove from Tennessee to try to help turn things around. By then, they had figured out that he had a parasite in his lungs, and were aggressively trying to get rid of it using acupuncture, massage, and herbs. "I felt worse before I started feeling better," says George, "but I had finally found the right doctor, and he was just so passionate about getting me well. He made it his life's goal to fix me."
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George & Rich out for a ride.
That day was the turning point in George's illness, and after that, he felt "maybe 5% better every day," says Rich. Things were looking up. Slowly, the old George was coming back. "We saw a slow transformation in his spirit, which was really contagious," says Rich, "and everyone was really happy." There was only one problem for Rich: "training with him was no longer easy," he laughs. "Oh well, I can live with that!"
Missing the classics this year was a bitter pill for George, but once he was back in the saddle, he immediately focused all of his attention on making the US Postal Tour de France team. He was back, but his form was still a bit of an intangible. "Still," says Rich, "if anyone could make it back to top form in a short period of time, it's George."
Going into the Tour of Belgium with modest hopes, George was really only hoping to get back into the swing of things. When he scored a very encouraging 7th in the GC, highlighted by a very strong Time Trial performance, he was happy with the results, but more than anything, he valued his return to health. In the weeks that followed, he trained in earnest, building the fitness he would need to take up his customary post as road captain of Lance Armstrong's tour team. His spirits were lifting day by day.
"No one works harder than George. He is just incredibly dedicated," says Rich. "Now I sit here watching the tour, and I see a George that is probably better than ever. He keeps on talking about the Worlds... I can't wait!"
George's family and the invaluable support they give him is still a very important part of his success. His father still comes to Greenville to train with his sons, and he goes to the Classics and the Tour every year as well. Last time George rode Paris-Roubaix in 2002, both father and brother were there in the team's car to follow George's bid for the race he sets his heart on winning one day.
"I think I get more nervous than anyone, watching George ride," says Rich. "Last year, I was standing by the side of the road at Paris-Roubaix, and there was so much excitement and tension building before the guys got there. It was complete mayhem, especially at the first cobble section where 200 guys are trying to be first onto a 15 foot cobbled cow path. In the distance, I could see guys crashing and going from side to side, and I was just thinking, 'How can George make it through that?' But, sure enough, he comes by in the top 5 looking as relaxed as I do sitting on my couch having a beer. You can bet he will win it some day," he adds.
That confidence and encouragement from his family contributes a lot to George's effort. "I love it when they come to see me," he says. "It makes really me want to put in that little extra effort for them."
For Ricardo Hincapie, to seeing his two sons "grow in, and contribute to this sport I love so much, and to see them excel at life itself," has been a life's pleasure. "I don't think there's anyone prouder or happier about his family than I am," he says.
George with his proud parents
PART 2 still to come...
Next up - George better than ever & Hincapie Sportswear