Hincapie in farewell Tour appearance

George Hincapie of the US, second left, uses his smart phone to take pictures during a training ride near Liege, Belgium, Friday June 29, 2012. The Tour de France cycling race starts on Saturday June 30 with the prologue, an individual time trial over 6,4 kilometers (4 miles) with start and finish in Liege, Belgium. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

LIEGE, Belgium, June 29 (Reuters) – George Hincapie is about to bid farewell to the Tour de France, a race he has competed in for 17 years.

The American celebrated his 39th birthday on Friday, the eve of the Tour prologue where he will beat the previous record for appearances in cycling’s greatest event.

“It’s surreal. When I started I was only hoping to ride for 10 years at most and here I am in my 19th year as a pro, riding in my 17th Tour,” said the New Yorker who received a bike from his BMC team as a birthday present.

“It dawned on me yesterday at the team presentation that it was my last Tour. It’s going to stick with me more and more with every stage,” he told reporters.

“I’m scared about what my daily life is going to be. The Tour brought me everything, it brought me my wife, my kids, my name,” added Hincapie who met his bride during the race.

However, there have also been hard times for ‘“Big George’ in the event.

“My first was in 1996 and it hurt so much that I was hoping to crash for it to stop. And I crashed,” said Hincapie.

It was the only Tour the American did not finish.

While he had his moments of fame and glory, like in 2005 when he finished 14th and won a mountain stage in the Pyrenees, there were also bitter regrets like the 2006 prologue where he lost by 0.2 seconds to Norway’s Thor Hushovd.

“Ironically Thor is now in my team and we keep joking about it,” he said.

Hincapie also has fond memories of working for Briton Mark Cavendish in the HTC-High Road team and for Australian Cadel Evans since last season.

“Cavendish is just a great wit – he’s hilarious,” said the American. “”Cadel is all about the sheer desire to win the Tour at 34 using his former close-calls as a motivation.”

Hincapie said he had enjoyed 15 special last-days in the race.

“Riding up the Champs Elysees is an incredibly emotional moment. It’s always different but every rider who has made it that far deserves respect,” he explained.

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