Climb like… George Hincapie (yes, really)

It was the toughest mountain stage of the 2005 Tour de France: starting at Lézat-sur-Lèze then 205.5 kilometres to St-Lary Soulan up the Pla d’Adet climb. Before this 8.3%, 10.3 kilometre final ascent, one cat.2 climb and 4(!) cat.1 monsters for over 5,000 metres of climbing.

The sort of profile that fills racers with trepidation, or even fear or resignation. For the sprinters and tired rouleurs, a day to quickly form an autobus, to hang on to the peloton for dear life in sufficient numbers for safety, looking to the experienced leaders to compute the likely cut-off time, and hoping for a good supply of potable beverages from the spectators.

For the GC contenders, then, a day of risk. An opportunity to grab valuable seconds, even minutes, to hold on to positions in the classification or to move higher. The converse, though: the risk of losing time – serious time – if one’s legs fail to perform as expected. Resignation over missed chances, where one day can spoil the entire race.

And for others, so far silent in the race, a chance for redemption. Perhaps a solo attack one climb before the final one, or sticking with the race leaders before darting away with 5 kilometres to go? And it seemed to be a stage pregnant with options for those wanting to take such a chance.

The perfect profile after 2 weeks of racing

So far in the Tour, Armstrong had been less than dominant. He seemed confident in the maillot jaune, but stage wins – unlike in 2004 – had proved elusive. He was finishing mountain stages with company, notably Ivan Basso, and had already been bested by Valverde; his final attacks in the mountains were coming later, too. Unlike 2004, as well, Discovery had not dominated and were showing cracks in their facade.

“Ullrich and Basso were both stronger than we saw in the Alps,” Armstrong told reporters after stage 14.

It was therefore shaping up to be a momentous day of racing. And surely the winner of the stage would come from among the top GC contenders, or from riders like Heras or Mayo, so far out of the action but able to replicate Georg Totschnig’s effort from the day before?

But it was not to be, of course, and the winner caught everyone by surprise.

When he crossed the line in first place, arms raised, there was a look of disbelief on George Hincapie’s face, and he quickly covered it with his hands in the shock of victory. Hincapie: Armstrong’s faithful lieutenant; ‘Big George’, the Classics specialist. The first member of Armstrong’s team to win a stage other then himself in seven years.

Winning the toughest stage of the Tour

And it seemed so effortless almost; Hincapie looked far from flustered after just over six hours of racing on the toughest mountains of the Tour, shot full of adrenaline from the win, poised in triumph as a clearly spent and dejected Oscar Pereiro crossed the line in second place.

Hincapie had chosen the right breakaway group early in the stage, which at one point had 15 minutes on the groupe maillot jaune. With such a gap, Discovery director Johan Bruyneel knew that Hincapie was too far out in front to call back to help Armstrong and effectively gave him a free hand to race for the stage.

As the group splintered on the final climb, Pereiro took the lead with around 5 kilometres to go and only Hincapie could stay with him. Hincapie had carefully conserved his energy reserves during the breakaway and by custom was not expected to work. He was still criticized, though, for what appeared to some to be an opportunistic win.

Pereiro worked the hardest on the final climb and Hincapie appeared much fresher in the final stretch, jersey already mostly zipped, whereas Pereiro had his fully open for maximum ventilation as he struggled to create a winning gap. Some later contrasted Hincapie’s strategy with that of Jens Voigt, who in the 2006 Giro on stage 19 let Juan Manuel Garate take the win after sitting on the back of the stage-winning break for much of the day, in a similar fashion to Hincapie.

Pereiro was later angry that Hincapie would not come to the front to work, but Hincapie argued that the crush of the crowds (where one runner was hit by the camera motorbike) had prevented him from taking the lead. Pereiro levelled some accusations at the conclusion of the stage, but approached Hincapie at the start of stage 16 to apologize. As far as the two riders were concerned, the issue was resolved.

The wider question for many, though, was how had this Classics rider managed to tough it out over the biggest mountain stage of the Tour to even be in a position on the final climb to contest the victory. Hincapie himself attributed much of it to his preparation for the Tour.

“It was obvious if I wanted to be on the Tour team each year, I’d have to improve in the mountains,” he was reported saying. “I’ve worked hard to control my weight and improve my strength on the climbs.”

It had clearly paid off, as the numbers show. Hincapie’s transformation was his ability to sustain the necessary power output for an extended duration to allow him to be competitive on the climbs, simply by generating sufficient power to propel his larger build up the mountains at the same pace as his competitors.

In a previous column I discussed the power calculations to determine power output on a particular climb and how this translated into a watt/kg figure for individual riders. Looking at these calculations for Hincapie and Pereiro provides some interesting conclusions.

The Pla d’Adet climb was, according to VeloNews, 862 metres of vertical ascent. Both Landis’ coach, Allen Lim, and other sources put Hincapie’s race weight at 79.5 kg (he’s 6’3″ tall, remember) while suggesting that Pereiro’s weight was around 68 kg. For comparison, let us assume both riders had UCI-minimum weight, 6.8 kg bikes and were carrying no other weight. Using rough timings from live coverage, both took around 32 minutes for the climb, or 1920 seconds.

