As Tour hits mountains, reality hits Discovery team

PLA-DE-BERET, Spain -- For seven consecutive Julys, George Hincapie faithfully toiled for the greater good of Lance Armstrong's seven consecutive Tour de France victories.

With Armstrong enjoying retirement, the 33-year-old New Yorker dreamed of stepping out of the Texan's shadow to become America's next breakout star by making his own run at a Tour victory.

Those dreams dissolved Thursday in the five-climb, 128-mile 11th stage across the Pyrenees as a dejected Hincapie rolled across the line 46th at more than 20 minutes off the winning pace.

While fellow American Floyd Landis was already being anointed as Armstrong's heir apparent as the Tour's new race leader, Hincapie's name was being erased from the contender's list.

"The general classification is over for me now," said Hincapie after his disastrous Stage 11 outing, dropping out of contention to 40th overall and 23:01 behind Landis. "I've been working hard to improve, but it's just not coming together for me. It's disappointing."

The 93rd Tour started out fabulously for Hincapie, an affable, hard-working son of Colombian immigrant parents who married one of the Tour's pretty podium girls.

As the only teammate to be a part of all seven of Armstrong's record seven Tour wins, Hincapie won a breakout mountain stage in the Pyrenees last year and gave his candidacy as Armstrong's heir some real credibility.

A strong all-rounder who can climb and time trial, Hincapie missed a win in the opening prologue in Strasbourg on July 1 by less than a second.

He showed grace under pressure the next day to grab the race lead with time bonuses to become just the fourth American to don the Tour's prestigious maillot jaune.

"What I did with Lance, I wouldn't pass up for anything," Hincapie said during his one-day run in yellow. "My career continues to progress, as well. The best is still yet to come for me."

It seemed that way in the Tour's first week. The newly confident and motivated Hincapie entered Saturday's decisive 52-kilometer time trial as one of the favorites. But his big engine mysteriously stalled and he could only muster 24th at 2:42 back in a discipline where he's regularly finished among the top 5.

The team was at a loss at the sudden fold.

"When he realized he wasn't at his best, it's hard to stay with the strongest riders," said Discovery Channel sport director Sean Yates, a former pro who now helps direct the team during races. "Maybe the burden of trying to carry the team was too much for him. It's a whole different ball game going from riding in support for seven years to becoming team leader."

Yates added that Hincapie's crash during Paris-Roubaix in April, when he dislocated his shoulder, didn't undermine his preparation. Hincapie also said his preparation went better than ever ahead of the Tour.

He entered the Tour as one the dark horses for the podium and lined up at a svelte 158 pounds, down from his average classics weight of about 165-167 pounds (the secret -- "Eat less, train more," Hincapie said.).

Then, the small disappoints and pressure started to build. The pressure-cooker of the Tour doesn't make things any easier when the top riders are going full bore in the season's most important race.

"When George didn't have the time trial that he expected, I think he started to feel the pressure," said Yates. "It's not easy to step into Armstrong's shoes. No one can do that and George tried to carry that responsibility by himself."

Hincapie's Discovery Channel team had grown accustomed to ruling the Tour. With Armstrong lining up each year, the team packed all of its firepower behind its proven winner and rewrote Tour history.

This year, the team returned to the Tour without a clear leader and hoped to ride the wings of riders like Hincapie, promising young rider Yaroslav Popovych and proven veterans Josť Azevedo and two-time Tour of Italy winner Paolo Savoldelli.

Discovery Channel boss Johan Bruyneel, the man who engineered Armstrong's historical Tour run from 1999-2005, was optimistic that one of his four-pronged attack could sneak onto the Tour's final top three podium spots when the race ends July 23 in Paris.

That strategy was torpedoed Thursday when none of the four ordained co-leaders could follow Landis and the rest of the best in the Tour's first truly decisive climbing stage.

Azevedo could only muster 15th at 4:10 back and Popovych 26th at 6:25. Savoldelli fell off the pace early and then suffered the double insult of crashing while riding his bike back down the mountain during the post-race evacuation and received 15 stitches to his right eyebrow.

Hincapie looked to be OK on Thursday, hanging with the lead group until T-Mobile cracked up the pace on the Col du Portillon with about 51 kilometers to go.

Team officials suggested Hincapie suffered the "bonk" -- a sudden loss of blood sugar that zapped a riders' strength -- and he could only watch as his Tour dreams melted on the road as the rest of the favorites powered away.

"I am going to try to recover now," Hincapie said. "And try to do something in the final week."

Azevedo leads the team at 18th overall, a distant 7:27 back and a gap considered too big to close. With three more hard days in the Alps on tap next week, the team knows its chances of winning an eighth Tour victory are over.

"It was not our day today and it was really frustrating to watch," Bruyneel said. "We know now we cannot hope for anything in the GC. Still, we have won seven Tours and the others are still trying to win their first. We can't win this year because our leader is gone [Armstrong], but they never beat us. Now, it's time for a change."

Discovery Channel will now try to recover its morale -- that cycling-centric word to describe motivation, ambition and desire -- and aim to win a stage in the Tour's final week to salvage some dignity.

One thing sure to lift the team's spirits is the planned arrival of Armstrong himself to the race, expected on Monday.

Team officials said Armstrong did a U-turn on his decision about attending this year's Tour. Last August, just weeks after winning the record seventh Tour, the French sports daily L'Equipe published a story accusing Armstrong of taking the banned blood-booster EPO during the 1999 Tour.

Armstrong has vehemently denied the allegations and just last month, a study sanctioned by cycling's governing body, cleared Armstrong of any wrongdoing.

Fresh off hosting The ESPYS, Armstrong is expected to hang with the team Tuesday and Wednesday during two important climbing stages in the Alps before regrouping with them in Paris for the finale.

The Alps were the setting of some of Armstrong's greatest exploits. The team can only hope that some of that Armstrong magic can rub off.

Andrew Hood is a freelance writer based in Spain who has covered the Tour de France for ESPN.com since 1996.