LIÈGE, Belgium (VN) — George Hincapie (BMC Racing Team) will ride into the record books when he rolls down the start ramp to begin his 17th Tour de France, the most number of participations in history. The American, who turned 39 yesterday, will also be starting his last Tour as he plans to retire in August.
He begins his ride at 4:33 in the afternoon in Liège’s Parc d’Avroy, 17 years after he started his first Tour in the Dutch city, ‘s-Hertogenbosch. The television cameras and journalists surrounded him Friday on the eve of his recording-setting ride, something quite different from his debut with Motorola in 1996 when he said that there was little interest in him.
It was the only edition that he failed to finish. Since, he’s gone on to win a stage, help Lance Armstrong and Cadel Evans win the overall and lead Mark Cavendish to sprint wins.
“The first one I was hurting so bad. I was hoping I’d crash and I crashed! It was that bad,” Hincapie explained. “Obviously you don’t make yourself crash, but I crashed, got stitches in my head and I stopped.”
Hincapie spoke to a group of journalists, some of those who also came to participate in the press conference with the defending champion, Cadel Evans. Ahead of the conference, team owner Andy Rihs presented Hincapie with a special-edition BMC bicycle painted to celebrate his historic ride. The phrases “gentleman’s round” and “Lucky Seventeen” decorate the black carbon frame.
After Evans answered questions, journalists circled Hincapie and asked about the bike, the teammates he helped, his regrets and what he’s going to do after he retires. He enjoyed so much more attention than in that debut ride with Motorola.
“I don’t want to ride the bike! I want to just hang it, it’s so nice. I had no idea the team was going to give me that,” he said.
“They’re all interesting in their own right: Lance’s determination, Cavendish’s wit – he’s hilarious – Cadel’s just sheer desire. He’s had so many close calls, people were calling him Mr. Second, to come back at 33 years old and to win was very impressive.
“Something that stands out is 2009 when I was in the breakaway. With one K to go [to the climb’s pass], I told myself I’d come back on the descent, so I kind of let up. I didn’t know the descent well enough and I never came back. The break stayed away and won. I felt like I had a good chance to win there.”
Hincapie won the stage to Pla d’Adet in 2005. This year, he completed a record number of Tours of Flanders — also 17 — and tied the Milan-San Remo participation record, 14.
He said after he retires, he’ll keep pushing.
“I’d love to keep riding. My dad still rides three hours a day, five days a week. If he’s still doing it, I can.”
Doping also shadows his career. He rode with Armstrong, against whom the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency brought formal charges on Friday, and is said to have testified. That’s something that will be forgotten for now as he starts his record ride and enjoys his final moments in the Tour.