Thursday, October 23, 2014

George Hincapie, "The Loyal Lieutenant"

George Hincapie is such a "Loyal Lieutenant," the title of his autobiography, that he may well have let the chief general he was a lieutenant to, Lance Armstrong, write these memoirs, and not just its forward. Armstrong would most certainly put his full stamp of approval on Hincapie's guilt-free description of their drug-taking.  It was no more than taking vitamins or putting air in their tires.  He makes no excuses nor apologies.  Nor does he attempt to mount any kind of defense, just a portrayal of how it was.

He describes their team's drug taking as "conservative," just as Armstrong describes it himself in one of his many capsule comments of a paragraph or two sprinkled through the book.  Hincapie further proves his full loyalty with the declaration that Armstrong and team director Johan Buyneel "never asked us to take drugs," contradicting the statements of others.  He also strongly defends team doctor Pedro Celaya, who has been portrayed as a Dr. Evil-type guy.   Hincapie said he was "always super-nice" and "always instructed us to take less and train harder to achieve our results."

Hincapie further does Armstrong's bidding with harsh words for his nemeses Frankie Andreu, Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis.  He reveals Andreu was known as "Cranky Frankie."  He lived up to his nickname when Hincapie discovered EPO in the refrigerator of the apartment they shared in northern Italy near Lake Como in March of 1996.  When he asked Andreu about it, he told him to mind his own business.

Since Andreu was using EPO then, he lied to his wife Betsy later that year outside Armstrong's hospital room where he was being treated for cancer.  Armstrong had just told his doctors in the presence of the Andreus that he had taken EPO and other performance enhancing drugs.  Betsy was shocked.  She was engaged to Frankie and told him she wouldn't marry him if he was taking such drugs as well. He told her he wasn't.

Hincapie highly respected the veteran Andreu and considered him a mentor.  If he had decided to start taking EPO, he would too.  Getting it was as easy as biking over to Switzerland to any pharmacy.  He felt a little guilt, but mostly he felt proud that he was finally going to the next level in the sport and being fully professional.  He and his teammates had been considering it since late 1994 when he struggled to keep up in the World Championships and he knew drugs were to blame.  Others in the race around him were causally chatting while he was in pain from the very start.  

In the spring of the next season after Milan-San Remo he and Armstrong gave it further consideration as they drove back to Como after being thoroughly pummeled.  Armstrong was furious that he couldn't keep up with the lead pack of fifty.   He was a former world champion and knew he was as good as, if not better, than everyone else in the peloton. They weren't quite prepared to start with the drugs just yet, hoping a test would be developed to catch the cheaters.  But that wasn't to come for several years.

Hincapie describes the ease of his first of countless injections of EPO.  He'd been injecting himself with vitamins for years, so he was fully comfortable with needles.  Though he claims not to know much at the time, he knew that one administered EPO in the upper arm, near the shoulder, for better absorption.  It didn't hurt at all.

His doping continued for more than a decade.  He began to taper off in 2004 frustrated by the logistics of purchasing and transporting the drugs, not the morality. "Others have written about how they were torn apart by the weight of the secret they kept concerning their drug use," he writes.  "I was never like that.  In the later years of my usage, I was honest with my close friends and family about it."

He wasn't surprised when his former teammate Hamilton tested positive after the 2004 Olympics and at the Tour of Spain afterwards.  "I'd seen him doing dodgy shit, occasionally clandestine and noncommittal in his actions."  He said the peloton had no sympathy for those so brazen.  

That applied to Landis as well.  Hincapie tried to convince him during the 2006 Tour to stop taking drugs as he had his Discovery teammates at the start of The Tour.  It was the first Tour in years that he didn't blood dope, even though he had a bag at the ready.  But Landis just sneered, "Fuck you George, I want to win the Tour de France."

During the stage where Landis tested positive after one of the most brash rides in Tour history, he taunted the peloton before he launched his attack on the first of the day's five climbs, "You'd better take your caffeine pills, you'd better take whatever you have, even if its just aspirin.  I'm going to destroy you all today."  And he did by eight minutes, though he ended up destroying himself and nearly the sport.

Hincapie also takes a shot at Jonathan Vaughters, another of Armstrong's adversaries.  He says he was very drug savvy and was always searching for something new.  Hincapie claims "a friend told him" that Vaughters was researching the possibility of blood-doping without the assistance of a doctor.  He also chides Levi Leipheimer for going back on his word not to dope during the 2006 Tour.

Hincapie does protect some.  There is no mention of the doping guru Dr. Michel Ferrari.  Nor does he identify the two teammates, roommates actually, he knew were using EPO during the 1995 Tour of Spain.  One he walked in on as he was injecting himself.  The other had been struggling until a friend delivered him a package, which he assumed was EPO and/or other drugs.  Nor does he name the roommate the next year who gave him his load of drugs after he was injured and would be out of commission for awhile.

A large part of the book is devoted to The Tour de France as Hincapie rode it seventeen times, more than any rider until Jens Voigt rode his eighteenth this past year. Nine times he was on the winning team--seven with Armstrong and once with  Alberto Contador and the last with Cadel Evans.  His wife was a podium girl.  But The Tour was never easy.  On his first Tour in 1996, even though he had an EPO-assist, from the very start he was hoping he'd crash out.  At the end of his career he summed up, "After the Tour I never felt good.  My body would be so leached of nourishment, it would crave everything."  One time in the Pyrenees he was twenty minutes behind the leaders.  As he began a climb he passed his wife.  He was clearly in such agony his wife started to cry, which nearly crippled him with devastation. 

