George Hincapie is back home in Girona Spain, recovering from his best season yet. With only two races left on his program, he’s relaxed and happy to chat, but he really comes alive when I ask about the day he won the Tour’s toughest stage…
The first time I interviewed George was a couple years ago, and since I’d never actually met him – I was somewhat nervous about talking to such a big name in racing. But it was nothing a shot of tequila couldn’t fix… Last Thursday morning I fired off an email to George requesting a chat, and his reply arrived minutes later… Soon the connection was made to his home in Spain…
We’ve talked a few times, but this day he was noticeably more relaxed, and more animated in his answers. Maybe it‘s because the pressure of his season is behind him, maybe it’s because he’s back home with his family, maybe it’s because his confidence is just a little bigger at this point in his career…
Whatever the reason – it makes for our best interview yet…
Good thing George has the winter kit, he’s gonna need it riding in the Canadian Rockies at the Tour of Courage… (psst – don’t anyone tell him we’ll be riding ski-doos this year…)
PEZ: So you’re back in Girona almost through a huge season, where are you at now in terms of your racing for the year?
George:…Ha – I’m pretty much done! I’ve got just three races left – San Sebastien, Plouay and San Francisco… I’m pretty exhausted. I’d like to try and do well in those races, but… I’m not feeling great [laughing] right now…
PEZ: So when you’re not feeling “great” – versus when you’re really on – what’s that difference like for you?
George:Just feeling tired. I traveled too much after the Tour for a lot of apearances, so it wasn’t the best for recovery. But I had a good Tour and a good race before the Tour – two months where I was really at top level – and it’s hard for your body to stay there. I can feel it on training rides, or a climb that I’m used to doing – you can feel the difference in pace from when you’re tired versus feeling good.
PEZ: How long a rest period do you need before you’re recovered?
George: Probably a couple weeks. Normally about 3 weeks after the Tour I start feeling okay, but this year I’ve been training super-hard since December basically – with a week off after Roubaix – but I’ve been really on top of my training and my diet since December… so now I’m starting to think about next year…
PEZ:For these final three races, are you feeling like you can gun for some wins or podiums. Or are have you used up your fastest days this year…?
George: [laughing] …I’ve probably used them already… you never know, but if the way I feel now is any indication…
”MY BEST SEASON EVER”
PEZ:This has been a pretty good season for you – how do you rate it?
George: Yeah, I think it’s been my best season ever. I started off early with the win in Kuurne – in really nasty conditions, snowy weather – I’m sure everybody in Canada can appreciate that! I think it was 30F and snowing at some points. That’s probably not a big deal where you guys are from [more laughing], but if you’re doing a 200km race in Belgium… that’s tough!
I missed out winning Roubaix, which I really wanted to win, but I was very content with the way I raced it, and at the end of that race I thought to myself that there was nothing I could have done differently, that I raced the perfect race. I was in the break with the wrong guy and he was just faster than me the last 200m of the race. It wasn’t one of those races where I finished and I went ‘oh, what if I did this or that’, I was happy with the way I rode it.
PEZ: When it was you and Boonen in the final, were you thinking back to 2002 when you were riding together and you crashed, and he went on to win the podium?
George: Oh no. When that happened… I was so bonked (Yelp! -in the background)
… sorry, my dog… I was so bonked in that race that I could barely stay upright on my bike… I wasn’t thinking about winning the race, I was wondering if I could get to the finish. This year was a totally different mindset. Until the last few meters I thought I could win, even though I was with one of the fastest guys in the world, but I was feeling good and I was gonna fight for it to the end.
PEZ:The Tour – It was great to watch and it blows me away to think that 7 years in a row, you guys have won that thing… it’s been such a winning streak that I can’t even remember all those races…
George: Oh I can’t either! – people ask me all the time but they just sort of blend together. But I’m the same way as you – I cannot believe that Lance has won 7 Tours. The last seven years most people just assume he’s gonna win, but it’s really an impossible assumption, because there is sooo much that goes on in the Tour de France – it’s so hard, and so dangerous, and so many things that can happen that to me, to this day, it’s still incredible that he won all those Tours.
PEZ: How was the race this year compared to other years?
George: The race was harder, more aggressive. Definitely. There were a lot of teams that were gunning for stage wins, and it seemed like everybody wanted to be in the breakaway everyday. The speeds were incredibly high. At the same time I felt better than ever, stronger than ever, and I had my best Tour ever. [Ed note: George was 14th overall at 23’40”]
HOW TO WIN THE TOUGHEST TOUR STAGE
PEZ: I gotta ask you about your ‘mountain’ stage win! Stage 15, the race’s toughest stage over 6 huge passes… can you take us through the day?
George: Well, I got in the breakaway just to get a head start, so I could be up the road to help Lance later. The day before Telekom attacked really hard at the bottom of a climb… I forget the name of it… and everybody was saying ‘the team blew up, the team blew up!’ – but it wasn’t true. There was NOBODY left with Lance – there was only Ullrich, and Vinokourov, no teams had more than two guys except Telekom, and Vino was blowing up and getting dropped…
So it wasn’t the best tactic, but anyway everybody said that we weren’t there for him… so the next day, it was very hard, very hilly, lots of strong guys trying to get away. And I went up to Lance and said ‘is it okay if I try to get in a breakaway, get a little head start and I’ll be there for you at the end’,… and he says: ‘sure! no problem’.
But it’s not like you can just “go” in the breakaway… it’s very hard to get in a breakaway in the Tour de France. There’s a lot involved, and you have to go super hard to make the right move, you gotta judge your efforts, go with the right attacks, the right guys…
PEZ: That’s good sidebar – so you got the okay from Lance, and you’re watching all these attacks going – how do you know which is the right move?
