LIEGE, Belgium – George Hincapie is best known for helping other riders win the Tour de France. This time, he is going to be on top by himself.
Hincapie will begin the Tour for a record 17th time today, part of the BMC racing team looking to help defending champion Cadel Evans of Australia to another title.
The last American to wear the yellow jersey has played a key role in nine Tour victories during his 19-year career, including each of Lance Armstrong’s seven wins.
If Hincapie rides into Paris when the race ends July 22, the 6-foot-3 New Yorker will match Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk with a record 16 completed Tours. Zoetemelk finished his last Tour in 1986.
To put that into perspective, Hincapie’s 15 completed Tours and the 14 stages he finished in 1996 add up to almost 38,000 miles of cycling around France – or 1 1/2 times around the Earth.
While riding onto Paris’ Champs Elysees after three weeks of mountain climbs and speedy descents around France, and beyond, is one of Hincapie’s favorite career memories, he said finishing the Tour is never easy.
“It’s such a hard race. People don’t understand what riders go through in three weeks of the Tour de France,” said Hincapie, who turned 39 on Friday and is planning to retire following the 2012 season. “There’s so much suffering and pain involved that getting to the Champs is always a special moment.”
Hincapie likely will ride in the USA Pro Cycling Challenge in August before retiring from the sport.
“I came to the conclusion that I want to go out while I can still contribute and make a difference,” Hincapie said earlier this month when he talked about his plans to retire.
Hincapie turned pro in 1994. He raced his first Tour in 1996 – the only time he failed to complete the race.
The first stage of his eighth Tour in 2003 is most special for Hincapie, who met his wife, a Tour de France podium girl, at the time.
“The Tour’s brought me everything – my wife, my kids, my name, everything,” he said.
Hincapie was Armstrong’s longtime aide during the mountain stages of the Tour. He also helped Alberto Contador win the Tour in 2007 and played a key role in Evans’ win last summer.
While he’s most well-known for being a faithful servant to other riders — in cycling, the term is gregario — Hincapie has quite a few personal achievements.
He wore the yellow jersey for one stage during the 2006 Tour, making him the last American to earn that honor.
He has been a constant threat in cycling’s spring classics, winning Gent-Wevelgem in 2001 and finishing second at Paris-Roubaix in 2005. He’s also won Three Days of De Panne and the Tour of Missouri during nearly two decades of racing.
Hincapie won national road race titles in 1998, 2006 and 2009.