‘The Loyal Lieutenant’ by George Hincapie

‘The Loyal Lieutenant’ by George Hincapie

I recently review “The Loyal Lieutenant” for Diane Lees’ radio show/podcast “The Outspoken Cyclist.” You can hear this week’s show with her interview with pro cyclist and brain cancer survivor Jackie Crowell, as well as my review here. That I had more to say than I could include in a five-minute review won’t surprise anyone, so the full review follows. 

 

More than anyone else, George Hincapie sat at the center of the storm of the EPO generation. Hincapie’s pro career began before EPO was in widespread use and as Lance Armstrong’s “Loyal Lieutenant,” he experienced the same transition Armstrong did, made the same choice to use EPO. Partly because of his closeness to Armstrong and partly because of the incredible length of his career in cycling—no one else has ridden 17 Tours de France—his story is a chance to view cycling from a previous era, through the years dominated by EPO and transfusions, and into the present era.

A narrative from his seat held the promise of a tour of the sport’s underbelly; Hincapie was considered the rider who could provide the ultimate, unimpeachable testimony against Armstrong.

Alas, “Loyal Lieutenant: Leading out Lance and pushing through pain on the rocky road to Paris” (HarperSport, $26.99) doesn’t do that. As a result, it is the most frustrating book on the Armstrong era in print.

The book’s biggest problem is Hincapie’s own tone deafness to his position in the cycling world. Most of the first half of the book is a loving look back at his career at Armstrong’s side. From what I know of cycling fans no one is yet pining for a nostalgic look back at those days. This isn’t the year to observe Armstrong’s return from retirement as, “reunited with the man who helped create much of his magic, Johan Bruyneel.”

The fact that the book contains a great deal of clichéd language, overly trite observations and seemingly pivotal scenes that get telegraphed in impossibly brief language does him and the book no favors, either. For George Hincapie to write, “I rode with the strength of multiple men,” is not just a failure on his part, but a failure in editing.

LoyalLieutenant

This is probably a good point to mention Hincapie’s coauthor, Craig Hummer. I have to credit him with teasing observations out of Hincapie he probably wouldn’t have arrived at on his own. Hummer may be best known for his television announcing work, and while he doesn’t have an established track record in print, I don’t think this book would ever have happened had Hincapie not been able to turn to a journalist with whom he’d already developed rapport.

Hummer’s work on the book was exhaustive, if not investigative. There are numerous lengthy quotes with former teammates, directors and family members. At first, the praise is so effusive that the quotes read like he’s being eulogized, but the tone with which I read them changed as the book progressed. Honestly, without Hummer’s guidance, this book would have flailed in the mud.

Before I’d gotten to this book I’d already heard from two sources about Hincapie’s decision to stop doping in 2006. I applaud him for his decision and I applaud him for his resolve as well as his effort to turn other athletes to a clean path.

However, there are some serious lapses in this book. The book mentions nothing of his disqualifications after winning stage 8 at the Tour DuPont in 1993 or the US Pro Championship in 1997. Sure, they must have been painful moments, but they were, respectively, his biggest victories at the time and to be stripped of them must have been formative at some level. I was one of two people in the room with him in 1997 when he was told he was DQ’d and the look on his face evoked such pity in me I didn’t have the heart to press on with my interview. I had hoped to finally hear the experience from his vantage. No such luck.

However, those events are tiny tubers compared to the two occasions he describes seeing athletes dope. The problem is, he doesn’t name the riders. In another passage he tells of a young teammate who almost goes down the path of doping and Hincapie claims to have steered him away from that path. That he doesn’t name names is a vote for omerta. In dismissing the reader’s desire to know that information, he underestimates his audience, but because he underestimates the reader so often, these omissions read less as insults than failures in his judgment.

It would be easier to take him not naming names if he didn’t describe Tyler Hamilton’s doping behavior as “doing some dodgy shit.” He doesn’t miss an opportunity to illustrate Floyd Landis as a very bad dude, a point driven home when he calls him “the devil” outright.

