Nicknames and jokes about comic superheroes are fun, but when you see George Hincapie put in a performance like he did today, that all seems silly. All you can do is have a quiet moment of awe and respect for the utterly unbelievable sacrifice, guts, and endurance of this very special athlete. He crashed around mile 3, and there was that dreaded picture of a rider sitting on the road, holding a crooked wrist - the kind of picture that invariably ends with the rider making his way to a team car or medical car, out of the race. But the attacks were already coming, and the day was too important, and George's team needed him. So he got back on the bike.
He got back on the bike and completed an extraordinary 100 miles of hard racing. With a broken wrist. And it's not like he just sat on to stay in the race. He drove hard for nearly four hours - first to bridge back up to the peloton that had broken in two, and then right up to the front of the pack, where he took long and vital pulls to set the brutal pace to catch the breakaway. And it's not like it was a flat stage. He was out of the saddle, muscling up the climbs. Can you imagine what kind of pain he was in? I don't think I want to. Just look at the picture from right after the finish, where his arm looks like a dead, useless appendage, and what he gave today starts to sink in.
I remember being quite moved by this passage written by photographer Graham Watson back in 2005, and it came to mind immediately this evening. He and others may write something equally eloquent tomorrow about George's incredible display today, but for now I think this still works rather nicely:
It's fascinating watching the way Discovery rotates its riders' working roles to defend Lance's race-lead. Yesterday it was Hincapie and Popovych providing the quality pace, today it was Hincapie and Savoldelli - tomorrow it will probably be Noval and Hincapie - it's always Hincapie with someone! But the team is carefully deploying its riders according to their strengths and weaknesses on any given day. For sure their weakest man at the moment is 'Triki' Beltran, who goes to work at an early stage each day and is the first to drop back, his face a mask of pain or at best discomfort. But whatever his malady is now, Beltran will come into his own in the Pyrenees, be assured of that. He is a hard man, a real old-fashioned cyclist who doesn't know the meaning of 'an easy day'. It is a philosophy that could be applied to Hincapie as well - it was he who dug the deepest on the Galibier when Discovery did up the pace just a little bit to keep Vinokourov's lead within reason.
Hincapie enjoys what is virtually a brotherly relationship with Lance, and he is determined to provide, one last time, that extra tender loving care to a teamate and friend who he values so much. I saw that look in his eyes today as he bent his back to the cause and dragged Lance and the group almost up the entire ascent of the Galibier. And even when he was dropped in the last two-kilometres, he gritted his teeth and regained contact on the long and rapid descent, taking his place again at the front of the Discovery train that reduced Vinokourov's lead even further on the fast run-in to Briancon. In the absence of Viatcheslav Ekimov, and the defection of Landis to Phonak, there is even more reliance on Hincapie to keep Lance out of trouble and keep the Austinite a happy man. George can amuse Lance more than anyone else, but it is his physical presence that Lance most appreciates, I'm sure. There's precious little time for them to have a laugh and a chat on this race, but words are not necessary when Lance tucks in behind gentle George - he's been there for almost seven Tours de France now, and has been very much the spiritual backbone of the team's success.
It was a great day of racing all around - CSC with the relentless attacks and selfless team spirit, Jens and Levi hopping up to an early breakaway, Stuart O'Grady's relentless pulling in the one that finally stuck, the entire Discovery team turning themselves inside out for their man, and JJ Haedo bursting out for the win. But I have to agree with Phil and Paul as they gave the HealthNet Move of the Day to Big George. And it appears that was even before they knew he had done all that with a broken wrist.
Levi and the boys will surely miss George dearly on tomorrow's nervous circuits, and if they make it through with victory intact, will be very sad he is not alongside as they cross the line. Here's wishing George a speedy recovery and a successful season, because the peloton is better for him being in it. And pssst…UCI and ASO - this is what unselfish, team-oriented love of the sport looks like. Get over yourselves and show some respect for days like today.