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Hincapie, Lance riding on new ground

1/22/2009
ADELAIDE, Australia -- George Hincapie leaned on his bike last Sunday evening, watching and waiting quietly as his former teammate Lance Armstrong, clearly first among equals on the Astana squad, emerged from a separate entrance at the foot of the stage where Tour Down Under teams were being introduced to a large and largely enthusiastic crowd.

Moments later, Hincapie filed up with Team Columbia, the last of the 19 teams to walk the runway by virtue of having propelled Germany's Andrei Greipel to a title here last year. It may be one of the few times in Hincapie's 16-year professional career that he had better billing than Armstrong in the same event.

This season won't be one of outright role reversal for Hincapie and Armstrong, but it will be one of shifting roles. Hincapie, long better-known for his super-domestique service in Armstrong's seven Tour de France victories than his own considerable talent, has come into sharper definition since joining the U.S.-based Columbia team last year.

The 35-year-old face behind his signature white-framed goggles -- the mirror lenses now tinted yellow to match Columbia's new colors -- is more open and relaxed than when he was younger. He is a father of two who co-owns a clothing company with his brother, and top young U.S. riders like teammate Craig Lewis regard him as a mentor. Hincapie is a captain on one of the best teams in the world and has little unfinished business in the sport other than the one masochistic and prestigious race that has always eluded him.

Hincapie's enduring ambition to win on the cobblestoned obstacle course of Paris-Roubaix in April is the reason he's here in Australia, competing in a stage race that's normally too early in the season for him to consider. He has logged seven top-10 finishes in the venerable classic, and his second-place showing in 2005 remains the best ever for an American.

"I wanted to try a little different preparation for the classics this year, and get more racing in my legs, see if it gives me a little extra edge," Hincapie said this week. "I find as I'm getting older, I definitely need more recovery, but I also need more intensity in my training to be fit. I have to be stimulated differently to get in shape."

It also put him in a position to compete with Armstrong for the first time since they were young pros (other than the Olympic Games, where they were technically on the same U.S. team, working together in the road race). Their paths are likely to cross a few more times this season, including next month at the Tour of California, where Hincapie won a memorable sprint stage in a downpour last year, and in a couple of spring classics, as well as the Tour de France.

Has he thought about what it would be like to go wheel to wheel with Armstrong instead of trying to shelter him from the wind? "We haven't been in that situation yet, but it's inevitable, and it'll definitely be weird for both of us," Hincapie said. "We both have responsibilities we can't put aside."

Armstrong reacted to a question on the topic in a similar vein, although not before trying to deflect it with the not-very-persuasive assertion that he is "softer" than he used to be.

"I'm sure we'd race our hearts out, and at the end of the day shake hands, and if it was the right time of the season, be the first two guys down at the bar having a beer," he said.

That theoretical and potentially theatrical confrontation may or may not materialize. Meanwhile, Hincapie's modest goal of getting in some extra warm-weather training at the Tour Down Under may have been altered Thursday when Greipel, who won Stage 1 and looked poised to contend for another title, crashed into a parked motorcycle on the side of the road at high speed early in Stage 3, dislocating his right shoulder.