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Commentary: Hincapie’s ‘Loyal Lieutenant’ rationalizes doping choices

  • By Steve Maxwell
  • Published Jun. 9, 2014
  • Updated Aug. 28, 2014 at 9:04 AM EDT
George Hincapie served as Lance Armstrong's main lieutenant for years in the peloton. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

It was a cool February day in 2008, and dark clouds were gathering over Pasadena as a five-man breakaway group raced into town and began four circuits around the Rose Bowl.

American veteran George Hincapie was in that break. Hincapie expected that his sport director would instruct him to play his usual domestique role — sit up, wait for the inevitable catch, and then help lead out the young Mark Cavendish to a sprint victory. But on that day, the final stage of the Amgen Tour of California, his boss gave Hincapie the signal to stick with the break and go for the win.

Hincapie powered around the circuits in the drizzle in front of a huge crowd, the break survived, and he just edged out the others for victory at the line. It was an intense finish under tough conditions, the sort of situation in which Hincapie excelled, and it was certainly one of his bigger victories. It was the kind of inspired racing that can turn casual spectators into diehard fans.

Hincapie was the very embodiment of the term “super-domestique” during cycling’s drug-soaked era of the late 1990s and 2000s. He became a respected tactician and road captain on a number of successful teams, and helped pilot not only Lance Armstrong, but eventually also Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans to victories in the Tour de France.

A regular guy, friendly and self-effacing, “Big George” was loved by practically everyone. But later, in 2012, as more and more of the ugly details of the Armstrong saga leaked out, it became obvious that most of Armstrong’s teammates were doping as well — and fans began to experience that sinking and heartbreaking feeling that some of the riders they had looked up to, like Hincapie, weren’t quite the people they had pretended to be.

When confronted about this over the years, Hincapie didn’t necessarily deny involvement. One began to sense that Hincapie had probably doped as well, but he never forcefully denied everything, or took the vehement and arrogant approach that Armstrong personified.

“Like a skilled politician I danced around the questions,” he writes in the opening pages of his book, The Loyal Lieutenant.

As the book’s title suggests, Hincapie played second fiddle for all of those years, and he apparently wanted to get his side of the story out there. Unfortunately he has done so in a very ineffective way.

The Loyal Lieutenant is filled with a self-congratulatory tone — either Hincapie patting himself on the back, or lining up a long list of other people to offer their praise and endorsement, as if he feels he needs to prove that he is basically a good guy. Hincapie employs the (by now) standard and self-righteous justification for his doping habits, but then disingenuously takes things a step further, by attempting to take credit for cleaning up the sport.

In the end, this book, and his other recent public statements, seem to detract from his reputation and legacy. Does Big George end up shooting himself in the foot with The Loyal Lieutenant? Perhaps.

The first several chapters are mostly the standard boilerplate for this genre of book — childhood memories, his supportive family, his first bike, winning his early races, the standard “how I first met Lance” stuff, and a seemingly disproportionate amount of filler material about falling in love with a podium girl.

In terms of the book’s primary objective — rationalizing a career of breaking the rules — Hincapie uses the standard “everyone did it” line of reasoning to explain his doping. He points to the disappointing Motorola team performance in the 1995 Milano-Sanremo race as the turning point — when Armstrong decided that he and his teammates “had to do something.” Interestingly, Armstrong is quoted as saying that they all assumed a test would be developed for EPO so they wouldn’t have to use drugs, but alas, when no test was forthcoming, they were all essentially forced into the decision to dope.

“I was doing what it took to be as professional as possible in my approach to attain my life’s goal. The thought of cheating never crossed my mind,” writes Hincapie. “The best way I know how to describe it is that I felt it was my only choice.”

Every racer from this dark era of pro cycling should have a chance to tell his own story, how he experienced and dealt with the doping culture. But Hincapie minimizes the significance of his doping. Not once does he mention his relationship with the now-banned Dr. Michele Ferrari. He wants to believe that he was more principled or honest about his practices and philosophies than most of the other riders: He didn’t do it as much as the other guys; he was on a “conservative” doping program; or, he already had a high hematocrit and was basically just topping off the tank.

