Monday, April 5, 2010
My April Sports Wish
A couple of years ago a friend of mine invited me to attend a charity dinner in Fort Worth. The guest of honor was American cyclist George Hincapie. It was great to meet him. I've followed his career closely since reading an article about him in the now-defunct Winning magazine, circa 1990. Then, he was a 17 year old phenom from New York City (of all places for a road cyclist). Now, he's one of the most successful road racers in US history.
Hincapie doesn't win the Tour de France, so the casual sports fan in this country doesn't know his name. But they should. In Europe, he's one of the most respected riders in the pro peloton. He's finished 13 Tours de France, serving as support rider to, most notably, Lance Armstrong. Hincapie is a great all-around rider--he can sprint, climb pretty well (for a big man), and time trial. But his strength is in the one-day, cobbled classics.
In pro cycling terms, the 'classics' are famous, old, one-day races over a variety of terrain and road types. They differ greatly from stage races (like the Tour de France, which are contested over many days or many weeks). One day races are typically long (150 miles or more) and very fast. They are held early and late in the cycling season, so the weather is often brutal. The biggest of the one-day classics are held in Italy (Milan-San Remo and Tour of Lombardy), Belgium (Tour of Flanders and Liege-Bastogne-Liege), and France--where this weekend, the most famous of all the classics will be held for the 108th time.
The race from Paris to Roubaix is called "the Queen of the Classics" for good reason. It's the most difficult, most prestigious, most unique bike race in the world. It actually starts in the town of Compiegne (just north of Paris), and finishes 175 miles later in the velodrome at Roubaix. Along the way, the riders will tackle 28 different sectors of cobblestones--roads originally designed for cattle, certainly not for bicycles. The cobbles make the race legendary. They rattle the riders right down to their fillings. Flats and crashes happen--a lot. If it's dry, the racers choke on dust--if it's raining, they ride through mud and over cobbles as slick as ice. It takes great strength and great luck to win the race--and George Hincapie has come very, very close. But he's never won.
Paris-Roubaix is Hincapie's passion. It's the race he wants to win the most. He's finished 2nd, 4th (twice), 6th (twice), and 8th. He makes it his priority each season, but each season he comes up short. Thus, my sports wish for April: I wish George Hincapie would win Paris-Roubaix. He's won the cobbled classic Ghent-Wevelgem, and he's had some great rides in the Tour of Flanders, but Paris-Roubaix is HIS race. He was born to ride it, and born to win it. He's got the power to stay at the front of the race, and the bike handling ability to stay upright on the cobbles. But something always gets in the way--maybe he's the victim of an ill-timed flat, or team tactics that conspire against him. Sometimes just one or two riders are simply better that day. That's bike racing. But Hincapie is owed one, and I hope that debt gets paid this weekend.
TIME IS RUNNING OUT
Hincapie is 36 years old. He's still one of the best in the world, but he knows that Father Time will soon step in. The good news is that older riders have traditionally done well in Roubaix. The French legend Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle was like Hincapie--always close, but could never win "The Hell of the North". But, Duclos-Lassalle persisted, and he finally won Paris-Roubaix when he was 38. Then he won again the next year, at age 39.
Hincapie has great form right now. Last week he finished 4th in Ghent-Wevelgem and 6th in the Tour of Flanders. He has a good team to support him this weekend. He is motivated. He is still young enough. This could be the year.
I might even sports cry if I see Big George punch the sky on Sunday. And I won't be alone.