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America's greatest classics rider... Record-setting survivor of the world's hardest races... is George Hincapie still any of these things?
First off, let's clear up what I'm not doing. I usually mark the occasion of another epic blowup with some sort of editorial jabber, trying to add some perspective or looking forward in some way. Well, it's time to recognize the whole foolish consistency hobgoblin here. What's more, I almost always write those posts as a way to declare that at last the nightmare is over and we can get on with our lives again. Well, that's never true, the nightmare is never quite over, so I won't be saying anything to that effect again. I will be sticking to my recent pattern of not really talking about Lance. Apart from the significance of him carrying a thermos (doper code of some sort?), nothing about his saga interests me. The explanations for Lance range from "he's being persecuted" to "he's a monster," and rather than inserting myself into the mother of all tedious arguments, I'll let the facts speak for themselves.
A case from this lot which does have some intrigue for me is that of George Hincapie. Quite a bit of intrigue. With his confession and statement confirming his doping practices, we know that Hincapie used PEDs up to and including 2006. In all probability, the details outlined in the Reasoned Decision issued yesterday by the USADA are accurate and that Hincapie used EPO, blood doping and various other substances, as far back as
1999 1996, with some apparent emphasis on later years in that timeframe. USADA says that the main program was initially for Armstrong, Kevin Livingston and Tyler Hamilton, and it sounds like Hincapie's doping practices were more limited at first, but he was a participant in the team-wide scheme and a full member of the "A Team" as time went by.
I want to exonerate Hincapie to some degree, because he's a nice guy. Straight up. It's not a given that people are kind to strangers, but Hincapie has long been, to me included. His kindness has frequently extended to other riders, for whom he sacrificed, or later, to whom he showed the ropes, as teammate after teammate will tell you. He has character; he's not a monster, nor a lost soul like Landis or Hamilton appear to be. But he lived the lie, big time. His scrubbed statement from yesterday does nothing for me personally. His declaration of clean cycling from 2006 fills me with hope and dread, simultaneously. If I had to guess about those post-Postal years, I'd say he's telling the truth this time. But only a fool would take that to the bank.
Meanwhile, what's left to say about his career? It just ended, and leading up to that time I'd taken pains to mark his accomplishments: the record-setting 17 Tours of Flanders completed; the record-setting Tours of France completed; the almost-record-setting completions of 14 editions of Paris-Roubaix; the high placings in the classics and occasional wins at places like Gent-Wevelgem and GP Ouest France-Plouay, both American firsts. The mountain victory in the Tour.
All those are officially gone. Part of Hincapie's punishment, along with having to read articles like this one, is having his record expunged of all results from May 31, 2004 to July 31, 2006. Subtract three Tours of France and Joop Zoetemelk's finishing record is intact. Subtract two Tours of Flanders and Briek Schotte's finishing record is reinstated. [OK, that doesn't hurt so much.] Subtract one remaining edition of Paris-Roubaix and... well, his longevity isn't too dented but the one result being scrubbed is his best-ever, that second place in 2005. And on the subject of individual results, almost all of Hincapie's greatest individual achievements happened in the period we are now supposed to forget. Thanks to the USADA Hincapie has now never officially finished on the podium of de Ronde. Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and GP Ouest France are back to waiting for their first American victor. The sprint past Oscar Pereiro at Pla d'Adet never happened.
So what was Hincapie, during his career? Was he America's greatest classics rider? Not if he doped his way to the monument podiums. Tyler Farrar may not impress fans as a future Flanders winner but there's no known reason to suspect his victory at the Scheldeprijs, his fifth in Flanders, and his podium finishes in places like the Omloop and Dwars and Gent-Wevelgem. Until Taylor Phinney (or Lawson Craddock) is ready to set some real American records, Farrar's accomplishments stand alone among Americans on the cobbles.
Right? In truth, it's hard to know what to say about doping -- which is why it's such a scourge. If you believe Hincapie was clean after '06, then his two sixth place finishes in Flanders and fourth in Gent-Wevelgem don't look too shabby. I suppose you could try to salvage something from his earlier efforts -- he didn't dope that much; the playing field was uneven if he didn't; etc. -- but I possess no motive for parsing that shit.
Bottom line is, even if he got a medical assist, he still finished some of the world's hardest events time after time. More validly, he emerged as one of the great domestiques in the sport's history, not just for Lance (a role that even in subordination relied on lots of juice) but for Mark Cavendish and now Philippe Gilbert. Hincapie has been a part of so many victories in his time they can scarcely be counted. Instinct and pack smarts have little or nothing to do with PEDs. If you're looking for a silver lining, it's that Hincapie the leadout guy was legit.
I hope Hincapie finds some relief and peace in his confession. Since he's retired I hope there's a nice life waiting for him. Unlike Armstrong, he's earned that through his decency. The USADA findings have removed him (officially and in my mind) from a number of distinguished records, and the damage to his career will never be undone. He's taken a piece of the sport's soul with him as he leaves in scandal, and that's a debt that he can't repay. He did it knowingly, for a long time, so I don't weep for Hincapie as his punishment takes hold. The real loss stems from the likelihood that, in a clean era, George Hincapie would have been a pretty awesome cyclist.