Gunning for Lance

Tyler Hamilton arrives for a late lunch at a hotel in his European home of Girona looking as if he scarcely broke sweat during a 130km training ride in the foothills of the Pyrenees. The only sign of his morning’s exertions is that he has caught some Spanish sun; a native of New England, Hamilton has fair, freckled skin. The initial impression he makes is one of slightness, even frailty.

It is easy to forget, until one gets up close, that most top cyclists have the physiques of jockeys or bantam-weight boxers. In a long stage race such as the Tour de France, which starts on Saturday, the game is ultimately decided by who can prevail in the high mountains. That makes power-to-weight the crucial formula. With his slender arms, skinny torso and sculpted legs, Hamilton is typical in the pro peloton.

But any appearance of vulnerability is beguiling, for the Man from Marblehead, as he is known to fans and friends back home in Massachusetts, has a soul hewn from granite.

For several years he has had to put up with the tag of ‘the other American” in the Tour alongside five-time winner Lance Armstrong. But in the 2003 centenary edition it was Hamilton who largely upstaged his compatriot’s historic achievement by riding almost the entire Tour with a broken collarbone.

On the first stage into Meaux, Hamilton fell heavily in a mass pile-up near the finish. He remounted but it soon became clear there was a problem with his shoulder; he was whisked off to hospital for x-rays. A fractured clavicle is a classic cyclist’s injury; Hamilton had already broken the same one in 2002.

‘They [his CSC squad] left the decision up to me,” says Hamilton. ‘I didn’t want to give up. At first I thought for sure it was over. But there were three doctors and one was a little bit optimistic and said that the collarbone was still together; it had a v-fracture but he said it was relatively stable. If I didn’t crash again, it was probably going to stay together. He said if I could handle the pain, then maybe it was possible to continue.”

Handling pain is a Hamilton speciality. He started the next day and finished. And so he went on, suffering all the way: ‘The crash also left me with a pinched nerve in my back, which was affecting my breathing.”

Remarkbly he rode himself back into contention without even taking painkillers because they made him feel woozy. Although he could not stand up on the pedals, he was competitive in the Alps.

Then in the final mountain stage of the Pyrenees he scored a remarkable solo win, breaking away with more than 80km remaining. When the Tour ended Hamilton lay fourth, having ridden 4 000km with a broken bone.

‘On the Champs Elysées I felt awful — the cobblestones were quite painful,” he recalls. ‘After the finish it was nice but I was exhausted: it had been such a difficult three weeks for me, mentally as well as physically.”

Strangely, this extraordinary performance echoed an earlier episode in Hamilton’s career, when he had carried on riding in the 2002 Tour of Italy with a broken shoulder. He finished second overall but ground his teeth so hard through the pain that he had to have 11 of them capped or replaced after the race. Finally, following his epic feat in the 2003 Tour, he crashed during the Tour of Holland in August and broke his femur.

For Hamilton, who took up competitive cycling only after an accident in his first sport, Alpine skiing, left him with cracked vertebrae, comebacks after injury seem to be his party trick. He agrees that cyclists have a special relationship with pain: ‘I think so. If you can’t handle pain, it would be smart to choose another sport.”

And the fear? Does he ever start awake at night thinking about what might have happened, tearing down a mountain road at 90kph?

‘Sometimes you scare yourself afterwards when you over-think. The best thing is to keep a clear mind and not over-think things, stay relaxed, especially when you’re descending. The more tight you are, the more difficult it is.”

But to see Hamilton as a lunk not given to ‘over-thinking” would be seriously to underestimate him. He is, for a start, an economics graduate from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

‘For me, having the opportunity to go to college was very important,” he says. ‘To miss out on an education is a loss. I feel like I was lucky that I didn’t realise I was a good cyclist until later. You go to a race now and you go around and interview riders, I’d say 95% don’t have education past high school.”

Hamilton may have been a relatively late developer in terms of his cycling career but he has managed it intelligently. He spent six years as a journeyman pro on the US Postal team, the last four working as Lance Armstrong’s chief lieutenant. He is the first to acknowledge his debt to Armstrong and the two men have remained friends and neighbours in Girona, which is where almost all the American pros in Europe live.

