April 24, 2014 (ISN) – George Hincapie was the “Loyal Lieutenant” who helped Lance Armstrong to seven Tour de France titles, only to later provide the key testimony that brought his downfall.
Now, Hincapie is talking again about one of the darkest eras in cycling.
In a book due out next month, part memoir and part mea culpa, Hincapie discusses not only his rise in cycling, from the son of a Colombian immigrant in the New York City borough of Queens to the top teammate of Armstrong, but also the pervasive use of performance-enhancing substances that came to mark an entire generation — and ultimately turned Armstrong from hero into pariah.
The Associated Press reviewed a copy of “The Loyal Lieutenant: Leading Out Lance and Pushing Through the Pain on the Rocky Road to Paris,” ahead of its May 27 release. And in an exclusive interview, Hincapie told AP that he “didn’t hold back” in relaying his story, whether it be the seedy underside of doping or the glitz and glamour of riding on the Champs Elysees.
“There were many times I said, ‘Why am I doing this?'” Hincapie said. “I wanted to tell my story and have the reader decide what to think about it.”
Written in narrative form, the book includes first-person accounts from several riders from Hincapie’s generation, including Armstrong, who addressed the issue of doping in a forward.
“Drugs were so prevalent in that era that the decision itself, as our team saw it, was either play ball with everyone else or go home,” Armstrong wrote. “And now the world knows what George and I chose, and we have to live with the consequences for the rest of our lives.”
Armstrong was stripped of his Tour titles and given a lifetime ban for doping in 2012. He admitted to using banned substances in an interview with Oprah Winfrey last year.
Hincapie, his close friend and confidant, was among 11 former teammates who testified during the investigation by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that ultimately brought Armstrong down. During his testimony, Hincapie discussed his knowledge of Armsmtrong’s drug use and described an endemic culture of doping within the sport.
“Lance understands he did a lot of wrong things, and I think he is truly sorry for the things he did,” Hincapie told AP. “Is it right, though, that he’s being blamed for 100 years of doping? I don’t think so.”
Armstrong writes that his team “held out” from doping in 1994, hoping that tests would be developed to rid cycling of drug cheats. But the following year, Armstrong said, the famed bike race Milan-San Remo “ended up being the final straw where (a number of us) decided we’d do it.”
Hincapie held out until 1996, when he found teammate Frankie Andreu in possession of EPO, a banned blood booster. He writes that “Frankie’s use of EPO was the final sign. And it was a monumental one.”
At the time, drugs were so pervasive that riders would carry them in suitcases through hotels, Hincapie said. When he bought his first EPO, he simply rode across the border from Italy, where he had his training base, to a pharmacy in Switzerland, where the drugs were legal.
“It was as easy as buying a pack of gum,” Hincapie wrote.
“We may have all lived together, but we didn’t talk about it,” said Andreu, who acknowledged doping in a 2006 interview. “We all knew members of our teams were dabbling with all types of drugs.”
Hincapie said that his drug use eventually “took on the significance of simply taking vitamins,” and described his routine. He took EPO every other day for two weeks before a major race, up until two days before the event, with testosterone or growth hormone twice a week. He also took part in blood doping, which had become prevalent throughout cycling.
Hincapie writes that neither Armstrong nor Johan Bruyneel, their longtime team director, forced riders to dope. But he did recall taking a vial of EPO from Armstrong in 2005, and that Bruyneel was “very involved in the process of our drug taking.”
Bruyneel was handed a 10-year ban on Tuesday for his role in years of organized doping. The verdict from an American Arbitration Association panel also resulted in eight-year bans for team doctor Pedro Celaya and trainer Jose “Pepe” Marti.
Hincapie said a close call with testers and the birth of his first child were an “epiphany,” and he quit doping in 2006. But his past hung over him for the remainder of his career, which ended in 2012, as riders such as Floyd Landis threatened to expose their widespread drug use.
It was almost a relief, Hincapie said, when USADA’s investigation finally caught up to him.
These days, Hincapie believes USADA was merely doing its job. But he also believes his team, and Armstrong in particular, was unfairly targeted. And when he asked USADA CEO Travis Tygart why their team was accused of having “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that he sport has ever seen,” Hincapie said he never received a straight answer.
“There are a lot of riders in the sport today going, ‘Thank God we’re not in that position,'” Hincapie said. “But they made it look like we were the only team, and I mentioned many times to Travis, he knew there were other teams doing this stuff. There were a lot of other teams we felt had even more aggressive programs than we did, and that never came out.”
(AP Photo/Christophe Ena, File)