No experience though was more disheartening than being denied by five seconds the Yellow Jersey for the second time of his career in 2010 Tour thanks to Armstrong's Astana team and the Garmin team chasing after his breakaway group that had gained more than an eight minute advantage.  Neither team seemed to have a reason to do it.  Christian Vande Velde and other of his friends on the Garmin team later apologized, but it was still hard for him to accept.  He said if he'd been in their position and he had been ordered to chase after someone who was a friend and not a threat to his team, "I would have told my directeur to fuck off."

Mark Cavendish was his teammate at the time.  Hincapie was the respected team elder who always gave the team a pep talk after each stage in the team bus.  Cavendish said Hincapie was so crushed by being deprived of the great honor of wearing the Yellow Jersey, and further incensed by the treachery of people he considered friends, that, "Afterward it was the first time I'd ever seen George NOT talk to the team."  Cavendish is an emotional sort who is given to tears.  When he saw Hincapie join his wife and children, he couldn't help but cry, knowing what a great moment it would have been if he could have shared the Yellow Jersey with them.

Hincapie mentions several tears of his own, once with Dave Zabriskie at the 2010 Tour of California  after he received a phone call from drug investigator Jeff Novisky asking him to give him a call.   It was a call he was dreading and hoped would never come.  After he finally agrees to cooperate with the USADA investigation a couple years later he wrote, "There were many days I would get out on the bike and cry.  Not because of what I'd had to do, but because of the manner in which I'd been forced to do it and the knowledge I'd hurt people I cared about."  Another comment intended for Armstrong.

Unlike many of the American published books on bicycle racing this one didn't come from Velo Press, but rather Harper Collins.  Even a high powered publishing house with an army of editors and fact-checkers didn't make this book error-free.  Like Velo, it was inconsistent with its spelling of L'Alpe d'Huez, spelling it once with a lower case "l" and twice with none at all.

Twice it botched mentions of the Passage du Gois, a road out to the island of Noirmoutier that is submerged at high tide.  Hincapie, or his co-writer Craig Hummer, claim it is only passable four hours a day and is always slippery.  The recently published "Lantern Rouge" about the last man in The Tour de France gets it right.  It states, "Twice a day the narrow road is submerged completely by the tide, and it is safe to pass only during a four-hour window around the low-tide mark."  I have ridden it a couple times myself and can report that it does dry out and is not slippery at all times.

Hincapie was also confused when he wrote that the 2005 Tour opened with a time trial via the Passage.  The time trial did go out to Noirmoutier, but it went over the bridge at the southern end of the island and avoided the Passage to the north.

Hincapie calls Vande Velde one of his best friends and has nary a harsh word for him.  He stood up for him at his wedding.  But he doesn't give him credit for his fourth place finish at the 2008 Tour, saying he finished fifth.  The record books elevated him to fourth when the fourth place finisher was disqualified for testing positive.  

There is no discussion of money in the book other than a comment from his older brother, who served as his agent and earned him a contract worthy of a Tour contender.  He doesn't mention bonuses or payments for riding in post-Tour criteriums or deal-making that goes on during races as other books do.  He does admit to liking expensive watches and that Cavendish gave him a dream watch. 

There are at least two books out there, including Cavendish's first autobiography, that comment on the huge veins in Hincapie's legs. They are said to be without compare in the peloton.   He takes no credit for them in his own book.  The British television commentator Ned Boulting devotes a full paragraph to them in his book, "How I Won the Yellow Jumper."  

He glorified them, waxing poetic, stating that at the end of a stage they "look as if a family of vipers has crawled under his skin and begun to feed on his calf muscles.  They are among the Tour's greatest sights and, like the twenty-one switchbacks of Alpe d'Huez, will one day be numbered for posterity and given plaques bearing the names of famous domestiques who wore the Yellow Jesey."  

Despite overlooking his incomparable veins, Hincapie's book does a fine job covering his long and illustrious career.  Besides his seventeen Tour appearances he also competed in five Olympics, the most of any American cyclist.  And it would have been six, but part of his punishment for his drug-taking was not being able to compete in the 2012 London Olympics.  

The book abounds with fully-justified accolades from those in the sport. He is such a significant figure that if one googles "George Cyclist" he turns up just after this blog.   It was nice to read a "drug-confessional" that was free of the agony and despair as expressed by David Millar and Tyler Hamilton and others in their books.  He had a most exemplary career that doesn't deserve to be tainted by the drugs that were such a fact of life in his era.   


JeffOYB said...

Thanks for the review, George. I have an unrelated question: What's the cheapest way to fly US>Europe RT? I'm willing to make an effort to find an affordable way. Afforable is, of course, relative, but I travel close to the way you seem to (wild camp, grocery stores) so I figured you might have some advice. Thanks!

JeffOYB said...

ps: I'm adding this 'note' because I'd like replies to be emailed to me and I forgot to choose that setting with my first comment.

george christensen said...

Jeff: Aer Lingus is a good place to start, though I'm not sure of their bike policy. I like British Air as they don't require one's bike to be boxed. They'll provide a plastic bag. Air France is one of the few air lines that provides boxes. Good luck, g

JeffOYB said...

Thanks, George!

I don't know how to view the bike aspect if there are big charges along the way. Maybe it's cheaper, more secure to rent or buy a cheapy over there. That way no box to check, nothing to get messed up. I'd have to see what bike rentals cost, etc., and compare.

JeffOYB said...

ps: I just saw that Norwegian has NY>Paris $320 one-way. (Dunno about bikes...)