Hincapie, Lance riding on new ground

ADELAIDE, Australia -- George Hincapie leaned on his bike last Sunday evening, watching and waiting quietly as his former teammate Lance Armstrong, clearly first among equals on the Astana squad, emerged from a separate entrance at the foot of the stage where Tour Down Under teams were being introduced to a large and largely enthusiastic crowd.

Moments later, Hincapie filed up with Team Columbia, the last of the 19 teams to walk the runway by virtue of having propelled Germany's Andrei Greipel to a title here last year. It may be one of the few times in Hincapie's 16-year professional career that he had better billing than Armstrong in the same event.

This season won't be one of outright role reversal for Hincapie and Armstrong, but it will be one of shifting roles. Hincapie, long better-known for his super-domestique service in Armstrong's seven Tour de France victories than his own considerable talent, has come into sharper definition since joining the U.S.-based Columbia team last year.

The 35-year-old face behind his signature white-framed goggles -- the mirror lenses now tinted yellow to match Columbia's new colors -- is more open and relaxed than when he was younger. He is a father of two who co-owns a clothing company with his brother, and top young U.S. riders like teammate Craig Lewis regard him as a mentor. Hincapie is a captain on one of the best teams in the world and has little unfinished business in the sport other than the one masochistic and prestigious race that has always eluded him.

Hincapie's enduring ambition to win on the cobblestoned obstacle course of Paris-Roubaix in April is the reason he's here in Australia, competing in a stage race that's normally too early in the season for him to consider. He has logged seven top-10 finishes in the venerable classic, and his second-place showing in 2005 remains the best ever for an American.

"I wanted to try a little different preparation for the classics this year, and get more racing in my legs, see if it gives me a little extra edge," Hincapie said this week. "I find as I'm getting older, I definitely need more recovery, but I also need more intensity in my training to be fit. I have to be stimulated differently to get in shape."

It also put him in a position to compete with Armstrong for the first time since they were young pros (other than the Olympic Games, where they were technically on the same U.S. team, working together in the road race). Their paths are likely to cross a few more times this season, including next month at the Tour of California, where Hincapie won a memorable sprint stage in a downpour last year, and in a couple of spring classics, as well as the Tour de France.

Has he thought about what it would be like to go wheel to wheel with Armstrong instead of trying to shelter him from the wind? "We haven't been in that situation yet, but it's inevitable, and it'll definitely be weird for both of us," Hincapie said. "We both have responsibilities we can't put aside."

Armstrong reacted to a question on the topic in a similar vein, although not before trying to deflect it with the not-very-persuasive assertion that he is "softer" than he used to be.

"I'm sure we'd race our hearts out, and at the end of the day shake hands, and if it was the right time of the season, be the first two guys down at the bar having a beer," he said.

That theoretical and potentially theatrical confrontation may or may not materialize. Meanwhile, Hincapie's modest goal of getting in some extra warm-weather training at the Tour Down Under may have been altered Thursday when Greipel, who won Stage 1 and looked poised to contend for another title, crashed into a parked motorcycle on the side of the road at high speed early in Stage 3, dislocating his right shoulder.

Greipel is on his way back to Germany for surgery, leaving Hincapie and Australia's Michael Rogers to try to salvage a victory for Columbia. Team director Allan Peiper, changing tactics on the fly, assessed the gusty crosswinds battering the course and urged Hincapie, whose 6-foot-3-inch frame gives him an advantage in those conditions, to go for the stage win. "It was a strongman sprint," Peiper said.

Hincapie finished fourth in the stage and sits in 12th place, tied with seven other men who are 20 seconds off race leader Allan Davis of Australia. Rogers is in fifth place, 18 seconds back. Peiper said the team will work for the man in the best form in Saturday's decisive Stage 5, which includes two substantial climbs up the same hill. Armstrong is 29 seconds off the leader's pace and he likely will test his legs on Willunga Hill on Saturday.

Peiper needs little encouragement to wax poetic about Hincapie.

"I was a pro cyclist for 10 years, this is my fifth year as a director, and I don't think I've been as impressed by anyone as I have been by George," Peiper said. "And I don't overstate that." Hincapie's athletic versatility, utter commitment to the team and graciousness with fans are striking for someone with his résumé, Peiper added.

Hincapie's long association with Armstrong obviously paid dividends, but it also stirred some controversy in Germany when he announced he would jump from Discovery Channel -- which, unbeknownst to him, was about to fold -- to the team then called T-Mobile.

Scarred by years of doping scandals, the German telecommunications giant would pull its sponsorship a few months later, but not before the media in that country loudly questioned whether Hincapie should have been brought on board given perennial questions about whether Armstrong and his team used performance-enhancing drugs.

Hincapie never responded to the criticism directly. But team owner Bob Stapleton backed him to the hilt, saying the only thing that mattered to him was that Hincapie agreed to the rules and values implicit in the team's internal anti-doping testing.

When Hincapie signed with Columbia, there were few skills in the sport he hadn't mastered. He had won time trials, one-day classics, national titles and a mountain stage of the Tour de France. Yet in all the years he rode with U.S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel, he'd never really had to engage in the fine art of helping to set up a bunch sprint finish, since the Armstrong-era teams never featured a top speedster.

So Hincapie set about trying to hitch his car to the train on a team that featured not one but several talented sprinters. "With two [kilometers] to go, the whole team's there and it's not so bad," Hincapie said. "It's between 10K and 2K when you're trying to get close [together] but not go too early -- that's the hard part."

Columbia teammate Bernhard Eisel said Hincapie didn't take long to get a grip. "We have so much horsepower on our team and we do it so well, he fit in perfectly," said Eisel, who intends to help Hincapie achieve his dream at Paris-Roubaix this year. The teamwork paid off in last year's Tour de France, when Columbia functioned with machine-like precision in launching Great Britain's Mark Cavendish to four stage wins.

Armstrong's gravitational pull has strengthened again now that he's come out of retirement, as witnessed by the number of interviews Hincapie does that focus more on his old buddy than on him. But Hincapie is in a secure place of his own to deal with that now.

"We have a lot of history, and being on different teams won't change that," he said. "I'm very content where I am."

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.