Since May 2010, when the truth started to spill out, many of Hincapie’s former teammates (Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, Levi Leipheimer, Christian Vande Velde, Bobby Julich) have all used the same “we had to do it” excuse. However, most have had the good sense to admit their mistakes, contritely apologize, keep their heads down, and quietly go about their business. However, Hincapie also seems to want retroactive credit for helping to clean up the sport.

Hincapie claims that he decided to dial back his doping after Armstrong retired. He first attributes his change of heart to the birth of his daughter in late 2004, and says he made a deal with himself to race “mostly” clean in 2005. He was still using testosterone patches, but “I classified and justified them as minor.” His plan was to race drug-free through the spring, then use a little EPO and re-infuse a blood bag right before the Tour de France; he only cheated when it was really necessary.

But later he had an “epiphany” after an unexpected visit by USADA testers to his home in Spain in 2006. And with that, Hincapie abruptly did a complete 180-degree turnaround, and, apparently,  became the Pied Piper of clean racing.

Suddenly, “I was like an over-eager, newly converted Hare Krishna you’d see at an airport,” he exclaims, “and I implored … (my teammates) … to help me change this [expletive]-up sport.” When he later won a minor Belgian race, he excitedly writes, “I was batting a thousand as an agent of change.”

In a recent interview with the Detroit Free Press, Hincapie said of former U.S Postal Service rider Frankie Andreu that “just because someone stopped doping earlier, that does not make them a better person.” Yet, that is essentially what Hincapie spends the rest of the book claiming. (More on that interview below.)

Perhaps Hincapie truly did race clean after 2006. But as he reportedly starts to rehabilitate himself, he quickly constructs a convenient double standard, expressing shock and horror at the doping practices of others.

He rails at a younger rider who seeks out EPO — “I had to do it, but it was up to him to be part of the change.” He says mysteriously that he knew Hamilton was “doing some dodgy shit.” Everyone knew if you only did a little doping — enough to stay even — that you probably wouldn’t get caught. But if you went beyond that, “you were definitely on your own, and the peloton wasn’t going to raise a finger to try to protect you.” In other words, it was okay to cheat a little bit, but if you cheated a lot, you were a bad dude.

Likewise, Hincapie goes into significant detail to explain how he pleaded with Landis not to dope — that they could “lead the change in cycling” — but then watched disapprovingly as Landis famously sailed away from the peloton to Morzine on stage 17 of the 2006 Tour de France.

Hincapie’s change of heart, and newfound virtue, often appear to be at odds with his actions. For example, he had no comment when Andreu publicly admitted to doping in The New York Times in 2006, which was after his own supposed epiphany. And Hincapie was nowhere to be found as Armstrong threatened and disparaged numerous people over the years for simply telling the truth.

Like many other insiders, Hincapie only decided to publicly admit and condemn doping once it was politically safe to step forward and do so. Years later, when he was still trying to be an agent of change, he essentially had to be threatened with a ban before deciding to come clean to USADA in 2012.

“I almost told them to [expletive] off,” he casually writes. But, as one anonymous blogger put it, it’s easy to do the right thing when the right thing is the only thing left to do.

Later, Hincapie plays down USADA’s statement that those who testified were helping to clean up the sport, saying, astonishingly, “I’d already been part of the change way before they’d come along.”

In another vignette rich with irony, and a perfect example of the malicious backbiting and convoluted soap opera that is often pro cycling, Hincapie discusses the final Tour stage in 2012.

Key leaders offered Hincapie the honor of leading out the peloton onto the first lap of the Champs-Élysées to recognize his record 17 Tours. Although he says that he didn’t want the limelight, he eventually agreed, but then complains that compatriot Chris Horner — who is discussed nowhere else in the book — chased him down, as some sort of payback for testifying to USADA. Hincapie says he had never been so mad, and then laments this was “a clear indication of how [expletive]-up our sport was — I was ostracized less for doping than for being honest.” True — he was honest, but only six years later. In the meantime, it seemed more judicious to stay quiet and keep collecting his check.

Hincapie can’t quite decide whom to blame for his indoctrination into the world of doping.

In his USADA affidavit, and earlier in the book, he implicitly blames Armstrong, who called his men to arms in 1995. But in other accounts, he lays the blame on Andreu, saying in the book that in 1996 his relationship with Frankie took on “a dark turn.”

