Hincapie ends first weekend with yellow jersey

Monday, July 3, 2006
George Hincapie of the United States put on the yellow jersey after he took the overall lead following the first stage of the Tour de France on Sunday. (Associated Press)

STRASBOURG, France -- He can sprint, climb mountains and excel at time trials. And, thanks to some wily riding, he has the Tour de France's famed yellow jersey after the opening weekend.

Judging from his early form, George Hincapie is emerging as a serious contender to succeed his one-time boss, Lance Armstrong.

Hincapie on Sunday became the fourth American -- joining seven-time winner Armstrong, three-time winner Greg LeMond and time trial specialist David Zabriskie -- to take the Tour leader's "maillot jaune."

And he did it with flair.

On Saturday, the first day of a race blown wide open by the withdrawal of several favorites because of doping allegations, Hincapie had the bitter disappointment of losing the opening time trial by milliseconds to Norwegian Thor Hushovd.

The race-savvy veteran of 10 Tours didn't wait long to get his revenge.

He caught Hushovd napping nearing the end of Sunday's looping 114.6-mile route around the eastern French city of Strasbourg, at a sprint section five miles before the finish line that offered valuable bonus seconds to the first three riders through.

Surging out of the main pack of racers, Hincapie picked up 2 seconds by placing third in the sprint. That more than erased the tiny advantage Hushovd had held after Saturday's prologue and gave him the race lead.

"It wasn't really the plan to go for any bonus sprints but ... I saw an opportunity that I couldn't pass up and I took it and I think I made a great decision," Hincapie said.

Hushovd's day only got worse.

A few minutes later, in the mad dash to the finish, Hushovd sliced open his right arm when he brushed against an outsized green cardboard hand that a fan had thrust out over the safety barriers that line the final straightaways.

The cut bled profusely and needed stitches in a hospital. Tour organizers announced that from now on, the giant hands -- freebies from a race sponsor -- no longer would be distributed in the final stretches of flat stages which, as on Sunday, often finish with a mass sprint.

Jimmy Casper of France won the sprint and the stage, beating out Australian Robbie McEwen and German veteran Erik Zabel. The Frenchman will ride Monday in the green jersey awarded to the Tour's leading sprinter. Hushovd won that title last year and is aiming to defend it this year. Despite his cut, Hushovd placed ninth in Sunday's stage and is expected to start today's second stage.

Hincapie finished safely in the pack, placing 23rd. Because they finished in a big bunch, the top 171 riders all got the same time as Casper.

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