The Experienced Mr. Hincapie

George Hincapie - photo Luc Claessen

Experience is something that we can only develop over time. We take it to imply there is some associated wisdom, garnered principally through those experiences that contributed that wisdom through hardship of some kind. As a society, we also refer to this as “learning from our mistakes”; mistakes make a much more convincing guide than does success.

I happen to be a semi-professional mistake-makerer, although I do feel as though I should have much more wisdom in my bones than I demonstrate. It sometimes feels as though all I make are mistakes. One gigantic snowball of mistakes that continues to build on itself with each successive heave down the snowy slope of life. At times, I fully comprehend the mistake as I’m making it, but soldier forth in the misguided hope that it will somehow work out for me despite my imminent failure. Other times, I’ll be certain that I’m right and true, only to discover later my fallacy.

The severity of all this mistake-making is lessened somewhat if one is able to learn from their mistakes and convert it into something resembling wisdom, as I optimistically believe I am. In fact, learning from my many mistakes is perhaps one of my greatest talents; it seems this particular  skill helps me forge long-lasting relationships and hold down jobs without getting fired for sucking so much.

George Hincapie and I have in common the fact that we are both “experienced”. But it is in this last respect, that of learning from one’s mistakes, that George Hincapie and I differ, aside from athletic ability and, I’m assuming, body odor. It is for this reason that being his fan necessitates that one be a masochist. Our hopes rise each season and for each classic, yet every time our hopes are crushed as we watch helplessly as he misses the opportunity to win.

Here is a rider of immense talent, not to mention America’s best hope for victory over the stones of Belgium and Northern France. As his career draws to a close, his huge potential remains unfulfilled. With one exception, when the stakes were highest, Big George repeated a chronic string of mistakes. Time and again, he would let the critical move go, look around for others to take initiative as the race exploded ahead, would mysteriously disappear from the front, or simply fall into a ditch.

A rider needs luck to win at the classics, but the most successful riders seem to make their own luck. Hincapie faltered each time victory was within his grasp, yet always found a locus of responsibility that lay outside himself. With the exception of his snapped steerer in the 2006 Roubaix, by and large, his were missed opportunities, with the prefect example being Stage 14 of the 2009 Tour. Hincapie was in a break which was set to place him into the Yellow Jersey when Sergei Ivanov broke free 10 or so kilometers from the line.

The bunch was bearing down on the group, and the gap was dropping quickly. As the gap neared the critical point where George might lose the buffer required to end the day in Yellow, he sat in the group and looked around for another to take up the chase. The bunch continued it’s unstoppable march and, sure enough, Yellow was missed by a scant 5 seconds. Afterwards, a downtrodden and bitter Hincapie blamed the Astana and Garmin teams for chasing too hard and stealing the jersey from him when in reality he squandered his chance by sitting on rather than taking the initiative to chase himself.

The Cobbled Spring Classics are one of the pinacles of our sport, and riders who specialize in these brutal races are few in number. Unless you’re Belgian, most countries boast few riders who are able to ride over the stones and stay in one piece, fewer still manage to arrive at the finish. Rare is the rider who can do so consistently. George Hincapie is the only American rider I can think of who fit this mold, and I’ve always loved him for it. But sadly he’s lacked the je ne sais quoi that would see him outmaneuver, outgun, or outsmart his opponents.

But I never stopped hoping. On the occasions that he arrived at the finish with the scent of victory on the handlebars, the excitement was palpable. Setting foot on the podium did nothing but bolster my belief that he would one day take either the Ronde or Roubaix, and it is sad that there appears to be little hope of seeing him atop the podium as his retirement seems imminent. It would have been glorious to see him atop the podium in Meerbeke or Roubaix, and if he races again next year, I will, against my better judgement, hold high expectations for him. So much for learning from my mistakes.

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89 Replies to “The Experienced Mr. Hincapie”

  1. I happen to be a semi-professional mistake-makerer

    Just spent the weekend mounting an ovoid on a fixie. I’ll just let that sink in…

  2. Did you crop his feet so we couldn’t see the shoe covers?

    Big George looks damn PRO in that picture though. Seriously sharp. He looks much better than Cadel. Though can Bat Boy, errr…Cadel look sharp in anything? I was appalled at how bad the Tirreno leader’s jersey looked on him:
    Cadel in sky blue

  3. @Collin
    What’s with the gratuitous Cadel-bashing in the second post of what wad clearly intended to be a bagging session of Big George?

