SOLVANG, Calif. (AP) –– When the Tour of California raced through this quaint Danish-style village in the wine country above Santa Barbara, thousands of cycling fans followed to cheer a sport they still love for all its flaws.
After the time trial Friday, a small knot of those fans formed around George Hincapie while he rode a trainer bike next to the BMC Racing team bus, waving autograph pens and reaching out for handshakes.
“I’ve been following you your whole career, man,” one bearded fan shouted to Hincapie. “You’re the greatest.”
Nobody apparently knew or cared that Hincapie had just become the latest cyclist enmeshed in the lengthy quest to root out doping in the sport. CBS’ “60 Minutes” reported that Hincapie told federal authorities he used banned substances and saw longtime teammate and friend Lance Armstrong use performance-enhancing drugs.
Sitting on the steps to the BMC bus, Hincapie cited the ongoing investigation when he refused to comment directly on the report or his testimony before a federal grand jury in Los Angeles investigating doping in cycling.
“While there’s going to be scandals, the majority of the sport is clean now,” Hincapie told The Associated Press after his 25th-place finish in the Solvang time trial, a key stage in the Tour. “I believe in cycling. I believe in the future of this sport. This is a great race. Look at all how many fans are out here. They love this sport.”
The frustration in Hincapie’s face and voice indicated Armstrong’s longtime domestique on the U.S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel teams would prefer to discuss just about anything other than the allegations.
Using unidentified sources, “60 Minutes” reported that Hincapie testified that he and Armstrong supplied each other with the endurance-boosting substance EPO and discussed having used another banned substance, testosterone, to prepare for races.
“It’s really tough (not to comment),” Hincapie said. “We feel like we’re just being singled out. People don’t talk about everything we’ve got to put ourselves through, as far as testing goes. … Just ask around. Just ask all the other teams that want me to ride for them. I’ve got a good reputation.”
Armstrong, who has never tested positive and has always denied doping, is still considered by some true believers to be clean. Yet the sport has taken countless blows to its reputation while reports of widespread doping trickled out over the past decade, leaving the competitors and their fans almost inured to another apparent scandal.
“I don’t think it will (hurt cycling),” said Jim Ochowicz, a two-time Olympic cyclist and the president and general manager of BMC Racing. “Cycling has been around for what, more than 100 years? It’s a great sport, and I’m not here to go backwards. I want to go forward. Cycling is bigger than any one rider, even Lance Armstrong, and he’ll tell you that.”
When asked specifically about Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis, former Armstrong teammates who have directly accused the seven-time Tour de France winner of doping, Ochowicz replied: “I know they are liars.”
The fans lined Solvang’s streets to cheer Dave Zabriskie, who rode to a dominating individual time trial victory, and three-time race winner Levi Leipheimer, who finished second to cut teammate Chris Horner’s overall lead to 38 seconds Friday after the sixth stage.
Zabriskie, the Garmin-Cervelo rider who has finished second overall three times in the event, is still in 15th place overall despite his superb performance in Solvang.
“I wanted to leave the race with something,” said Zabriskie, a time trial stage winner this year at the Tour of Romandie and former race leader in the Tour de France. “So, I am happy.”
Leipheimer, another longtime Armstrong teammate riding for RadioShack, finished in 30:49.80. HTC-Highroad’s Teejay Van Garderen was third in 31:15.94.
Horner, who took the lead with a solo mountaintop win in the fourth stage, was sixth — 50 seconds behind the winner. Horner began the day with a 1:15 lead over Leipheimer.
“I felt my lead was safe,” said Horner, at 10th the top U.S. finisher last year in the Tour de France. “I just didn’t want to throw the bike down in some gravel.”
With just two stages left in the Tour of California, Hincapie is out of contention in 16th place, 4 minutes and 18 seconds behind Horner. He still hopes to focus on the weekend’s racing — which should wrap up just a few minutes before the full report by “60 Minutes” airs on the East Coast on Sunday.
“There’s new races coming up all the time, new challenges in cycling,” Hincapie said. “Why not talk about that?”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)