Larry and I were a third of the way up the north side of Paris Mountain when a white-jersey clad rider flashed by us, descending at an incredible angle and speed.
"Dang, I think that was Hincapie!"
My cycling buddy Larry worked third shift and lived around the corner and four or five times a week we met for a 30 to 40 mile ride. We pushed ourselves, especially on the climbs so come Sunday we were ready to lead the way on the popular mountain bike rides through North Carolina's Pisgah forest. On this particular day we had met near Bob Jones University and planned on riding to Furman University via Paris Mountain's demanding Altamont road. It was a crisp fall day, the air was rich with oxygen and energy and we were feeling strong so on the way home we decided to take the hard way, back over Paris Mountain's 2,000 foot peak. We were maybe a third of the way up the north side when George Hincapie flashed past us. This was 1997, Hincapie was a respected professional and had raced in the Tour and Olympics so he was no stranger to cyclists and at 6'3" he was hard to miss. Larry and I shared a laugh as we pondered the sort of athletic ability one must achieve to become a professional cyclist, much less one that rides for a European team such as Hincapie. We thought we were making short work of the mountain when I heard a cyclist behind us. I glanced over my left shoulder and darn if George wasn't coming up behind us. With a melody of mechanical whirring and a rush of air beating off his spokes, George caught then passed us pushing an enormous gear that I would only have used in a straight line sprint or pacing behind a Winnebago.
Larry's eyes popped through his sunglasses as he asked. "Do you think he went to the bottom and turned around?"
"I'll bet he did." We were reduced to expletives that were fit for a sailor.
"Did you see the gear he was pushing?" Larry sat up and held his hands in a circle as I nodded and laughed. "I mean that thing would have swamped an extra-large pizza box!" I agreed with him and shook my head, reached for my water bottle as Larry did the same. No sooner did I store my bottle when a flash of white arced through a corner in front of us, left elbow and knee precariously close to the asphalt, head up and eyes focused forward. I almost choked on my water as once again, Hincapie passed us, headed back down the mountain. Larry and I turned in unison and watched him rush past.
"Do you think he went to the top and turned around?"
"Yep. And I think he's gonna go to the bottom, turn around and try to catch us before we get to the top."
Larry doesn't wait for me to finish, he accelerates and stands on the pedals and I'm right behind him. In no time we've settled into a rhythm and we're pushing ourselves-hard. We're breathing deep and our legs are burning. Larry glides to the left, leaves me just enough room to pass and our elbows brush, as soon as he slides behind me I stand up and go, my Cannondale twisting beneath me and I'm giving myself short goals. Push hard to that rock; now push hard to that driveway, now to that mailbox. I slide over and Larry pulls through taking up where I left off as we near the crest of the mountain. I imagine that George has gotten to a point on the road where he expected us to be, doesn't see us and now knows we're trying to keep him behind us and that thought gives me a bit more energy to push. "Keep him behind us" I think to myself. I steal a glance over my shoulder and here comes George damn Hincapie and his mouth isn't even open, he's breathing through his nose and his sunglasses are dangling in his jersey.
"Here he comes!" We stand up and sprint and with the summit just a few feet away George passes us, still pushing that monster gear and he's smiling.
"Thanks for making it interesting guys!" As he eased past us away Larry catches his breath and shakes his head.
"Son of a bitch! You believe that guy?" We were two very strong cyclists giving our all and George toyed with us as if we were riding a senior's three-wheeler.
I started racing bikes in college, years before it was cool and though I never raced professionally, I can empathize with all those pros that looked over their shoulder only to see George Hincapie bearing down on them. As he rides his final Tour de France, I'll raise a chilled water bottle in salute. Thanks for making it interesting George.