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Cafe Chat: George Hincapie's Last Best Classics Play

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This week's interview takes us to Greenville, South Carolina, home to America's greatest living classics racer and most durable Tour de France rider, Team BMC's George Hincapie. If it feels to American fans like we've known Hincapie forever, there's some truth to that. Hincapie burst onto the scene with his first European wins in 1994 for old friends Motorola, and since 1999 when he elevated himself into the top Cobbles echelon with a fourth in Paris-Roubaix, Hincapie has been an enduring presence at the tip of the spring spear.

If you only count major wins, Hincapie trails only Tyler Hamilton (Liege-Bastogne-Liege) in American classics prestige, but even without considering Hamilton's messy exit, his record can't keep pace with Big George. Apart from his 2003 win at Gent-Wevelgem, Hincapie has podiums in all of the Gent-Flanders-Roubaix triumvirate; wins in Driedaagse de Panne, GP Ouest France, and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne; a Flanders record of five top-tens including third; and a stellar run at Paris-Roubaix where he's bagged second, two fourths, and seven top-tens. This is a sustained run of excellence that many a Flandrian would dearly love to emulate, and if he's gotten a rep for bad luck on the cobbles, it's hard to expect you can enter these races for fourteen years and not take your lumps. Oh, and that's before we get into his Tour exploits... but those need little introduction here.

As he nears retirement (Hincapie speculates he may have one or two more Tours in him; you do the math), all that's left for George is that one signature win, something Americans know and that rolls off the tongue better than Gent-Wevelgem. Whether he finds satisfaction is up to the Gods of Cycling, but Hincapie plans to go out in style, and having fun. For 2010 he has jumped to the veteran, newly-reassembled BMC team, signing on the heels of 2007 Flanders winner Alessandro Ballan, young gun Marcus Burghardt, and the ubiquitous Karsten Kroon. Starting this week Hincapie embarks on another team-building exercise resembling his two highly successful years at Columbia -- only with hardened veterans instead of talented kids. No surprise that he calls this the best classics team he's ever been a part of.

We talked almost exclusively about the Classics, and by the end I came to remember an old familiar concept that I sometimes overlook when blogging, yet again, about the next Dutch teenager who's gonna take over the cycling world someday. Yep, it's that old saw... experience. After more than a dozen Tours of Flanders and Hells of the North, Hincapie has it in droves. This itself is an asset on the road, but it also gives Hincapie some very different perspectives from, say, Martijn Maaskant, on what makes the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix so great, and what it takes to win.

Read the whole shootin' match, on the Flip:

N.b., Hincapie can be a bit understated in interviews (before a race?), but for a guy taking a call from a strange blogger at his home, before boarding a flight to Australia, he was very relaxed, forthcoming, friendly, and thoughtful in his answers. I know talking to the media is part of their job, but much credit to him for doing it with real class.

On the New Squadra...

PdC: Your new BMC team, would you say this the strongest classics lineup you've ever been a part of?

GH: Yeah, actually I would. With guys like Ballan and Burghardt and Karsten Kroon and a couple of the other guys that definitely have the potential to be strong classics riders. I think we're going to line up with one of the top three, five teams in the whole peloton for sure in the classics.

PdC: As far as the team's purpose, are the classics more of a focus for BMC than any previous team that you've been on?

GH: Actually, I'd say it's pretty wide-range, just because it's an American and Swiss team, so obviously we're going to focus on the Tour of California, but the classics are the first major goal of the team for sure. And with the guys they've signed, they're definitely making a big investment to having a great team show up at the start of Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. Now also with having Cadel we have to start thinking about stage races as well, but the classics are a big focus for sure.

The Recipe for a Good Team...

PdC: At Columbia it took a year or thereabouts, mostly before you joined the team, for this team that was put together with a huge number of really talented guys with somewhat overlapping skills like Ciolek and Cavendish and Greipel -- it took them about a year to sort it out and really start winning. Now you're joining another team that has a lot of new faces coming in with similar classics focus. How do you meld that group of people into a unit and start winning, and can that be done in time for April?

GH: Well, there's a lot of factors. One is luck -- lots of times guys winning races just comes down to simple luck, but with the guys we have, I mean, it's obviously experienced guys that have been able to lead other teams. So I am assuming that the team is going to be able to gel together pretty well. You can't really predict when the first win will come, but hopefully it'll be sometime there in April, or even sooner in the smaller races. Being a new team, trying to make a name for itself, we want to start winning as soon as possible. But the classics are very important, and through these first couple races, the Tour Down Under and training camp, we'll be spending a lot of time together and talking about different roles of the riders, trying to really make sure everyone gets along and everyone has the same goal.

PdC: OK. How much can you talk about the roles in a race like the Tour of Flanders? Obviously you've got a former winner, a couple guys who've placed really highly including yourself. Do you try to get very specific about roles, or is it more general and you wait for the race to see who's ready to do what?