    Hoping for George (even as a non-American I do it) reminds me a little of my younger years watching Greg Norman play US Majors – just wanting him to win just one. I am still getting over the 96 Masters…

  4. Well said, Frank. As an unabashed Big George homer (as stated before, Greenville native), I’ve gotten to the point where the anguish at watching yet another missed opportunity is not only dreaded, but expected. What makes the sting that much sharper is the fact that George is such a good guy. Yes, I know it’s been said, but he’s not just a nice, approachable fellow as PROs go. The man cares, and he backs it up with his time and money. He actively participates in the community, raising awareness, showing up for and putting on races (he’ll show up to shell the regional pros in Hincapie spring series in February in the middle of a training day) and even showing up for charity rides in the offseason to help raise money for local wrenches and bike shop people with medical issues. Because of George, locals like Craig Lewis and Chris Butler are in the Giro right now (at least until Chris crashed out), and more are on the way (keep an eye out for Andy Baker with Bissell who just won an NCAA championship for his college team).

    Maybe it’s the fact that I grew up a Red Sox fan and saw them slay the dragon in 2004, but I can’t help but to let hope spring eternal for our man. He rips my heart out every April, but I will keep coming back until he’s done. There are worse examples to want to emulate.

  5. @Brett
    I would add a few more differences such world no. 1 for years on end and two British Opens. But as to personalities Shark is probably more COTHO than Big George.

    As to Franks call on learning from mistakes , you can get two types of learning-15 seasons of exprience or one season’s experience 15 times

  6. Well said Frank!
    I’m a very old fan of him, I’d say since the beginning, since he turned pro.
    He is the precise case where I like what he could win and not what he actually won.
    I think it’s a fantastic thing after many, many years of disappointments that we don’t give up on him.

  7. @Bo
    Completely off topic, but the NCAA and collegiate cycling are two different things. If NCAA ran it instead of USAC, guys like Andy Baker wouldn’t be allowed to participate. In fact, anyone who received prize money from cycling (even a Cat 4) would technically be ineligible.

  8. @Pedale.Forchetta, @Bo, @Brett
    And that’s one of the really tough things about George; I’ve never met him but I know a guy really well who raced with him back even as juniors and he was even then the nicest guy ever. I’ve literally (not figuratively) never heard anyone say anything other than that he’s just an Aces guy.

    I just wish he liked getting on podiums more than he liked making excuses.

    And, of course, there’s just the easy freebies like the wearing of the shoe covers all the time, and the shots around like this

    or this

    or this

    but for each of those, there’s one of these:

    or these

    On the bike, so long as there’s not a finish line involved, he’s nothing but PRO. Off the bike…well…

  9. Frank. Well written as always. I have to concur with everything except the 2009 st14 reference. George was instumental in driving that break most of the day, and by the end when Ivanov was one of several riders making breaks, for me it wasn’t a case of George choosing the wrong wheel to follow, but more a case of him having to get to the line in the shortest possible time, ie find his tempo and hopefully get some help – which i think under the circumstances he did. What happened behind was another story, and i think George learnt a lot from it. Yet more experience….

  10. @frank… great article. I ride with a guy who used to be a US-National Team rider and ex-pro, who rode a lot with Big George. I made the fatal mistake of calling Big George a pussy on a ride one day… the withering look I got back was only the start… the lecture that followed (dished out on the biggest climb of the day, where I was in bits, and this guy wasn’t even out of breath as he berated my ignorance)… in his view, Big George is one of the hardest men he’s ever ridden with… his point was there are two things: 1. your talent; 2. your ability to push yourself… there are many people with lots of 1. who fall down because they lack 2. His view of George was that he actually doesn’t have as much of 1. as people think, because he has bucket loads of 2…. and in his career he has far surpassed what could reasonably be expected of him to achieve given his ok-ish (in respect to the rest of his peers in the peloton) talent… I like this description of him, as it gives all of us average (in respect to the other middle aged fat people who live in London) men hope that by laying down enough of the V we can overcome our physiological shortcomings….

    A good tribute to a great guy. My heart went out to him in 2009: it would have been nice for him to wear yellow again.. he’s spent his grand tours in the service of others, and that is noble

  11. By the way.. you can tell he’s getting old. here’s a photo of him at the start of this year’s Ronde Von Vlaanderen… look at those varicose veins. Zimmer frame next?

