A Champion Cyclist’s Fantasy Camp

Mj 618_348_a champion cyclists fantasy camp
Chris Rank / Rank Studios

After helping former Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong to seven victories, retired pro cyclist George Hincapie, 40, had just one name in mind for his new 13-room boutique hotel outside Greenville, South Carolina – Domestique. “In French, it means ‘to serve,’ ” Hincapie explains. “That’s what the hotel industry is about, and that’s what I did in my cycling career.” Every July from 1996 to 2012, Hincapie rode in front of his team’s top rider as a domestique, pushing the tempo in the flats, pacing the leader in the hills, taking the full force of the wind – and helping to ensure Tour victories for Armstrong. Always just outside the spotlight, Hincapie made headlines in 2012 by admitting he’d doped on Tour – a confession that many credit with toppling Armstrong. “I was always pretty open about doping with my family and friends,” he says. “And I decided to stop doing it in 2006, because I wanted to influence other riders.” 

Hincapie is now mapping out his post-racing career with the same focus that he brought to the pro peloton. “Some guys don’t know what to do after they quit,” he says. “I’ve been lucky.” A New Yorker born to immigrant Colombian parents, he and his wife, Melanie – a stunning former Tour de France “podium girl” – are happily raising a family in the densely forested hills of South Carolina: a cyclist’s paradise of steep climbs, quiet country roads, and warm weather most of the year. Hincapie trained here during 13 years of competition and has now transformed this backwoods estate 20 minutes north of Greenville into the world’s most upscale cycling fantasy camp: The coffee bar serves sports gels alongside espresso, and the exercise studio puts visiting cycling and triathlon groups through bike-specific yoga and stretching routines. The hotel is a “ride in, ride out‚” château with a sleek modern interior and a basement bike shop. It’s also a perfect hub for adventure: Over a three-day weekend, the hotel coordinates my ride with Hincapie and my tee time on an otherwise private, Gary Player–designed golf course. I also squeeze in a race in a BMW 335i coupe on a professional obstacle course. But despite all the options, Domestique is mostly about the bike: “Once people come here,” Hincapie says, “they just fall in love with the cycling.”

Day 1: Biking with George

While Hincapie isn’t always available to personally lead rides – check with the hotel for his schedule – I am able to book him as my personal domestique: the cycling equivalent of playing driveway one-on-one with LeBron James. On a sunny morning, Hincapie leads me through a car-free spiderweb of leafy back roads. I haven’t trained for this 25-mile introductory route, so, despite the advantages of my hotel-provided BMC SLR01 bike (retail price, about $8,000) with electronic Shimano shifters, his easy loop feels at times like the Alpe d’Huez. I take a short but steep hill in a too-hard gear and wonder for one horrifying moment about giving up. Then I notice 6-foot-3 Hincapie’s lantern-jawed profile – so familiar from the Tour on TV – and continue huffing and puffing behind the same long legs that paced Lance up so many climbs. “It’s not easy to train here,” Hincapie says when I catch up. “These hills have really made me a much better climber.” He tells me his cycling goals have grown more modest since retirement a year and a half ago. “I just don’t want to get dropped by my local cycling buddies,” he says. If that happens, I ask, would his friends be sad to see their cycling hero reduced to weekend warrior status? “Oh, no, they’d be really happy.” We pull back into Domestique, and I hand my bike over to the in-house mechanic, Jeremiah Ranegar (he also handles hotel massages). “Joe only dropped me twice,” Hincapie tells Ranegar – a bit of unexpected needling from the former pro cyclist widely regarded as the nicest guy in the peloton. Then Hincapie sees my face. “Actually,” he says, “you did fine.”

Day 2: Scottish Links golf and moonshine

“People say cycling is the new golf,” Hincapie says, referring to the rise of businessmen who network in group rides rather than golf carts. But the old golf is doing quite well here at the Cliffs, a nearby development of seven private communities built around top-tier golf courses designed by luminaries such as Jack Nicklaus. You can join the Cliffs for $75,000 or take advantage of Domestique’s corporate membership and snag a tee time for a $200 greens fee. At 9 am, I arrive at the Cliffs’ newest addition – the Player-designed Mountain Park course. The fairways have the rustic feel of a Scottish “links” course, where natural geographic features are left intact as part of the challenge. I play through native long-grass bunkers, with the Saluda River running throughout. In keeping with its Highlands theme, the course even has a whiskey bar, where, says imported U.K. pro Mike Williams, “you can sit outside in a rocking chair and watch the golfers tee off.”

Driving back to the hotel, I stop by the homey Copperhead Mountain Distillery and sample oaked whiskey (reminiscent of premium Caribbean rum) and clear moonshine fermented solely from sugar, like the backwoods stuff. “The old-timers drop by and talk about the old recipes,” owner John Connelly says, “but when they try mine, 99.9 percent of them like it.”

Day 3: BMW racing course

Greenville is home to the U.S.’s sole BMW production plant – and an all-day “performance driving” school with a custom track. Our class of about 15 is ushered into brand-new stock BMW 335i and 135is sports coupes and sent through a series of breakneck-speed tests that teach us how to drive safely in scary conditions. We run through a slalom course of rubber cones, practice slamming on the brakes at 50 mph and controlling the slide, and do rapid-fire lane changes, imagining the cones are an 18-wheeler that has unexpectedly cut in front of us on the highway. My instructor, Laura Hayes, offers advice through the two-way radio clipped into the interior of my BMW: “If you hesitate, you’re done, son.” The pièce de résistance is multiple laps around the “skid pad,” a 300-foot-diameter concrete oval washed down with sprinklers that allows us to lose control of the front tires (understeer) or have the back wheels slide out (oversteer) so we can try to recover. If we don’t, we go flying into a 360-degree spin.

Enjoying a cocktail back at the hotel as the evening sun lights up the Blue Ridge Mountains, I recall what Hincapie – who has raced the BMW track four times – told me about why he loves the region’s mixture of high living and ultimate sports. “Thirteen years ago, I just came here for the cycling,” he said. “Now I love being able to showcase everything it has to offer.”

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