Julia Polloreno writes about her experience riding alongside cycling royalty and getting the rock-star treatment at Hotel Domestique.
The slick asphalt road began to rise beneath us, a black serpent lifting to meet churning pedals, as Jen from Omaha rides into earshot. “So, what was your heart rate on Alpe d’huez?” she asks, turning to face our two-wheeled tour guide, retired pro George Hincapie. Jen and her husband, Kevin, both avid cycling fans and recreational riders, are among our intimate group who came to Hotel Domestique in Travelers Rest, South Carolina, to hang out with a cycling superstar.
“Well, by the time we got to that part of the Tour, my job was pretty much done,” explains George, our generation’s most famous domestique, a word that means “servant” in French and “workhorse” in cycling parlance. “On average, maybe 150?” he says. In his 19-year pro career, the role of teammate is what Hincapie seems most proud of. Over the next few days at Experience Domestique, a three-day bicycling camp run by George and his business partner brother, Rich, we’re offered priceless insights into another world inhabited by athletic gods through impromptu yarns spun like our eager pedal strokes.
We arrived at Greenville-Spartanburg airport in the South Carolina foothills of the Appalachian Mountains just as the rain started. We spotted the Hincapie team support car curbside, and made a dash for the dry comfort of the Audi station wagon. Kirk, a Greenville native and the marketing director with Hincapie Sportswear, another of the brothers’ business interests and sponsor to a cycling development team and a number of top triathletes, navigated back roads en route to Hotel Domestique, about 25 miles away. Kirk turned up the long driveway and it was like a postcard of a chateau in the hills of rural Spain became animated. We gaped through rain-streaked windows at the charming European architecture with weatherworn green-grey stucco and a red tile roof. Warm light poured from a dozen windows framed with black shutters.
The European influence is carried through the hotel’s interior design. Rough geometric stone walls, wood plank flooring, antique rugs and a huge iron chandelier provide the elegant backdrop for punchy design accents like high back clementine-orange chairs, funky fixtures with vintage bulbs, and vibrant contemporary paintings enlivening moody dark grey walls. Our room, dubbed Columbière as evidenced by the framed sign on the black door, was an extension of the décor—rustic Old World elegance with creative modern touches. An iron four-poster bed outfitted with top-shelf linens, no less than six pillows, and a faux-fur blanket I narrowly resisted sneaking into my luggage anchors the room and sits about 8 feet from a fireplace and massive flat-screen TV. All 13 guest rooms offer sweeping views of the surrounding mountains, and classy in-room amenities like Hermès bath products and a mini iPad on the bedside table add to the luxury boutique hotel feel.
The three days at camp generally went like this: Wake up at 8, head downstairs for a cup of coffee before 8:30 yoga with local instructor Kelly (who specializes in yoga for cyclists). Tremble and breathe through 30-40 minutes of core work, poses and stretches intended to fortify and warm our muscles for the day’s ride (yes, George gets his Gumby on, too). Then, light breakfast (one highlight was the Spanish Tortilla, a egg-potato frittata recipe brought back from Europe) over a preview of the day’s planned ride, which ranged from a 1.5-hour climb to a 4-hour out-and-back across the state line. We’d get back to the hotel, attack the spread of incredible food prepared buffet-style for lunch, clean up, and then head to a daily massage with either Kelly, also an expert in bodywork, or Jeremiah, George’s personal soigneur for his last four years on the pro circuit (Jeremiah’s stories from his global travels as a soigneur kept us thoroughly entertained throughout our stay). Some free time around the scheduled massage appointments allows time for checking pesky work emails, uploading braggy posts to social media or napping. Then, a three-course dinner prepared by Chef Adam of the sophisticated in-house eatery, Restaurant 17, a name that nods to the number of times George raced the Tour de France. Wine is poured with dinner, expertly matched with the seasonal menu by the house sommelier, Lee. Go to bed deliriously satisfied by the day’s events. Repeat.
Although Greenville typically enjoys mild cycling-friendly weather year round, our trip coincided with a multi-day cold front and rain, so for the first day’s ride George and Rich decided we’d do a local climb, Pinnacle Mountain, and hitch a ride back to the hotel to avoid descending in the chilly conditions. Heavy fog did little to dampen spirits in our small group, though, as Day One consisted of a lot of knowing looks among the five guest riders on the bike as if to say, How cool is this? We were preceded and trailed by a pair of team cars on every ride, which takes some getting used to. For about the first three minutes. And then for the remainder of your time at camp you’re left wondering how you ever rode unsupported. Uncivilized, you conclude. We were furnished with BMC road bikes with electronic shifting and a dedicated mechanic, Ric, who followed in the SAG car. I made passing mention of being a bit uncomfortable on the foreign saddle (note: BYOS), and on the next ride my bike was outfitted with the type of saddle I use at home. So, this is what it’s like.
On our second ride day, after a few of us expressed interest in checking out downtown Greenville and the Hincapie Sports offices, George led us to town via the Swamp Rabbit Trail (not a local delicatessen, Rich assured me), a bike path that dropped us off right at Hincapie HQ. In addition to housing a retail space and corporate offices, the building also serves as a memorabilia showcase—with signed jerseys framed in glass boxes decorating the walls. One piece of art in particular hanging behind George’s desk—yes, he too has a desk job now—caught my eye. In the painting, George and his BMC teammate Cadel Evans rode side by side while reaching an outstretched arm to grab the other’s hand. There were hand-scrawled notes of gratitude, friendship and sportsmanship all around the painting. George provided the backstory: Cadel was trailing on the day of the Col du Tourmalet climb at the 2012 Tour, and Hincapie, who’d already crashed earlier in the day, waited for his teammate and led him up the climb. Evans later commissioned the painting as a gift.
The next day’s ride was a showcase of why the Hincapie brothers chose to settle in the Greenville area. You can ride on winding country roads beside tranquil lakes and rushing rivers for miles without seeing a single car. In the fall, the foliage change makes for an epic backdrop. Even in our dreary ride conditions, I could envision blissed-out bike benders stretching for hours.
A camp like this wouldn’t be complete without some athletic strutting, and George had some fun egging on a spirit of friendly competition between James, a TV commercial writer from Long Island, and my husband, Lance, for the periodic KOM contest or a sprint to the state line. But George’s biggest role was support rider, often yo-yoing within our group to bring up a weary rider.
A couple of times during our final ride, the fatigue settling into my legs after a climb up Green River Cove’s 17 switchbacks (1,000 feet), South Carolina’s own Alpe d’huez, I fell of the back of the group. Struggling to keep momentum over the rollers heading homeward, I suddenly felt a hand at my back, slinging me forward with whiplash momentum. “I feel like Cadel,” I joked, an attempt at shaking off the self-conscious frustration. George responded generously with a chuckle, and kept circling back to offer a piece of nutrition or a wheel pull.
When we got back to the hotel, I told him I’d named the ride on Strava “50 Miles on the Hincapie Express.”
Again he humored me with a chuckle. But I knew he sensed my gratitude.
For more information on Hotel Domestique, visit Hoteldomestique.com. Spots are still available for the next Climbing Camp with George, April 20-24. Cost is $5,000 per rider, or $7,000 per couple ($6,000 for couple with only one rider).