The man with the record number of finishes at the Tour of Flanders is not from that cycling-loving region, Belgium or even Europe.
George Hincapie hails from downtown New York and finished 17 editions of the race between 1994 and 2012.
The US Postal stalwart was a regular threat too, finishing seven times inside the top ten, including third in 2006. We caught up with the Classics hardman to talk all things Ronde.
Between the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, did you have a slight favourite or one you wanted to win more?
Probably Roubaix slightly more, because people know Roubaix a lot more here [in the US] than they do Flanders. But they’re both just as iconic and difficult; it’s hard to say which one is harder.
How are you regarded by the Belgian media and people?
Well, I think fairly good. I’ve done some interviews with the Belgian media where they’ve called me a Flandrian because I’ve done the race so many times, so they respect the fact that I’ve spent the majority of my career racing in Belgium and doing well there.
What makes the Ronde so special and what is it that you loved about it?
There’s nothing like the Ronde. Unless you race it or you’re in it, it’s hard to describe – even to a professional cyclist in the US, for instance. They have no clue how difficult that race is. There’s so many small roads, so many technical aspects of the race: the wind, the changes in direction, the fights for position, the distance, the competition.
There’s so much that goes into that race. You couldn’t create a race like that here in the US, there’s no chance.
There’s not many races where you change roads so much throughout the day and not only that, you stay within a 50-mile radius of most of the hardest part of the race; that’s what makes it so special.
Where are the key points where you have to be in front to avoid problems?
In Flanders, there’s a lot of key points. That first little flat [cobbled] section at the start where you don’t want to spend too much energy trying to stay in front but at the same time you don’t want to get there in 200th position because you could have issues, you could be blocked in the road through a crash.
From there, it starts and then every climb after that, obviously if it’s a cobblestone climb, there’s gonna be more emphasis on staying in the front. Nowadays you have so much information: where you’re gonna hit a road climb, if it’s a headwind it’s not that important to be in the front; you get up-to-date information throughout the race, especially if you have a good directeur and people who know the area really well, you can really judge your efforts in terms of position throughout the day.
It’s like the World Championships and Olympics rolled into one for smaller Belgian teams and many others. Are they taking crazy risks?
Yeah, for sure. Everybody is taking the risks, everybody has their own agenda and plans going into the race. It ends up being a battle from kilometre zero. You can feel the tension as you’re rolling through the neutral zone at the Tour of Flanders. You know as soon as they drop the red flag, there’s gonna be a ton of attacks.
If it’s a windy day, you have to start from the beginning already, staying in the front. So a race like Flanders, you’re full of concentration from kilometre zero to number 260.
When you first did Flanders [in 1994], did you immediately realise how crazy the Belgians are about it and how it fits into their culture?
Oh yeah, it’s like no other race you see, the atmosphere is incredible. To see people camp out there, they go from four to five to ten climbs throughout the race. There’s just so many spectators, it’s really impressive.
You referred to being called a Flandrian. What does that mean for you, what connotations does that carry?
I think it’s a good thing to be called. It means that they respected my career and the time I spent over, the emphasis I put on the Flandrian races, how it was a goal of mine every year.
I think it’s intriguing to them that a kid from New York comes over to their country and races well. Usually, it’s people that grew up there in Belgium or are European, they’re not used to seeing an American come over there and race well.
I have so much respect for the race, I never took it for granted. I’d always go there in the best shape possible, I’d plan my whole year around that week of racing, so I think they appreciated that.
Most editions you did were with the old finale, the Muur and Bosberg. Do you regret the change in the finale in recent years there?
It’s tough to imagine Flanders without doing the Muur and Bosberg, it’s such a historical way to finish that race.
But at the same time, cycling is all about change and I think it’s better for the spectators to be able to watch the riders three times, the way they set it up with the area there on the Kwaremont and the other sections, I think that’s part of the evolution of the sport. It changes for the better. It’s not any easier, either!
Were there any strange or funny things you saw, in the region before the race or even during it?
There’s some guys whose goal is just to make the breakaway. I saw it many times where they get caught, pull over to a tent where their family or friends are, have a beer then ride home. That’s kind of fun. And the fans, of course, love that.
In Flanders, you smell all the meat cooking and the beers. Some fans actually throw beer at you. There’s so much going on with the fans throughout the day.
This interview was conducted in December 2016