As they start the 106th edition of the Tour de France this weekend in Belgium, 17-time Tour finisher George Hincapie knows what the riders are feeling.
“All of the Grand Tours are hard,” Hincapie said, looking fit and relaxed as we talked sitting in the study of his bike-centric Hotel Domestique in Travelers Rest, South Carolina. “There are a lot of nerves early on.”
Best known as Lance Armstrong’s “Loyal Lieutenant” (also the name of his autobiography), Hincapie helped Armstrong, Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans win the Tour de France as a teammate and “super domestique.”
“Domestique” is a French cycling word describing team members whose main job is to help the team leader win the race. Nobody was ever better at that than Hincapie.
Over the next three weeks, George will be part of Armstrong’s daily podcast reviewing each stage of the Tour de France for the second straight year.
“I was nervous and anxious about putting myself out there,” he explained. “But now I’m back into it. I know what they’re thinking and ask my guys who are still out there what’s going on.”
His role with Armstrong on the podcast is to add perspective, and stands in stark contrast to his role as Armstrong’s lieutenant when they were on the bike. He’s not afraid to disagree, but it’s clear when he has the needle out, he and Armstrong have been friends a long time.
“What people are seeing now is what our relationship was on the bus,” George said with a laugh.
now, he’s anything but a “domestique.” He’s the main attraction and the model of what a professional athlete’s post-career should look like. Retiring as a rider after 2012, Hincapie slipped seamlessly into roles as team owner, hotelier, commentator and cycling apparel mogul.
Or at least it looked seamless.
“My brother Rich got the whole thing started while I was still competing,” Hincapie said. “It was just supposed to ride my bike fast.”
George’s older brother Rich was also a professional rider for two years before a serious crash pushed him into the business world. From his job as a salesman for a computer distributing company, Rich saw an opportunity to market his brother’s good name in the cycling apparel market.
“I started it when George was still riding,” Rich explained from the Hincapie Sportswear offices in Greenville. “Most guys start when they retire. They’re brand is dipping. We were in a position when George was riding so we got free marketing.”
While the Hincapie Sportswear riding apparel is now a powerhouse in that market, it started piece by piece out of a factory in Italy. When they grew out of that, Rich turned to an uncle in their dad’s home country of Columbia for help.
“In 2002 I got an order for 50 cycling caps,” he explained. “My uncle was in an associated business and he made a mock-up for me.”
Rich saw some potential there so he went to Columbia. He and his uncle went to a fabric store, and then went somewhere else to get the art screened on the fabric. But to get the finished product they needed someone with special sewing skills.
“We dropped the bag of printed, cut fabric to a lady at a hot dog stand at the bus station,” he said with a laugh. “She sewed at night. Three days later we had the hats. Then we did jerseys.”
Little by little over two years, they brought the process in house. Now they have150 employees at their factory in Columbia.
Meanwhile as George’s riding career was winding down the sport was ablaze with charges of illegal doping. Armstrong famously denied any wrongdoing until he couldn’t, in large part to Hincapie’s own admission of guilt to the United States Anti-Doping Agency. (Coincidentally led as the CEO by Bolles School Graduate Travis Tygart)
“I didn’t give a lot of details because, at that point, I really couldn’t,” Hincapie told the New York Times at the time. “I told them that I was part of a time in cycling that was really screwed up. I can’t take that back, but I rode clean for six years and contributed to changing the sport for the better.”
George’s mea culpa and the reservoir of good will he had built up over his career with his hard working, good guy reputation perhaps saved Hincapie Sportswear and George’s post-riding career.
The week of USADA’s announcement, Rich had already organized a retirement ride on George’s behalf and was surprised by the over 1200 riders who showed up. “Only one person asked for their money back,” he noted.
And now, in part because of Hincapie’s efforts and stricter controls by international cycling organizations, George believes the sport is “nearly” clean.
“There’s been a culture shift,” Hincapie said. “Back in the day it was 90% were doing it. Now 90% just want to go fast and do it right.”
The Hincapie “Gran Fondo” or “Big Ride” grew out of the retirement ride and now they have events in four cities with numerous other towns asking for more.
“We’re going try to be really good at what we’re good at for now,” Rich said, leaving the door open for future expansion.
By their own admission, neither George nor Rich knew anything about the hotel business when they bought the 13-room, closed, wood and stone structure in 2012.
“The first five years were rocky, but we’re in a stable place,” George said of Hotel Domestique. “We have our best team we’ve ever had here in place. Service and food quality is the best ever.”
“It’s absolutely authentic,” Rich explained. “There’s really no other place, the look and feel of the structure, the roads, the authenticity, the bikes, the Garmin’s, the ride guides. The camps we have with George, Christian (Vandevelde) and Lance. People are looking for the most authentic.”
Hotel Domestique is also home to a destination restaurant fittingly named, “17” after the number of Hincapie’s Tour finishes. Much like the other businesses the Hincapie’s are in, “17” is high end, well respected and trying to get better.
“George’s brand was the highest standard,” Rich explained. “He was very well liked, so I could only damage his brand by not doing it right. So I try to do things at a very high level.”
While the Tour de France will captivate much of Europe, Asia and South America over the next three weeks, the interest in the U.S. has dropped because of the lack of American contenders. Hincapie, a cycling team owner himself, thinks that could change in the future.
“I think it can get better,” he said of the pro cycling scene in America. “The mountain bike talent is growing and it can trickle over to the road scene. We’re developing talent. We need more high school programs, it needs to be across the board.”
Almost single-handedly, Hincapie is turning Greenville into an international cycling destination. And one of the most cycling friendly towns in America. Rich moved to Greenville after his college career in Charlotte brought him there to ride. George followed him there a couple of years later and trained there his entire career. He now does television and radio PSA’s for cycling awareness. Cyclists are commonplace, and respected on the roads and trails around town.
“We’re forming a task force to get more awareness about cycling,” George explained. “This community knows the resources they have and what cycling can do for the economy.”
George still spends plenty of time on his bike and tries to do one “challenge” each year. He rode the “Cape Epic” mountain bike race this year in South Africa. But he knows his business now is business.
“I’m getting better,” he said of his foray into the boardroom. “The variables in business are so much more that makes it successful. As a rider I knew pretty much how things would go if I trained right and rested right. Business isn’t like that.”
So far, George and his brother Rich have been successful in the things they’ve gotten involved in. It’s a combination of George’s popularity, Rich’s hard work and ingenuity and the diversity of their endeavors.
“There’s a story behind what we’re doing,” Rich said. “That’s where we’re unique. People who know cycling know the story.”