GH: Yeah, it'll be more general for sure. I mean, like you said, we've got guys who've placed high up, we've got a recent winner, so it just really depends on that day. Ideally you want to have three or four guys in the final group of five or ten guys, and then you have so many different cards to play, which I haven't really had that in the past. But I'm not going to go out and say the team is definitely going to work for me on that day, because you never know how you're going to feel. With guys like Ballan and Burghardt, I mean, these guys can win the race on their own as well. The good thing is that we have different cards to play and that we hope that everyone's feeling good. In a race like the Tour of Flanders, with 50k to go, that's when the real decisions are made, you know, like OK I'm feeling really good, or some years with 50k to go you're just dying, you've got nothing left.

Attacking the Belgian Armada...

PdC: So when you get to the last 50k and you've got Karsten and Ballan and yourself, Burghardt all still in contention, do you think that at that point you have the ability to take control of the race away from Quick Step? It seems like Quick Step has had total control the last couple years, but is it that if you've got three or four guys you can break up their hold?

GH: Yeah, definitely, you're right, they've controlled the race amazingly well the last couple, several years. But when you have three or four guys you can definitely match with their tactics a lot more. Not only with 50k to go but 70k to go the Oude Kwaremont there's a crucial section right before the Koppenberg where lots of breakawars go away. You know, those are the moves where you want to try to get some of our strong guys in, cause then you're in a less defensive role and you can kind of hope that that break may make it, you don't have to work to get back up there if you have a strong guy in there. We'll be looking to get in those kinds of moves for sure.

PdC: Is the key to have guys that Quick Step is worried can win? I mean, it's nice to have four guys up there, but they have to be guys Quick Step is concerned about, right?

GH: Yes, of course, but you know, last year they sent Chavanel up the road, so they've been doing that as well, putting guys up there that can win the race, if the break makes it, on their own. It's a very strategic race, but it also happens to be one if not the hardest race on our schedule.

My Inevitable "Flanders or Roubaix?" Questions...

PdC: In terms of how hard it is, how do you compare it to Paris-Roubaix?

GH: They're both grueling, very, very difficult., but Flanders is a bit different in that there is flat cobblestones, then there's hilly cobblestones, then there's just normal hills, so the rhythm changes that your body goes through is pretty extreme. Whereas in Roubaix you've got 100k flat, then you've got cobblestone sections the rest of the way in. So there's rhythm changes but not so great as there is in the Tour of Flanders. But Roubaix is just more of a race of atttrition, who's got it in the end can just make those final 10k, 20k, 30k attack, whereas Flanders is more sprinting out of corners or sprinting up these climbs, or powering out these cobblestone climbs, lots more downhills, a lot more technical, small roads in Flanders. Whereas Roubaix also has small roads, but they're straighter, not as many corners, not as much jumping and doing those real, real short, hard accelerations.

PdC: Are there people who benefit from these rhythm changes or is that an obstacle for everybody? Are there guys who handle it better than others?

GH: Yeah, there's definitely guys that show up to the race at 100% of their fitness and that are really focused on the classics, it's normally better for them. You can see other cyclists in the races before that are winning, they're riding really strong up to 200k, but then you hit the Tour of Flanders and it's 260k. Many times you'll see a whole different group of riders be successful, just because of the distance and the endurance you need to go through that kind of effort.

PdC: I apologize, I didn't ask my question very well. Among the elite contenders for the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix you have a lot of the same guys.

GH: Ah, got it.

PdC: So what I'm asking is if, for each rider, they might have a tendency more toward one race or the other?

GH: There is, for some riders, they'll focus a lot more on Flanders than on Paris-Roubaix. I mean, look at Stijn Devolder, he's normally a lot stronger for Flanders than for Paris-Roubaix. But it all depends. Some of these guys, they're racing in their own back yard, that makes their motivation a lot stronger for Flanders or Paris-Roubaix. Or, like, Bettini, for instance, was always really strong in Flanders because of all those little jumps and different accelerations you have to do throughout the day, whereas Roubaix, he never even raced it.

PdC: So the Tour of Flanders actually favors maybe a smaller body type?

GH: No, I wouldn't say that, just because there's all kinds of riders that have won that race.

Elevating G-W...

PdC: OK. So, Gent-Wevelgem has moved to the prior Sunday. Does that make it an objective for you?

GH: Yeah, it's a lot longer now, and it's a week away from Tour of Flanders, so it's going to be a much... I wouldn't say a much bigger race but it's probably a lot harder cause it's 50k more, 40 or 50k, which is a big difference in such a hard race. And it's not directly after the Tour of Flanders so the guys will be fresh, the classics guys will be at their top form.

PdC: Is there a choice you have to make in terms of going all out in Gent-Wevelgem, or is having a week between the three major classics enough time so that you can go all out, recover, and then go all out again two more times?

GH: Yeah, it should be enough. I think it'll actually be pretty good, you know, I'll do Milan San Remo, I have a week off and do Gent Wevelgem, then have week off. I think it's good to get those sort of long distances in before my biggest race of the year, Roubaix.