  12. Frank I hate to be a pedant (well on here anyway, most other places and people are fair game) but…

    The phrase is ‘je ne sais quois’ rather than ‘je ne c’est quois’. I’m no linguist but it is one of the few bits of French I know – from the verb savoir, meaning ‘to know’, where we also get the term ‘savoir faire’ or knowing what to do.

    I’ve noticed the same usage once before but thought it might have been a simple slip. I only mention it in the Velominati spirit of doing all things correctly :-)

  13. roadslave:
    @frank… great article. I ride with a guy who used to be a US-National Team rider and ex-pro, who rode a lot with Big George. I made the fatal mistake of calling Big George a pussy on a ride one day… the withering look I got back was only the start… the lecture that followed (dished out on the biggest climb of the day, where I was in bits, and this guy wasn’t even out of breath as he berated my ignorance)… in his view, Big George is one of the hardest men he’s ever ridden with… his point was there are two things: 1. your talent; 2. your ability to push yourself… there are many people with lots of 1. who fall down because they lack 2. His view of George was that he actually doesn’t have as much of 1. as people think, because he has bucket loads of 2…. and in his career he has far surpassed what could reasonably be expected of him to achieve given his ok-ish (in respect to the rest of his peers in the peloton) talent… I like this description of him, as it gives all of us average (in respect to the other middle aged fat people who live in London) men hope that by laying down enough of The V we can overcome our physiological shortcomings….
    A good tribute to a great guy. My heart went out to him in 2009: it would have been nice for him to wear yellow again.. he’s spent his grand tours in the service of others, and that is noble

    I like this post a lot.

  14. @ChrisO
    A friend of mine, on being corrected on some minor detail by a work colleague, asked him whether he had a degree in pedantism. ‘Pedantry, actually’ came the response.

  15. roadslave:
    @frank… great article. I ride with a guy who used to be a US-National Team rider and ex-pro, who rode a lot with Big George. I made the fatal mistake of calling Big George a pussy on a ride one day… the withering look I got back was only the start… the lecture that followed (dished out on the biggest climb of the day, where I was in bits, and this guy wasn’t even out of breath as he berated my ignorance)… in his view, Big George is one of the hardest men he’s ever ridden with… his point was there are two things: 1. your talent; 2. your ability to push yourself… there are many people with lots of 1. who fall down because they lack 2. His view of George was that he actually doesn’t have as much of 1. as people think, because he has bucket loads of 2…. and in his career he has far surpassed what could reasonably be expected of him to achieve given his ok-ish (in respect to the rest of his peers in the peloton) talent… I like this description of him, as it gives all of us average (in respect to the other middle aged fat people who live in London) men hope that by laying down enough of The V we can overcome our physiological shortcomings….
    A good tribute to a great guy. My heart went out to him in 2009: it would have been nice for him to wear yellow again.. he’s spent his grand tours in the service of others, and that is noble

    I’m kind of confused. The V community are pretty agreed, I thought, that “Pharmstrong” was on kind of go-go juice, yeh? Hence that nickname, along with COTHO (although that’s personality-based as well, I’m sure). In the Lexicon, the definition of Pharmstrong says “his organization could easily have doubled as a pharmaceutical business”. George is the one(?) constant in that organisation, as far as riders went.
    So…
    What’s the verdict on Georgie?

  16. @jb
    yeah I had actually been wondering about that, given how the NCAA is such a stuckup twit about such things. thanks for the clarification.

  17. @G’phant

    Oooh I bet he enjoyed that.

    It’s defensive for me. I wouldn’t say my wife is a pedant but she gets very worked up about simple mistakes like apostrophes and the use of ‘less’ instead of ‘fewer’. And don’t get her started on subject-verb agreement. Our children squirm but they are better people for it, and I have to watch myself ;-)

    She also speaks pretty good French with a nice accent whereas mine is barely schoolboy and like something out of Allo Allo.

    So I say things like “The Tour is going over Croix de Fer today” or something of the sort, and she looks at me like I’m a toddler trying to articulate quantum theory. Then she makes me repeat it and puts on a face of slow but kindly enlightenment before saying “Ah you mean Croix de Fer” in EXACTLY the same way I said it. I’m with the kids on that one.

  18. Funny timing for this article, as I just made my first mistake of the day by asking my computer to cooperate and submit a line-up change for my Giro VSP. It subsequently froze & I missed the cut-off. Annoying, but oh well.

    I have learned from this already – the VMH has a Macbook Pro and the thing never, ever goes haywire. Now…if I could just stop putting all my money into bikes, I could buy a computer that works well more often.

    As I’m about to pour money into a CX bike, I guess I’ll ride top-notch machines & put up with crappy computers.