In Juliet Macur’s recent book, Cycle of Lies, Hincapie says of Andreu that “I started doing EPO because of him.” But tellingly, Hincapie mentions Andreu hardly at all in his sworn testimony and affidavit to USADA. Hincapie insists Andreu was a mentor he looked up to, but the evidence suggests that he looked up to him more when he was doping than when he stopped.

Virtually every book by, or about, the pro-Armstrong crowd seems to eventually focus on the Andreus. This dates back to their earlier friendship with Armstrong, and their fateful presence in the 1996 Indiana hospital room where Armstrong allegedly admitted to various doping practices.

And it ultimately stems from the fact that they — and Betsy Andreu in particular — have been among the very few people with the conviction to stand up to Armstrong. Their testimony is a key aspect of the $12 million SCA Promotions case against Armstrong. The Armstrong team still hones in on the Andreus, primarily in an attempt to cast aspersions on their legal testimony, and also because they simply don’t like them. Armstrong was more concise when he told Juliet Macur (on page 396 of her book) that “I hated those [expletive] — the Betsys, the LeMonds.”

On this point, it’s instructive to look at the recent Detroit Free Press interview because it reveals some clues as to what might be going on behind the scenes. It seems telling that Hincapie went, of all places, to the Andreus’ hometown paper for one of his first real interviews since 2012. In a series of rambling, often contradictory statements, he says that when he found the famous EPO thermos in Frankie’s fridge, “It was like, oh, now I’m going to have to do that too,” but then he disingenuously adds “Not that I’m blaming Frankie.”

More interestingly, Hincapie acknowledged in a 2014 crankpunk.com interview that Armstrong gave the Free Press reporter Hincapie’s phone number when she was writing a human interest story about the Andreus.

To the skeptic, it seems as though Hincapie is still quite willing to be Armstrong’s bottle carrier. And he goes to great lengths at numerous places in the book to praise Armstrong, and even unnecessarily volunteers a line in his USADA testimony to say that he’s proud to have worked with Armstrong.

Reached for comment about his relationship with the Andreus, Hincapie replied by email. ”Let me start by restating that I don’t blame anyone for the choices I made,” he wrote. “They were mine and mine alone, and the wrong ones, and I take responsibility. I spoke of the Lance incident as to when I felt he made the decision. I speak of the incident with Frankie as my moment, but the decision was mine, and mine alone. I’m not laying blame on anyone, but I’m not sure Frankie realizes how influential he was to me. I looked up to him, what he did, how he conducted himself. So that moment was pivotal in my personal decision. But had it not been Frankie, there would have been another that led me to that point. It was rampant at that time, and I wasn’t strong enough to give up on pursuing my dream.

“I regret doing [the Detroit Free Press] interview,” he continued. “The Andreus have been through enough. I can’t go back and undo what’s been done, but I was happy to get a chance to speak to Frankie face-to-face [at U.S. road national championships.] We both feel it would be great to sit down and talk more. Not through the press or blogs, or comment sections, just the two of us. Pointing fingers will do no one any good.”

It seems as though Hincapie is not quite sure how to balance his priorities and friendships, though one can’t help but feel that he is perhaps still too loyal a lieutenant.

With one single word near the end of the book, Hincapie reveals how oblivious he is to the way others might see the situation. He says he is sorry for the “handful of guys who felt they had to leave the sport because of doping.” It’s a lot more than a “handful.”

Hincapie and many others had their careers and made a lot of money at the expense of others, but none of them seems to be thinking about giving back any of their ill-gotten gains. Hincapie has a pretty good life now; he owns a luxury hotel and a successful apparel company with his brother, he is the organizer of a growing gran fondo, and perhaps most controversially, Hincapie Sportswear sponsors a development racing team.

In closing, he says, “I never left the sport. I didn’t run and hide. I chose to stay and try to change it.” For better or for worse, George Hincapie doesn’t seem to be losing much sleep over the choices he made.

Steve Maxwell is a business consultant, writer, and cyclist in Boulder, Colorado. He is a frequent contributor to VeloNews, and is also the Co-Editor of theouterline.com, the external perspective on pro cycling, which publishes detailed analyses of structural, economic, and governance issues in cycling.

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