Hey, What About MSR?

PdC: Have you ever really gone for Milan-San Remo? I didn't really have the ability to watch you earlier in your career, but with your focus on the Flemish Classics and Paris-Roubaix, have you had the ability to go for Milan San Remo, or is that too soon?

GH: I've been top ten a couple times. I've never been... I think the best I've done was, actually I can't remember, I think I was fifth or sixth once, but I'm not sure. [Laughs] You might be checking...

PdC: I can look it up! [Sorry, it was ninth]

GH: Yeah, you can probably look it up. It's a great race, there's no reason not to for it, it's still plenty of time away, and it's right after Tirreno-Adriatico, and it's a good way to test yourself. But you know, that sprint is usually pretty hectic.

Old Dog. New Tricks?

PdC: You've ridden Flanders and Roubaix each over a dozen times. Do you still learn anything from these races, or did you reach the point years ago where you knew all there was to know.

GH: You still learn. I mean, I've done it many times, but you still do little mistakes. Last year, for instance, when I flatted I just went to move up in a corner, and I just took a little bit of a risk and got off the crown of the cobbles and went to the side of the road, and sure enough I flatted right there. So looking back on that moment that was a big mistake because I really didn't have to move up. We were going really slow and I was in the top ten, top fifteen position, which is totally fine. But in Roubaix there's always that fine line in being too far back. Sometimes you'll miss that split of five guys, and I'm always very conscious of being up there, and I'm usually there when the split goes. But this time I tried to move up at the wrong time in the wrong place and that was the end of my race. So I'm saying that I learned to probably calculate my risk a little bit more, every year you learn about that race more.

Battle Stories from Arenberg...

PdC: Talking about positioning battles, in talking to other riders, one thing I'm beginning to understand is the importance of the earlier positioning battles and the effort that it takes, expecially in a race like Paris-Roubaix that runs hot for a long time. Does having 3-4 really strong guys make it easier to achieve that kind of positioning when you've got fifty guys trying to be in that top ten before the Forest of Arenberg?

GH: Yeah, it does. In Columbia we actually had some great guys for that. But that's definitely one of my strong points, when it comes to being in a crucial section like Arenberg or whether there's a cobblestone section in the Tour de France, you'll always see me right there in the first five. And that's something that, honestly, it's tough to learn or teach that, you just kind of have to have the feeling of where you are in the bunch and also not to spend too much energy doing it. So, it's tough, you watch the top guys, they're all usually really good at that and usually the same guys are entering that section first. So, having a strong team definitely helps, but at that section, the Arenberg, you know, sometimes you have to rely on just yourself and using other teams, because it's such a crucial point of the race that sometimes you're left without teammates. This year I'd assume we'd have a couple more guys there than normal.

PdC: So that sense of positioning, that's something you've had to develop through experience over the years?

GH: Yeah, for sure.

Move Over, Joop?

PdC: OK. Just a couple more. Turning to the Tour de France, I see that you're nearing Joop Zoetemelk's record for the most Tours completed. Is that something that you think about or that interests you, or you take pride in?

GH: I definitely take pride in having done fourteen Tours de France. Every year I finish it's , god, it's such a hard event, people who haven't done it, I don't know if you can uunderstand how hard it is. So I definitely take pride in that. A lot of people have sometimes criticized me, you know, I end the season early or I start the season late or I don't do a hundred races a year, I do 75 races. But yeah, I've done 14 Tours de France. So to me that means a lot, I'm very proud of that. Am I trying to break or tie the record? No. But I'm in the position where hopefully I can do one or two more, and it's a matter of me still loving to ride my bike and I'm really grateful to be in the position I'm in.

Hincapie Designs

PdC: One last question, have you debuted your USA stars and stripes kit yet?

GH: Yeah, I have, I've been wearing it every day, I've twittered a couple photos of it. The team has not, the team is waiting to do the team kit until Down Under, I believe.

PdC: Did you have a hand in the design since it's your company? [Hincapie Sportswear produces the BMC kits.]

GH: The team design?

PdC: No, your particular ...

GH: My national champs kit, yes we did. We had a big hand in design. They had to approve it and they changed some things, but we had a big hand in that.

***

If you're not starting to get excited about the Classics in 2010, then I really suck at my job here. As we've been discussing, you have the newly strengthened Garmin team, led by the consistent contender Maaskant and reinforced with some formerly missing pieces. You have the known quantities like Pozzato and the Quick Step boys and hot picks from last year like Gilbert and Boasson Hagen. Then, from BMC, comes a different but very traditional cobbles threat, the team of canny warhorses. Hincapie's results last spring were disappointing, and yet there is no reason to look past him, even at age 36. The Gods of Cycling have frowned on him often enough in springtime, as they must eventually do to all who dare ascend the bergs and cobbles year after year. Don't be shocked if they look back over his years of achievement and decide it's time to smile on Big George.