- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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BESANCON, France -- What cost George Hincapie five seconds and a yellow jersey in Stage 14 of the Tour de France might take an eternity to debate. The interested parties wasted no time getting their points across on Saturday.
To review: In the frenzy of the finish area, Hincapie, devastated when he discovered he'd come up just short, questioned why Garmin-Slipstream and Astana seemed to be chasing him down when he is not considered a podium candidate. The man whom he had helped to seven Tour de France victories, Astana's Lance Armstrong, moved quickly to dispel the idea that he and his teammates were trying to reel Hincapie in. "The last thing I want to do is screw over my best friend," said Armstrong, who added he was "upset about the confusion." The owner of Hincapie's Columbia-HTC team angrily blamed Garmin, whose staff and riders in turn said they were racing for their own self-interest and not out of any vindictiveness.
If you're just tuning in and thought this was a point-to-point event always won by the fastest guy, welcome to Cycling Dynamics 101, where nearly everything is open to interpretation.
Stage 14 was supposed to be routine -- one last flat-to-rolling course for the sprinters and breakaway artists on the day before the peloton enters the Alps. Sunday's forecast is for attacks by the overall contenders and some movement in the standings, which have stagnated for a week now.
A 13-man breakaway bolted ahead early in the stage and gradually extended its lead to more than five minutes, shedding just one man, people's choice Jens Voigt, because of a punctured tire. The men, including Garmin's Martijn Maaskant, settled in for the day, and team directors did the math in their cars. Hincapie, who entered Saturday 5 minutes, 25 seconds behind leader Rinaldo Nocentini, was the highest-placed rider in the group.
Here is where sentiment dovetails into competition in odd ways. At age 36, riding his 14th Tour, the genial Hincapie is one of the most well-liked men in the peloton. His lanky, distinctive 6-foot-3 frame and white-framed goggles have made him instantly recognizable to fans since the late '90s. He won a Pyrenees stage in the 2005 Tour and wore the yellow jersey for a day in 2006, taking a slim two-second lead in Stage 1 after finishing second in the opening prologue time trial. His best overall finish in the Tour was 14th in 2005 -- more than 23 minutes behind Armstrong.
Aside from his resolute loyalty and service to Armstrong on the U.S. Postal and Discovery Channel teams, Hincapie is best known to hard-core cycling fans for his dogged quest to win the Paris-Roubaix cobblestoned classic, considered the toughest one-day race in the sport.
He has finished in the top 10 in the Paris-Roubaix six times but has never crossed the line first. A photo of Hincapie sitting in a changing room, covered with mud head to toe with his legs splayed and his head in his hands in an expression of agony, is an iconic image in modern cycling.
Friendship and old alliances go a long way in cycling, but they also go only so far. Astana determined that it would be to the team's advantage to have Hincapie take the yellow jersey, by a comfortable but not excessive margin of two to three minutes.
Why? Versatile a rider as he is, Hincapie is not a threat for the overall win because he almost certainly won't stay with the top climbers in the high mountains yet to come. If he had a lead big enough to hold up even allowing for lost time on the steep but relatively short climb to Verbier, Switzerland, that ends Stage 15, Columbia would have been motivated to defend it and do the hard work in the wind at the front of the peloton Sunday until the final climb, then let the race hopefuls duke it out in front of them.
Armstrong contacted U.S. reporters to tell his side of the story after the stage Saturday. "The scenario of George in yellow was perfect for our team," he said. "His team would have ridden [at the front] all day tomorrow. It's exactly what we wanted." But, he added, "it's the Tour de France. You can't let a break have 15 minutes," especially before what promises to be a brutal final week.
According to Armstrong, Astana put two men on the front of the peloton to set a "medium" tempo, and Hincapie, who went into the "virtual" yellow jersey about 47 miles into the 124-mile stage, eventually built up more than three minutes of cushion.
At that point, Nocentini's French Ag2R team roused itself and decided to try to keep its hero -- a somewhat random beneficiary of the conservative racing in this Tour -- in yellow for one more day. It mounted a chase, and the gap to the break started to come down. What happened next is what reignited the simmering tensions between Garmin and Columbia.