So when he claims that Frankie Andreu got him into doping—a point Andreu denies—the reader can’t help but wonder if certain passages of the book weren’t redlined for editing by Armstrong and Bill Stapleton. The passage concerning Andreu initiating Hincapie into EPO use reads like it was prepared by part of Armstrong’s spin team.

The bigger problem is that where truthiness is concerned, game, set and match have gone to Frankie and Betsy Andreu. The balance of the narrative has shifted in their favor, so anything at odds with what they say reads, to most cycling fans, as false.

Later, in recounting how Chris Horner chased him down at the entrance to the Champs Elysees on the final stage of his final Tour, he says he asked Horner what he would have said to the authorities, to which Hincapie says Horner responded, “He was lucky he didn’t have to testify.”

Which shows that Hincapie isn’t against outing a doper. Hincapie’s treatment of the riders around him is so uneven, so erratic in its own right, but so consistent in its tracking alongside Armstrong’s grudges that one wonders how Christophe Bassons and Filippo Simeoni escaped some biased characterization. It’s this uneven treatment of the riders around him that undercuts his judgment as a narrator and makes the reader wonder if his selections weren’t being made by some other force, maybe Capital Sports and Entertainment in Austin.

Hincapie shows a remarkable naivete in how he assesses his experience with the federal investigation and USADA, whining at times that he was their “sole target” when moments later he’ll note the testimony of Levi Leipheimer, Jonathan Vaughters, Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie. He somehow forgets about Hamilton’s testimony.

In discussing his efforts to clean up cycling Hincapie comes across as truthful and sincere. But the Hincapie behind the scenes is at odds with the Hincapie we saw publicly. He writes of wanting to tell the world how much cleaner cycling was in 2010, of how much he was doing to show young riders another path. It was during this same period of time that he issued the press release in which he said, “ It’s unfortunate that that’s all people want to talk about…. I’m not going to partake in any cycling-bashing. I have done everything to be the best I can be…. I want the focus on the future of the sport, what it’s done to clean itself up. I believe in cycling and want to support it.”

Ultimately Hincapie’s greatest miscalculation is the public’s perception that the sport was riddled with doping. Even if he had singlehandedly convinced every cyclist on the planet to stop doping, because the public didn’t have any knowledge of those efforts, he receives no credit. Part of the job of cleaning up cycling is communicating to the public what’s being done. Fundamentally, it’s an issue of transparency and here again withholding names works against that.

The weight of the quotes do have an effect on the reader. It takes most of the book’s 296 pages, but by the end, one can see the respect which the peloton gave him.

The closer to home, to family, Hincapie stays, the better the book is. The most emotional and heartfelt passages are when he writes of his wife and children. Without those passages, I might have thrown this book across the room. The epilogue is perhaps Hincapie’s best moment. In a meeting with Travis Tygart he relates that Tygart’s parting shot was to ask what Hincapie would say to his daughter about his doping. Unable to answer at the time, the closing is the response he eventually formed and one can feel the weight of a parent’s responsibility and love in his answer.

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10 comments

  1. Maremma Mark

    Padraig, thanks for the excellent review, you’ve saved me from ever having to wade through this book. Not that I had any intention of buying it but some friend might one day leave a copy laying around our house. That is how I’ve come to read several books on the Lance story. There is one definitive book on the whole subject in my opinion, the one written by Juliet Macur.

    Really though, enough is enough. I realize it’s hard to put the pieces back together when the national hero is unveiled as being a world class asshole but the time has come to move on. So please, to all the current pros and ex pros out there who were caught up in the whole shit storm, please forget about writing a book to tells us all about it. We’re over it. I would much rather read a book by/about Marianne Vos and what it’s like to be a woman pro. Now that would be interesting.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Maremma Mark: As excellent as Macur’s book is, Hamilton and Coyle’s “The Secret Race” is indispensable to understanding that era, while Albergotti and O’Connell’s “Wheelmen” is the best book at giving the big picture. I can’t recommend either book highly enough.

  2. Kurti_sc

    The parental response you mention is something I’d like to read. Given the angle taken on the rest of the book, perhaps it should be …the STILL loyal lieutenant.