    Nice write up, Frank!

  19. ChrisO:
    @G’phant
    Oooh I bet he enjoyed that.
    It’s defensive for me. I wouldn’t say my wife is a pedant

    I would hope not mate! It’s a pretty crazy thing to say that your wife has the hots for little kids. You should be ashamed of yourself.

    NB. Clearly it’s a flat stage today and I am bored.

  20. @Nof Landrien, @Blah
    It’s not so much an issue of is he a doper or not; it’s the arrogance and assholeishness of Pharmy that makes us hate him so. I think the two massive Pharmapricks were Bruyneel and Armstrong; many of the teammates – if they were doping (probably) – were just doing what they were told. There’s a difference, even if they’re still cheats.

    Personally, I think there were (are?) very few riders who didn’t dope during the Armstrong era, so to be a fan of any rider of that time means to accept the fact that doping was going on. But to lump a genuinely nice guy in with an asshole like Armstrong is a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Big George is obviously not a doping mastermind, so if he doped, I’m going to be pretty lenient on him. Seems clean enough these days, anyway.

  21. @beev
    What I’m talking about there is really the last couple K’s before the finish when Ivanov was up the road and George was sitting on, looking around for others to work. Those were the critical moments and the moments when the difference is made between winning and losing. That’s all.

  22. @ChrisO
    I appreciate the feedback; anything to suck less at French. I can kind of sort of get by speaking, but don’t really have the writing down…it’s all pretty much sounds to me, so I easily get “sais” and “c’est” confused. And enough people on the Google make the same mistake, so it’s hard to validate it in the 3-second window I give myself to “research” facts. Thanks.

  23. The father of my godchildren is from North Carolina and they will eventually move back there. He always says that when they move back my wife and I have to move with them. We probably will because nothing is really keeping us here, the riding/racing/weather is better in N.C. and the chances of running into Big George out on a ride jump exponentially.

  24. @frank
    i think what annoys me most about Pharmy is that he’s managed to sell this image of himself as being the greatest cyclist of all time to the unwashed masses, which is violently wrong in my opinion

    anyway back on subject, this is something which is unfortunately inherent in British sport, the english football team, rugby team and the worst kind of this ‘letting chances slip’ is Tim Henman, makes me want to cry sometimes

    on the upside, the British Cycling seems to be bucking this trend, so there is hope

  25. Cyclops – I’m in NC, been here on & off for 3 years, now here since last January on a permanent basis. Coming from upstate NY, it is nice to lose the snow. I also left my rollers behind. But, I will say that the summer can be a scorcher. Last year we had a record number of days of 100*F, something like 65. And we had 100 days over 90*F. (yeah, it was a hot summer all over last year)

    Spring is all of a few weeks. May, June, July, August, and September can be rough.

    That said, I can’t really complain. Plenty of good riding, plenty of other cool cyclists. A bit flat for my liking, but you can’t have it all. And then again, I haven’t gotten to the mountains in western NC yet. And when I’m not cycling, 2.5 hours to the beach for a swim & surf. Love to get up to VA for some of the Blue Ridge Parkway this summer.

    Oh, and going to race some cross this fall. Friends have told me there will be over ten races within an hour of me. Not bad, not bad.

    Overall, NC is pretty good for cycling. But then again, so was upstate NY. The winters make it harder there though for a dedicated road cyclist.

  26. frank:
    @Nof Landrien, @Blah
    It’s not so much an issue of is he a doper or not; it’s the arrogance and assholeishness of Pharmy that makes us hate him so. I think the two massive Pharmapricks were Bruyneel and Armstrong; many of the teammates – if they were doping (probably) – were just doing what they were told. There’s a difference, even if they’re still cheats.

    I agree, pretty much. Not necessarily on the specifics of each rider I see discussed here, but on the point that it’s largely down to personality. The sport is so full of doubts that very few confirmed positives would surprise me these days; much less so revelations from the past (noone ever, ever tell me Jens doped. That would kill me).
    For the record, I’m a bit of a fan of Captain Georgie, as my wife calls him. I always liked Jan, the wonderful coked-up pork pie, and still do. I never liked Millar (jr). He’s essentially Andy Murray on a bike; they’re both tossers.
    It’s pretty sad when you think about it, removing whether someone is a dirty, lying cheat from the equation. But strangely liberating, too. Gotta be a cycling fan to understand that, maybe.

