SINCE HIS ROMANCE WITH THE YELLOW JERSEY got serious in 1999, Lance Armstrong has mainly steered clear of the European spring classics. Little wonder. These famously punishing road racesa series of seven-hour blitzkriegs held in March and April on muddy European lanes and slick cobblestonespresent cyclists with a swarm of hazards, including frequent crashes and muscle-mashing sprints. An injury could seriously threaten Armstrong's chances at a fourth consecutive Tour de France victory. But this season the 30-year-old superstar will take his chances in at least two classics anywayas a favor to George Hincapie, 28, a tenacious U.S. Postal Service teammate who has flanked Lance on the road to Paris the past three Julys, and who has tried for seven seasons to make his own mark in the spring races. Lacking a strong wingman, Hincapie has floundered so far, but with Tex on his side, his chances of success just skyrocketed. "He's helped me out all year long" Armstrong explained last November, "so I'm hoping to be able to return the favor." That's why he's lining up next to Hincapie at the Tour of Flanders on April 7.
Unlike multiweek races such as the Tour of Spain and the Giro d'Italia, which are won in long, solo mountain breakaways or during individual time trials, the dozen or so 150-mile spring classics generally go to the team that can best shelter its designated sprinter and beat down isolated threatslike Hincapienear the finish line. In the final miles of last year's Milan-San Remo, and again at the Paris-Roubaix and Tour of Flanders, the lanky New Yorker found himself hemmed in by opponents while his own support team sputtered behind him. With Armstrong's firepower on his side, though, Hincapie has a good chance of taking (and keeping) the top spot. "Lance commands great respect; he is the boss of the peloton," says Chris Carmichael, longtime coach to both Armstrong and Hincapie. "Having the boss make room for George will be a great help."
Even if Hincapie scores the breakout victory he's been chasing, come July he'll still be hammering the pedals alongside Lance in the Tour. "I've thought about riding for other teams," admits Hincapie, whose contract with U.S. Postal runs through 2004. Then again, friends like the world's premier comeback artist are hard to find.