Lance Armstrong's former team captain and close confidant George Hincapie begins life in cycling retirement this week, leaving behind the burning question: Was his cooperation with doping investigators the reason Armstrong decided last week to quit trying to clear his name?
According to a source with intimate knowledge of the United States Anti-Doping Agency's case against Armstrong, Hincapie, once described by the Texan as his "best bro in the peloton," provided the organization with information pertaining to a systematic doping program that involved Armstrong and the teams he rode for en route to his seven Tour de France titles.
"Most definitely," the source responded when asked by Yahoo! Sports if Hincapie's information was a critical element of the evidence of doping it had connected with Armstrong.
While 10 other former colleagues had come forward accusing Armstrong of doping, Hincapie was the one that USADA desperately wanted. Armstrong has repeatedly poured scorn on the claims of old teammates such as Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, deriding them as the bitter utterances of men who themselves had cheated and been caught.
Hincapie was a different story, though, given the five-time Olympian's reputation in cycling and, more significantly, his bond with Armstrong.
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The cooperation of Hincapie was first reported by the New York Times during this year's Tour de France, was confirmed by a Yahoo! Sports' source on Monday, and appears to be a potential catalyst in Armstrong's choice to cease further legal challenges against USADA, which on Thursday stripped him of his seven Tour de France titles.
"The evidence that we've received over the last few months was just overwhelming, unfortunately," USADA chief Travis Tygart told the Dan Patrick Show on Monday. "Lance Armstrong and the other participants on the U.S. Postal Service pro cycling team participated in a very professionalized and sophisticated doping program all aimed to win."
Armstrong's aura has always been that of the ultimate fighter, having battled back from cancer to claim seven Tour wins and launched an international foundation aimed at eradicating the disease. For years he took that same approach towards those who questioned if his success could possibly be "clean," making full use of his legal team and claiming to have passed more than 500 drug tests.
When he gave up the fight Thursday, the immediate reaction was, "Why now?" And why would a man notorious for never backing down from a fight quit?
"Many will suspect that the answer could lie in the testimony of one rider in particular … George Hincapie," wrote British cyclist journalist Richard Moore in the Telegraph. "It was Hincapie who rode by Armstrong's side for all seven of his Tour wins. While other riders left and fell out with Armstrong, or tested positive for drugs, Hincapie was loyal to the end."
Indeed, if Hincapie was prepared to spell out alleged doping details in front of a court, it would have been a blow to Armstrong's credibility that there could be no recovery from; for this would have been no disgruntled enemy laying out the evidence, but a once-cherished friend who is named in the dedication of both of Armstrong's autobiographies.
"There have been times when I've practically lived out of the same suitcase with George Hincapie," Armstrong said in the book Every Second Counts. "In cycling, we're on the side of a mountain for weeks, in small hotel rooms, sharing every ache, and pain, and meal. You get to know everything about each other, including things you'd rather not."
Hincapie rode the final race of his career on Sunday, the USA Pro Challenge in Denver. He will now concentrate on his clothing company Hincapie Sports, but plans to retain some involvement with cycling.
Calls to Hincapie on Monday were not returned.
Armstrong's decision to discontinue his fight with USADA means that the full details of Hincapie's information may never be known – although the agency plans to release some information regarding the case in the coming weeks.
In a documentary film called A Ride With George Hincapie, Armstrong is asked how he would describe the now-retired veteran of 17 Tours. "I'd have to choose loyal," Armstrong says. “He was loyal to me as a team captain; he was loyal to me as a friend."
Yet as the weight of accusation piled up against Armstrong, it may be it was that same friend whose information caused him to finally give up the fight.
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