As the men in the breakaway neared the finish line -- the stage would eventually be won by Russia's Serguei Ivanov -- three Garmin riders went to the front of the peloton behind them with about six miles to go. They rode hard until the very end, when Columbia itself took over to try to position Mark Cavendish for a bunch sprint behind the breakaway that would earn him a few points in his close battle for the green jersey with Norway's Thor Hushovd. Cavendish appeared to prevail but was later disqualified and symbolically placed at the back of the peloton (with the same finishing time) for interference. Hushovd took over the green jersey lead, making it a lousy day for Columbia all around.
Is it possible to say which event in this confluence -- Astana's work, Ag2R's efforts, Garmin's late drive, movement within the breakaway itself or Columbia's maneuvers near the line -- really accounted for Hincapie's near miss?
Columbia owner Bob Stapleton didn't mince words about his opinion. "I'm just really surprised to see them actively chase down George," he said, referring to Garmin. "An American in yellow magnifies the sport in the U.S. to the benefit of all. It's very discouraging that they would actively discourage that from happening."
Stapleton said the relationship between the two teams, which share several projects, including an independent anti-doping program and an investment in the U.S. developmental team, is "fine."
"We share the same basic goals -- clean and fair sport, growing the sport in the U.S., showing the beauty and drama of the sport as best we can worldwide and developing young riders."
But the former wireless entrepreneur twisted the knife again when he dismissed talk of a rivalry, saying, "There's been trash talk around some pretty minor things, but the fact of the matter is we've won a ton of bike races, so if we were keeping score, that scoreboard would be pretty lopsided in our favor."
Garmin owner Doug Ellis, who watched the stage from his home in New York, confirmed that the two men talked by phone afterward. Ellis said he has confidence in his staff, but added that "George not being in yellow is not a positive thing for me."
Armstrong and Astana director Johan Bruyneel both pointed the finger at Garmin. The team's assertiveness at the end of the stage, especially with a man in the breakaway, also struck many observers, including longtime Versus commentator Paul Sherwen, as illogical.
Hincapie's benign presence in the overall standings wouldn't jeopardize either of Garmin's two riders in the top 10, Christian Vande Velde and Brad Wiggins, Sherwen said. "I can see no reason for them to chase," Sherwen said, and speculated what many had opined already -- that the tactic was part of a greater feud.
Another rider-turned-analyst, Bob Roll, had harsher words about what he saw as a destructive development in the relationship between the two U.S.-registered teams.
"I would seriously ask what they thought they could gain by doing that," Roll said. "If you expend energy for the wrong reasons, you will be punished eventually, and I hope that's what happens to Garmin. I think they're going to rue the day they chased down George. Everybody needs to promote the sport every chance we get and not involve ourselves in petty skirmishes that nobody understands and ultimately do nobody any good."
Garmin director Matt White vigorously denied that his orders were aimed at anything other than his team's best interests, which were to keep Vande Velde and Wiggins near the front. "We've been caught out twice," White said, referring to two occasions when splits in the peloton threatened to add precious seconds to Vande Velde's and Wiggins' gap to Armstrong and race favorite Alberto Contador. (One of those splits evaporated when race officials reviewed film and realized it had never existed.)
Any other theory -- and there were a lot of them floating around Saturday, including speculation that the two teams are fighting over the same potential sponsor -- is "flat-out not true," said White, a former teammate of Hincapie's at Postal. "It's just an unfortunate consequence for George." Veteran New Zealand rider Julian Dean echoed that explanation, saying White's instructions on the radio were about protecting the team's two overall contenders.
But some Garmin riders' Twitter feeds indicated something between confusion and dissent about the outcome. "Pawns in their game," Dave Zabriskie, one of the riders sent to the front late, posted cryptically, and Wiggins said he didn't understand what had happened and added that Hincapie "deserved to be in yellow."
There are a couple of things to remember when reading the tea leaves. Columbia and Garmin have been sniping at each other regularly since the beginning of the Tour of Italy, when Columbia's brassy sprint star Cavendish criticized some of the other team's public statements. Armstrong has made no secret of his dislike for Garmin manager (and former Postal teammate) Jonathan Vaughters, and the fact that Vaughters was not on the road with the team Saturday does not diminish that friction.
Meanwhile, the central figure in the drama is the only one who has stayed mute. Hincapie was "too disappointed" to talk Saturday night, according to Columbia press liaison Kristy Scrymgeour. It may take him awhile to sort through the swirl as well.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. Follow her Twitter feed here or reach her at email@example.com.