George Hincapié Garcés and Hendrik Gerardus Jozef Zoetemelk are professionals from different eras in a sport that has both drastically changed yet remained the same. But the cyclists, Tour de France icons, have a lot in common.
Neither rider uses his birth name. The former is George Hincapie, nearing the end of his 19-year pro career while riding for the BMC team. The latter, now 65 and retired for more than 25 years, is Joop Zoetemelk. He rode a steeled-framed bike and wore woolen cycling attire early in his career.
Yet both riders’ easy-going personalities made them ideal team riders. And most notably, Hincapie and Zoetemelk share legacies of longevity.
The most famous Dutch cyclist in history, Zoetemelk started and finished the Tour de France 16 times, winning once and placing second six times.
On Sunday, Hincapie is expected to finish the Tour de France for the 16th time in a record 17 participations. And he’s scheduled to conclude his career, beginning Aug. 20 in the USA Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado.
Hincapie, 39, a three-time national road title holder who has one individual Tour de France stage win, three team time-trial stage wins and was the only teammate who shared all of Lance Armstrong’s seven straight race titles.
In addition to his individual stage win, Hincapie has three team stage wins in the Tour de France and his career highlights include numerous titles:
Gent-Wevelgem (2001), GP Ouest-France (2005), Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne (2005), National Road Race Champion (1998, 2006, 2009), Three Days of De Panne (2004) and Tour of Missouri (2007). He also finished in the top-10 seven times in Paris-Roubaix.
In addition to Armstrong’s seven titles, Hincapie was teammate of Alberto Contador during his 2007 Tour de France win as well as assisting Cadel Evans in his 2011 Tour de France win.
This year, Hincapie was hoping to compete in his sixth Summer Olympics. But in early June, in a surprising and still unexplained announcement, Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Dave Zabriskie and Christian Vande Velde, all former teammates of Armstrong, announced they had requested to be removed from Olympic team consideration.
Also in June, the United States Anti-Doping Agency charged Armstrong with doping, based on blood samples from 2009 and 2010, and testimonies its said its had collected from other cyclists and team staff members.
During the 2010 season, Hincapie was a guest of the U.S. Bicycle Hall of Fame at its celebration of the organization’s new home in Davis, Calif.
Question: Early in the Tour de France this year in Belgium there’ll be cobblestone sections. It’s the type of riding that’s suited you through the years. Are you looking forward to the early stages?
George Hincapie: We’ll be going to the Tour de France with an overall contender in Cadel Evans, so we’ll be doing a lot of work that day (stage 3) and I’ll be the main guy probably to get him to position.
But it’s going to be stressful. The first week of the Tour is always super stressful, no matter what. There are cobblestones in the mix and small roads and wind and possible bad-weather conditions, so it can be very hectic. I think the first week this year can blow the whole race wide open.
Q: Last year at the Tour … well, we didn’t know you signed with BMC and we didn’t know the team would get picked to go to the Tour. But after a controversial stage in which you could have taken the race lead, you said something to the effect that you didn’t care anymore about the Tour, or at least something like that. Your reaction was strong and a lot of people commented that they’d never seen George Hincapie so agitated.
GH: I get agitated all the time. I just hide it very well (laughing). It was a disappointing stage for me. At the time, I was upset with the tactics that took place. For me, it’s water under the bridge. I lost a big opportunity that day, but I made up for it in other places.
I used that anger to win the national championship a month later. So, it’s just cycling. Things like that happen often. I was just caught up in a cross-battle between two teams trying to vie for attention. It was an unfortunate situation.
Q: There’s a nice picture of you and Lance that’s still used a lot. The two of you are sitting under a tree, laughing … like one of you has just told the other a joke. The two of you have known each other for a long time. After the incident at the Tour de France, do you still have the same friendship?
GH: Oh, yeah. We’re totally fine. I was disappointed with him for a little bit. But it would be like me being disappointed with my friend for stealing my high school girlfriend or something. We’re sort of a family by now. Now that I’ve had time to think about it, and I’ve actually watched the coverage, I know he really wanted to see me in the yellow jersey. But it was something outside of his control that didn’t allow that to happen.
Q: Going back, your first Tour de France was in 1995. What was the Tour de France like for you in the early years compared to what it’s like now?
GH: The Tour is just such at big event. Everybody goes there at their best and everybody and every team is doing what they can to get results. The only difference for me as a rider is that I have a lot more experience now. Back then, I was lost. Every day, I was suffering just trying to make it to the finish. Now, it’s changed. I get to go for some stages and I get to help people win stages. That’s been the difference for me.
Q:Because you’ve been around so long, do you see yourself as the patron (boss of the peloton) at all?
GH: No, not really. But I definitely see that I get a lot more respect in the peloton and I enjoy that position on any team that I ride for. Now, I get a lot of freedom to do the races I want. I have a lot of say what riders come to the teams and what riders do what races. I have a lot more input. On that sort of level, it’s quite intriguing to me.
Q: A few years ago, when Viatcheslav Ekimov had announced his retirement and he was finishing his 14th Tour de France, the peloton honored him when he went to the front at the start of the finishing circuits on the Champs Elysees in Paris. You haven’t announced your retirement. But do you think you’ll be afforded that same opportunity?
GH: It really depends on the situation. I could see that happening, but it depends on who’s winning the race. Obviously, they (the peloton) have the right to make that decision. But for me, I’ve led it (the group) onto to the Champs Elysees before. It would be nice, but it’s not something I’ve been dreaming about.
Q: A lot of the guys you came through the ranks with, like Bobby Julich, have left. Others, like Levi Leipheimer, are getting up there in age, and have stayed around. Do you think about it (retirement) a lot or have you not given much thought to it?
GH: Now that I have a family, it’s definitely more difficult to be away from home. I still love the sport. I still love riding. I still feel like I am capable of getting results. And I know I will really miss it when I am a done. While I have those good things going, I am going to continue to ride. But the end is definitely near.”