  3. Full Monte

    Perhaps George’s – let’s call them lapses in details – are more about image rehabilitation and brand reinvention than anything else. He’d like nothing more than to have cycling fans and riders to plop down some serious coin for a stay at Hotel Domestique in South Carolina, then spend even more for a one-on-one training ride with George himself. And George would also like us to visit Hincapie.com and hand over more of our cash for his expensive kit. Not to mention sign up to ride Gran Fondo Hincapie.

    No, this “book” was never going to be the gut-wrenching, soul-baring confessional that we find in Hamilton’s “The Secret Race.” Rather, I see “The Loyal Lieutenant” as an attempt to remind us how much we admire Big George, what a great guy he was (and is), and please forget about all that other stuff.

    So the question from me is this: Did the book succeed in its intent to serve has a public relations overhaul of the man? Does George come across as more likable, believable, and admirable by the epilogue? And would a reader be more or less likely to reach for his/her credit card to book one of his hotel rooms or buy Hincapie kit?

    Disclaimer: I think, having watched quiet, unassuming George over the years, I would personally like him very much (back then, and still today). And his B&B looks positively perfect and his kit well-made. What I’m digging into here is if the book isn’t really what the title purports it to be, then what is its purpose? And I can only guess it’s an attempt to clean-rinse George’s reputation.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Full Monte: There’s no doubt he’s still loyal. None. Does the book overhaul his image? I guess that depends on your current view. He doped and most people are pissed about that. This book won’t do anything to make anyone less pissed about it. Does it burnish his image as one of the most respected riders in the peloton, at least as viewed by his competitors? Yes, it does that nicely. But learning just how respected he was by his colleagues (who most cycling fans think of as a bunch of cheating dirtbags) does nothing to make us feel better about his doping.

      I don’t know what to make of the hotel. The rates are stunningly high. And the place isn’t in a real tourist mecca, which makes me question the judgment of those around him, makes me wonder if he still lives in an echo chamber.

      I recall the country club community that was supposed to be built near there, named for the ski area where he scored his stage win, Pla d’Adet. It was never built; none of those custom homes and the cycling training center were ever sold. I can’t help but wonder if the people who attach themselves to George are financial B-listers who didn’t have the coin to play with Lance. If that’s the case, I can see the possibility of an ongoing echo chamber where people who want to benefit from his dwindling celebrity won’t tell him the hard truth.

      Do I believe he wants good things for cycling. I think he’s sincere in wanting a cleaner cycling. I also think he’s clueless about what it will take for cycling to be both clean and perceived as clean, though I can’t fault him for not having the analytical skills to figure that out on his own. Still, if he’s going to write a book that talks about cleaning up cycling, someone should have sat him down for a heart-to-heart about how PR really works.

  4. Pat O'Brien

    Padraig, have you, or one of the RKP contributors, ever considered contacting George for an interview?


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Pat: Yes and no. Just prior to the book’s release there was one day allotted for brief phone interviews with select media outlets. We weren’t quite select enough. I suspect that we weren’t considered big enough, but if they had really considered us, anyone who really looked at us would likely have come to the conclusion that we weren’t sufficiently sympathetic to his plight.

  5. Pat O'Brien

    Thanks, Padraig. Like you said, he was not getting good PR advice. I think that RKP is exactly where he should have started. It appears they just went for the size of the audience of each media outlet. That shows a lack of understanding on how the web works today.

  6. Kurti_sc

    The hotel already existed when he took it over, so his investment – certainly unknown to mostly everyone- may not be as high as you might think.
    You’re right that it isn’t a Mecca , but it’s a darn fine hidden gem (for cyclists ). There are plenty of 40 – 90 mile routes in the area with very little traffic (none, so be prepared to self support) and 1000 to 1300 ft of climbing every 10 miles.
    WRT his image, he’s hosted some free parties and casual rides lately. Dunno. I mean I won’t go, but I think many would and do. That’s probably a good strategy if there is one. It’s also possible he just enjoys a good time. Why not? I think I’d rather have that approach than lots of plans and metrics. But I’m an average Joe, not a businessman / retired athlete.

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