‘[Lance] hasn’t been around much this year,” says Hamilton. ‘Last time I saw him was in March, at the Criterium International. I haven’t talked to him for a while. He’s been in America but we stay in touch. He’s got a busy schedule. He’s quite the celebrity back in the US.”

Hamilton admits he envies Armstrong’s success on the bike somewhat more than his public profile. Was it a tense moment, though, when Hamilton left the Postals to pursue his own ambitions?

‘Before I made the decision I talked to him. As a friend he said, ‘It’s a good opportunity for you, so you should take it.’ He didn’t try to keep me, he wasn’t mad. Certainly he would have liked for me to stay, I think, but as a friend he said, ‘Hey, this is a good chance. Go.’”

He says he learnt a lot from Armstrong.

‘Number one, you really have to dedicate your whole life to the Tour de France. It doesn’t start in May, it started in October and November. In fact, I started thinking about this year’s Tour de France really the day the Tour finished in the Champs Elysées. I started thinking about how I could do it better, how I could be stronger in the 2004 Tour.”

Learning from Armstrong about the need to have a team completely dedicated to their leader is what led Hamilton to make this year’s move, which took many by surprise, from the former Tour winner Bjarne Riis’s powerful CSC team to the relatively unknown Swiss Phonak outfit. Apart from Alex Zülle, now in the twilight years of a long and successful career, there are few household names on Phonak. But that, says Hamilton, is missing the point.

‘You’ll see that in our team this year a lot of the riders do not have a long list of palmares [victories] but they are as strong as a horse and dedicated to the team leader and that’s very important. If you do have a team where every rider has a huge list of results, that means everybody wants to do the race for themselves. The strongest team in the Tour is not the strongest team on paper.”

Last month Hamilton won, for the second consecutive year, the Tour of Romandie, an important Swiss stage race. Tucking into a mountainous salad, Hamilton appears buoyed by the victory.

‘Romandie was a good way to finish the first part of the season. We had a great race. The most important thing to me was that we rode as a cohesive unit — not necessarily that we won but that we were the strongest team in the race, for sure.”

While this might sound like standard ‘team leader talking up prospects” stuff, following Phonak’s subsequent results has been instructive. In June’s week-long Dauphiné Libéré stage race, traditionally used as a pre-Tour warm-up by the favourites, Hamilton came second behind the Spanish climbing ace Iban Mayo. 

Armstrong was fourth behind Hamilton’s teammate Oscar Sevilla. And Hamilton had said he was going to use the Dauphiné for ‘training” only.

Still more significantly, given that one of the decisive stages in this year’s Tour de France will be a time-trial (individual race against the clock) up the Alpe d’Huez, the Dauphiné included a trial to the top of Provence’s daunting Mont Ventoux.

Phonak placed five men in the top 15. In recent Tours what Armstrong calls the ‘blue train” of his US Postal squad has dictated the race in the mountains. This year a rather lurid green-and-yellow version may be much in evidence.

‘Taking out a flat time-trial and adding a mountain time-trial is a big advantage to guys like Mayo, [Ivan] Basso, [Roberto] Heras,” Hamilton forecasts, ‘because the strong time-triallists are not going to put two, three minutes into those guys. This year’s Tour suits more of a pure climber than in the past. It’ll be a more open Tour than for some time.”

So could it be Hamilton’s year?

‘I think I have a chance,” he says. ‘There’s Lance, there’s [Jan] Ullrich, there are many others who are big contenders. For me, I think I need to ride a perfect race. Lance last year, he didn’t ride a perfect race and he still won.”

Though his boyish, almost baby-faced looks belie it, at 33 the clock is running for Hamilton. He feels, though, that his best is yet to come.

‘As long as I’m enjoying it, feeling like I’m still improving, and have the passion for it I want to continue. I’m never satisfied. I always want to achieve more.

‘I think Lance Armstrong has that in him, the same dedication to being perfect, to riding the best race. That’s the fire inside me.” —

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