Hincapie takes yellow jersey in France

By The Associated Press

STRASBOURG, France-He can sprint, climb mountains, time trial and, thanks to wily riding, has the Tour de France’s famed yellow jersey on his broad shoulders. Could George Hincapie be the next Lance Armstrong?

No way, says the American who knows Armstrong better than most, because he rode with him on each of his record seven victories. But judging from his early form at the first Tour of the post-Armstrong era, Hincapie is emerging as a serious contender to succeed his one-time boss.

Hincapie on Sunday became just the fourth American-after Armstrong, three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond, and time trial specialist David Zabriskie-to take the Tour leader’s “maillot jaune.”

And he did it with flair, too.

On Saturday, the first day of the race blown wide open by the withdrawal of its top favorites because of doping allegations, Hincapie suffered the bitter disappointment of losing the opening time trial by milliseconds to burly Norwegian Thor Hushovd.

The race-savvy veteran of 10 Tours didn’t wait long to exact revenge.

He caught Hushovd napping nearing the end of Sunday’s looping 114.6-mile ( 184.5-kilometer) route around the eastern French city of Strasbourg, at a sprint section 5 miles before the finish line which offered valuable bonus seconds to the first three riders through.

Surging out of the main pack of racers, Hincapie picked up two seconds by placing third in the sprint. That more than erased the tiny advantage Hushovd had held over from Saturday’s prologue and wrested away the race lead.

“It wasn’t really the plan to go for any bonus sprints but … I saw an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up and I took it and I think I made a great decision,” said Hincapie.

Hushovd’s day only got worse.

A few minutes later, in the mad final dash to the finish in Strasbourg, Hushovd sliced open his right arm when he brushed against an outsized green cardboard hand that a fan had thrust out over the safety barriers which line the final straightaways.

The cut bled profusely and needed stitches in a hospital. Tour organizers announced that from now on, the giant hands-freebies from a race sponsor-would no longer be distributed in the final stretches of flat stages which, as on Sunday, often finish with a mass sprint.

Jimmy Casper of France won the sprint, beating out Australian Robbie McEwen and German veteran Erik Zabel. The Frenchman will ride on Monday in the green jersey awarded to the Tour’s leading sprinter. Hushovd won that title last year and is aiming to defend it again this year. Despite his cut, Hushovd still placed ninth and is expected to take the start of Monday’s stage two.

Hincapie finished safely, placing 23rd. Because they finished in a big bunch, the top 171 riders all got the same time as Casper.

Whether 33-year-old Hincapie can go on to become the undisputed leader of his Discovery Channel squad – a spot left vacant since Armstrong retired last year – remains to be seen. Competition within the team is intense, with Hincapie, Italian Paolo Savoldelli, Portugal’s Jose Azevedo, and Ukrainian Yaroslav Popovych all possible podium contenders.

To try to guarantee that one of them succeeds at the finish in Paris, the others will at some point in the three-week race likely have to shelve their own ambitions and devote themselves solely to riding for the team leader, whoever it may be, in the same way they used to for Armstrong.

But for the moment, team manager Johan Bruyneel, the brains behind Armstrong’s successes, is keeping his cards close to his chest, refusing to say which of the four he favors. He seems to want the cream to rise to the top and to see which rider is strongest before deciding that the others should devote themselves to trying to help him win.

Hincapie hopes that riding strongly in the first long time trial next Saturday and in the first mountains in week two will give him an edge.

“I don’t really need that term, to be called leader of Discovery Channel. For me, those are just words written in the newspaper,” he said.

“I know what my ambitions are, I know that I can take care of myself for the first 10 days. If I show the team after the first long time trial or in the Pyrenees that I can still ride with the best guys, then I’m sure that I will get that role.”

Having the race lead, even if only for a few days initially, certainly can’t hurt Hincapie’s standing within the team, which feted him on Sunday with a champagne toast. Armstrong sent Hincapie a message saying “You look great in yellow,” said team spokesman P.J. Rabice.

But Hincapie has no illusions he’ll ever surpass the Tour king.

“Everybody wants to see the replacement for Lance, but there really is no replacement for Lance, and I don’t know if we’ll see another Lance in our lifetime,” he said.

The Associated Press