Recall that the basic calculation for wattage is as follows:
(weight of bike and rider (kg) x 9.8 x elevation gain (metres)) / time (seconds) = power (watts)

For Hincapie, the calculation would be as follows:
(86.3 x 9.8 x 862) / 1920 = 380 watts

For Pereiro, as follows:
(74.8 x 9.8 x 862) / 1920 = 329 watts

Adding 10% for drag and resistance, as per Lim’s calculations, would give a total of 418 watts for Hincapie and 362 watts for Pereiro.

For Hincapie to climb with Pereiro, he not only had to sustain his power output for over half-an-hour, but also generate just over 15% more power to propel his extra weight up the climb at the same speed.

Interestingly, when one calculates the watts/kg figure, the result is 5.25 for Hincapie and 5.3 for Pereiro, remarkably similar figures in the circumstances. Pereiro demonstrated a better power/weight ratio, but it was not sufficient to climb faster than Hincapie.

We can also use the same calculation to look at Hincapie’s team leader’s performance on the climb.

The attacks on the maillot jaune were launched on the penultimate climb of the Val Louron-Azet, principally by T-Mobile. The group quickly splintered, forcing a showdown between Armstrong, Basso, and Ullrich. Armstrong and Basso were the victors from the chasers. But with the severity of the stage, the heat, and the wild crowds, it was a tough day for the maillot jaune. Armstrong appeared never to be in difficulty, but showed little of his previous dominance in such stages. His un-zipped, sweat-drenched jersey, and thousand-yard stare suggested that he had worked harder on this day than perhaps any other mountain stage in his previous Tour victories.

Armstrong shows the pain on Pla d’Adet

The numbers certainly suggest it. Using Armstrong’s race weight of 72 kg, and a climbing time of 29 minutes (1740 seconds) gives the following equation:
(78.8 x 9.8 x 862) / 1740 = 382 watts (add 10% for a total of 420 watts)

Armstrong’s and Hincapie’s power outputs were therefore quite similar in absolute terms. With his lighter weight, however, Armstrong was able to climb faster. His 5.8 watts/kg ratio was also quite impressive, demonstrating why he won this and six other Tours. Interestingly, in the final ITT of the 2005 Tour, Lim calculated that Armstrong generated an average of 410 watts during his 1h 11’46” winning ride, or 5.7 watts/kg. The only other rider to produce over 400 watts in the ITT was Jan Ullrich.

Hincapie’s win on this stage certainly quickened a few media pulses and he was quickly put forward as a replacement for Armstrong. VeloNews led the charge, putting him on the cover of its 2006 Tour guide, ahead of other American riders such as Levi Leipheimer and Floyd Landis with better previous Tour placings, or even other members of Discovery such as Jose Azevedo or Paolo Savoldelli with stronger Grand Tour results.

Still, why not. “He’s a complete rider,” Armstrong said in support of the idea.

Hincapie struggled in 2006

In the 2006 Tour, Hincapie was not able to live up to the hype, with a credible ride but a disappointing 32nd place overall. And the problem may well have been his preparation. Sources have suggested that he weighed in at 158 lbs, or 71.8 kg: a far cry from 175 lbs or 79.5 kg for the 2005 Tour. Observers suggested he was too ‘skinny’, and even le grimpeur was surprised at the Tour to see how lean Big George was in person.

Hincapie may well have suffered, therefore, by losing weight without being able to maintain his old strength and power. Weight loss means less to carry up the climbs, but if that weight loss is accompanied by a loss of power, then the results can be disastrous; Hincapie’s 2006 Tour may well be an example of this.

Had he been able to sustain his power to weight ratio, his climb up Pla d’Adet would have taken only 29 minutes and 7 seconds, nearly as fast as Armstrong and with the same power/weight ratio.

With those figures in 2006, he probably would have won the Tour. (According to Lim, Landis held 373 watts over the Col de Joux-Plane on his ‘epic’ stage 17 ride, and 401 watts for 30 minutes on the Col de Saises, 5.3 watts/kg (Lim quotes Landis’ weight at 70 kg) and 5.7 watts/kg respectively, so perhaps Hincapie would have had to still work quite hard to beat a ‘fired-up’ Landis.)

4 thoughts on “Climb like… George Hincapie (yes, really)

  1. I remember that stage well. I was a little disappointed by Pereiro’s complaints but understood that most of that was a bit of the sour taste of a missed opportunity and forgave. C’est la vie. Much like Eros Poli, I never gave Hincapie much thought to win a tough mountain stage in the Tour. It takes a “perfect storm” for that rare outcome.

  2. The difference in power to weight ratios for Hincapie and Pereiro is an artefact of the fact that you incuded the bike in the original calculation to work out the individual powers. Pereiro’s bike was relatively heavier (9.1% of his total mass as opposed to Hincapie’s 7.8%) and so leads to a reduction in his power/weight if you don’t include it.

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