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.
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.