George: Well, that’s the thing. It was so hard already – the field was already split up from these tough 1km, 2km climbs… To make a breakaway on flat days is very hard, but it also requires a lot of luck. There’s always a time when the peloton will sit up for a second and the guys are gone. Making a breakaway on a hillier day is more about whether you have the power… if you’re feeling good and you’re on a great day, and you get with 5 guys who are really strong and they go at a point where it’s really hard – like a shorter climb that’s really steep – a break like that is very hard to make, but it’s easier tactically because it’s only the strong guys who can go.
And I knew that this day there were going to be strong guys in the break because it was a hilly stage that started off super fast on some hard roads, there was a breakaway right before I talked to Lance, that I guess Rabobank wasn’t happy with ‘cause they were chasing it down, and the field was totally strung out – everybody was suffering…
I knew that this break was gonna get caught, and I knew that something was gonna go pretty soon right after that. So I talked to Lance and he said ‘okay’, and then 10 guys went up the road, and I went across with Dekker and an Italian guy, and we caught up and I said ‘Sweet! I made the break!’
I knew the stage was super-hard, and I knew the climbs well enough that I thought I’d be fine. The day before on the climb to Courcheval and the Galibier, I’d pretty much dropped all the guys in the break, so I knew it was a great situation.
And we gained 10 minutes, then all of a sudden we have 18 minutes and Dirk came up to me and says ‘George – I don’t think you guys are coming back – you can do this race.’ So I’m like ‘oh oh – wait a second!’ Here I was thinking the whole time that I was just gonna sit up and wait for Lance and then we get a huge time gap, and we still have a 100km to go, but I start thinking – ‘I wonder if I can actually race this race?’
It’s usually never my call, so when Dirk said that it got me all excited… but I had good legs, and I knew it was a long way to go. We still had the Peyresourde ahead of us before the last climb, and I knew it was there the break would break up, and I’d get a confirmation if I was good, or not.
And that’s exactly what happened. At the bottom of that climb, Karsten Kroon and the other guy started sprinting, and they were basically doing everything they could for Boogerd, and they shattered the break – there was only 5 guys left. THEN I knew – I didn’t know that I was gonna win – but I knew I had a really good chance. Dirk came up to me a couple of times, and he thought I was suffering – but I wasn’t, I was very within myself.
PEZ: In the final climb, when it was down to just you and Periero, what was the pace like, were you hangin on, or being a bit more cagey…?
George: Well, I was actually more worried about Boogerd, since the days before I’d out-climbed both Periero and Boogerd – who’s won a mountain stage in a Tour before, and he was ‘my’ favorite.
The climb is so steep, it’s not like you can really sit on anyway – it’s like 11%.
Periero actually told me the next day, that he thought there was no way I could stay with him on the climb – which is definitely a big mistake because I was probably climbing better than him in the stages before… But he was also super-confidant, and was probably thinking a bit about the overall… and he thought that I’d get dropped.
He tried to attack me a couple of times, but I closed the gaps fairly easily… In fact he told me the next day that when he saw me come back he knew it was over… Once you hit 3km to go on Pla d’Adet, you take a left turn and it’s not that hard anymore, probably 5-6%.
PEZ: The fans on that last climb were pretty wild – how aware of that were you?
George: Yeah – the fans were crazy! They’re getting’ in your face, and they’re pushing on you, and waving flags and throwing water and screaming at you. The whole time you’re just thinkin: ‘oh man don’t hit my handlebars!’ I was thinking two things: one – I’m gonna win a stage of the Tour de France, and two – please don’t hit my handlebars!
PEZ: And now they have those inflatable whackers – they’re like little baseball bats…
George: Yeah – exactly! I looked at the clock, and it said 6:06:38, and I looked down and it hit me when I saw it say 00:00:00 – and I was just ‘wow!” I’ve never seen that before on a mountain stage – normally I see 10 minutes, 15 minutes…!
LIFE AFTER LANCE
PEZ: Has it sunk in for you guys on the team what it’s gonna be like without Lance around?
George: …Ummm… well you know it’s gonna be very different at the Tour de France, that’s for sure. And the month before the Tour where I spend a lot of time with Lance and we’ve become … great friends over the last… I don’t know how many years… 15 years and we’ve shared this Tour de France experience, which is a story that you would never think possible… The bond that Lance and I have is pretty great, and it would be impossible to ever… experience something like that again… at least for me. I’ll never have a teammate, or a friend like that … ever. It’s gonna be tough for me to be without him in those races.
There’s never gonna be another Lance. You know, everybody says who’s gonna be the next Lance – is it this guy or that guy, well… the bad news is… there IS no next Lance!
But we have a lot of talented riders, and next year at the Tour we’ll be there fighting for stages and a high place in the overall. It’s still exciting stuff, and I hope people will continue to follow American cycling…
Through most of our conversation, George’s 9 month old daughter has been making noise in the background..
PEZ: Now I can hear the sounds of fatherhood in the background… how’s that part of your life going?
George: Oh, it’s great! In fact, it’s the best thing that’s happened to me – ever! It’s tough to be away from home. But Johan gave me some time off so I’m able to be home and spend more time with her…
PEZ: Mrs. Pez and I are expecting our first in February – any advice for a father-to-be? … will I ever ride again?
George: Oh Wow – congratulations…! Well, once they come, you get this whole new sense of purpose in life… it’s like all the questions get answered. And get ready to enjoy having your baby around. … and you’ll be able to ride, yeah.
PEZ: Thanks for your time George and we’ll look forward to seeing you in Calgary for the Tour of Courage.
George: Yeah that’s gonna be great – I’m looking forward to it!
See George’s website at: www.GeorgeHincapie.com