King of Pain
Professional cyclist and Olympic medalist Tyler Hamilton is known, paradoxically, as a really nice guy and a really tough one - and more recently, as a cheater. Nice because of his softspoken politeness. Tough because of his tenacity: several times he has finished races in spite of broken bones sustained on the course - for Hamilton is also accident prone. And a cheater because he has been convicted of blood doping and been banned from professional cycling from fall 2004 to fall 2006.
Born in 1971 in Marblehead, Massachusetts, the Hamilton family was a sporty, outdoorsy clan. Tyler, his parents, and his brother and sister cycled, sailed, skiied, rafted, and climbed mountains. In college the young man was a promising downhill skiier, till he broke two vertebrae in a mountain-biking crash, putting paid to that career. He then turned to cycling, and turned pro in 1995.
That same year he got a golden retriever puppy which he named Tugboat; the two were best friends. Tugboat remained his primary family until he met a young woman named Haven; they married in 1998, over her parents' objections (they were concerned that he didn't have a "real" career).
Hamilton rode well in a time trial in the 1998 Tour de France, and from 1999 to 2001 supported Lance Armstrong in the US Postal squad, assisting that great cyclist and cancer survivor to win his first three Tours de France. Hamilton left the team for the 2002 season and joined CSC, under the leadership of 1996 Tour winner Bjarne Riis. Professionally, it was a good move, for Riis has a reputation for helping cyclists reach their potential, and today Hamilton says he learned how to be a leader under Riis' tutelage. It is a testament to Hamilton's genuine niceness that he and Armstrong remained friends, for the bristly Texan is apt to interpret leaving his team as betrayal and disloyalty.
With CSC Hamilton rode to second place in the gruelling Giro d'Italia; he might have won if he hadn't crashed and broken his shoulder. So great was the pain that he ground a dozen molars down to the nerves and had to have them reconstructed after the race. In 2003 he won the brutal one-day classic, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, then a week later the Tour of Romandie. Everything looked good for the 2003 Tour de France. But on the first day he crashed, breaking a collarbone. A common cycling injury, broken collarbones usually take a rider out of the race. However, a doctor said Hamilton's bone was cracked but not displaced so, if he didn't crash again, he could probably continue. Just what the determined rider was waiting to hear. On he went.
The pain was intense, eased only a bit by the presence of his family: Haven drove in with Tugboat and they stayed with the cyclist while he rode the 20 plus days remaining. The huge slobbery dog seemed to know that his master was in pain and restrained himself from jumping onto the bed, sleeping instead on the floor by Hamilton's side. The gritty New Englander kept up with the leaders on the mountains and finished the race in an impressive fourth place; he even staged a long solo breakaway and won a stage. It was truly inspiring to see his grimacing face, wet with tears (anti-doping regulations meant he couldn't take anything stronger than Tylenol for the pain) as he rode 142 km alone, and his joy when he realized he was going to win the stage. On the podium he could not even lift his arm to wave. King of pain indeed.
In 2004 he again won the Tour of Romandie, and began to be considered one of the few real contenders in the lead-up to the 2004 Tour de France. Accordingly, he got quite a bit of publicity, as did Tugboat, who was often included in the photos and featured in the articles; Haven joked that the canine got more attention than she did. When the Tour began Hamilton was riding to win, bolstered by a new team, Phonak, built specifically to take him to the podium. But, true to form, he was involved in a crash early on, and catapulted over his handlebars, landing hard on his spine and badly bruising his back. He pedaled on through the first week's flat stages.
Then Hamilton got some very sad news: just before the first rest day his dog had collapsed; he was diagnosed with cancer and would have to be put down. Haven drove from their home in Spain to France with a heavily sedated Tugboat for one last night; poor Tyler shed a few tears before bidding his old friend good-bye for the last time.
The race turned up into the mountains and Hamilton found that he could not continue: the problem wasn't the searing pain that he had overcome in the past, but rather that hematomas prevented him from throwing his back into his pedalling, taking crucial power from his legs. Rather than risk long-term injury he abandoned the race, bitterly disappointed, but classy to the last, he slowly cruised past each team car, waving good-bye to the directeurs sportifs, before removing his race number off his back.
Hamilton took a week off to see how he felt; he felt okay, so he started training for the 2004 Olympics. First was the road race, but he was saving his real effort for the time trial, which he won. Former gold medallist Viatcheslav Ekimov came second, and fellow American Bobby Julich (newly rejuvinated after having joined Hamilton's old team CSC) came third. It was a career highlight and a triumphant high point in what had been a very difficult year for Hamilton.
But worse was to come. In a sport plagued by drug scandals, Tyler Hamilton had been regarded a true grit professional, so the cycling world was rocked to hear, in September 2004, that he had tested positive for blood doping at the Olympics and again at the Vuelta a España. The test that he failed was a new one that for the first time can detect whether someone had injected another person's blood in order to boost performance. The test is performed twice to verify results before an athlete is pronounced guilty. Hamilton's Olympic blood sample was accidentally frozen, rendering the sample useless for a second test, so he will be allowed to keep his medal, though it is now forever tainted. His Vuelta tests both came out positive, however, so he was suspended from competition. Hamilton has has steadfastly maintained his innocence, but escalating appeals did not overturn the suspension. He can race again in September 2006, but he will a bit old to be a podium contender.
In 2003 Hamilton started the Tyler Hamilton Foundation to raise money in support of people suffering from multiple sclerosis and to support amateur cyclists. Find out about the foundation's activities, and donate, at www.tylerhamiltonfoundation.org.