  27. @Ron
    Summer can be super rough down here, but I can attest to the quality of the terrain, especially in Western NC and the Upstate of SC, both on the road and on the trail. Plenty of climbing, and the higher you go, the cooler the temps.

    @Cyclops
    Just a little over a week ago, I was out getting in the required “age in miles” ride on my birthday and passed George blasting away in the other direction on his TT bike, getting ready for ATOC. Even got a wave from him. Just another day in the life of a cyclist around here. Feel free to join us any time!

  28. I first became aware of Hincapie ‘through the grapevine’ was back when I raced, as this talented kid from NYC (Queens, to be exact).

    My club used to put on a crit in Danbury Ct. every year and he showed up once to race the 123 field(!) probably when he was still with the Mengoni team in NY. He didn’t win, but as I remember he podiumed.

    About two years later he was on Motorola and racing Pro in Europe. This always blew me away.

    He still makes it back to the Big Apple sometimes to support a local shop or an important cause. I’ve never heard a bad word about the guy.

  29. @Ron
    I think the site was down last night. I couldn’t get on from my Dell, my wife’s Mac, or my blackberry.

  30. @pakrat
    Wow. Just…wow.

    @Ron, @Bo, @Cyclops
    I lived in Charlotte for 6 months and hated it. I actually quit riding; something about combining a general hatred for cyclists with NASCAR fans that made us easy targets. Very, very, very dangerous riding. One ride actually had my rear wheel completely underneath the trailer of a semi before it caught a ridge and righted itself before I literally was killed. Hung up the bike for the remainder of my stay in Charlotte.

    Moved to Raleigh and that was better but still a challenge with beltways that were very unfriendly towards cyclists.

    Moved to Chapel Hill (actually to Saxapahaw) and loved it. Almost didn’t leave it for Seattle. The riding was spectacular. Made loads of trips out to Boone and Asheville. Awesomeness. Meatcamp road in Boone is a killer.

    @Cyclops, Greensboro should be OK. You’re close to the mountains there and I bet the riding is great, though I never got on my bike there. Had a project in Mt. Airy for a few months and I scouted the roads there, they looked fantastic.

  31. Wow, Big George’s hair! His earring! Amazing submission, pakrat.

    Frank – small world, I’m not far from SEXYpaw, as I like to call it. I sometimes do longer rides there and back. It’s starting to see overflow from Chapel Hill. I ride to CH all the time. I could see not wanting to ride in Charlotte; my local NC friends won’t let me go there & even frown upon heading to Raleigh. I wouldn’t want to live in either place, as it might kill my cycling as well.

    I plan on finally getting to Boone & Asheville this summer. Been invited before, but haven’t made it yet.

    Jeez, Frank, glad you pulled your wheel out! That’s crazy.

    Cyclops – not positive, but I think Greensboro should be okay for cycling. The city isn’t so big, must be able to get out of it quickly.

  32. I think George has some custom shoes that he chooses to hide instead of piss off the shoe sponsor.

    I was riding with a buddy last week, he was wearing some DeFeet Low Slipstreams. He was doing this to preserve his very expensive shoes. I realized that I could do the same to hide my very inexpensive shoes. The most amazing thing is that I was actually riding with someone else.

  33. FWIW, George was wearing arm and leg warmers but no shoe covers during the century we participated in 10 days ago (start temp in the lower 50’s F).

  34. @roadslave
    That’s an awesome story, and I love that perspective!

    By the way.. you can tell he’s getting old. here’s a photo of him at the start of this year’s Ronde Von Vlaanderen… look at those varicose veins. Zimmer frame next?

    Man…those veins!

    I think they look cool. It’s like there’s so much Rule #5 pumping through there that they bulged up.

  35. pakrat :

    So young, so much promise….

    and so much time spent making shit movies too. George is clean but the one on the right was prescribed a lot of EPO back in the day.

  36. @frank
    You hear the same type of stuff in all the urban centers in the South. City riding in the Southeast sucks rocks pretty much any way you slice it. Drivers are typically oblivious at best or downright homicidal at worst. It’s improving, but we have a long way to go. We have managed to carve out a nice little corner in the mountains and foothills of Northeast GA, Northwest SC, and Western NC, but you have to put some distance between you and the cities and all the bike bowlers.
    @Cyclops
    Greensboro should be fine. You’ll be in roller central but with decent access to the western mountains.
    @Ron
    Boone and Asheville will change your life.

  37. He does rock the BMC kit ver nicely. The guns in the title photo are chock full of awesomeness.

    Knees crossing the centreline?

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