Toughing it out: Tyler Hamilton wants back in the saddle

Gold medallist Tyler Hamilton listening to his national anthem at the 2004 Olympic Games.  Credit: Michael Kappeler/AFP/Getty Images
The Toughest Guy in the World -- all 140 pounds of him -- is wrapped in a skin-tight melange of yellow, green and white as he torpedoes along at 9,000 feet above sea level. His pale blue eyes -- so pale as to be translucent -- are lasers locked onto the task at hand, which, today, happens to be a roller-coaster assault on assorted mountain roads on a fixed-gear bicycle.

The fixed-gear bike means the Toughest Guy in the World can never stop pedaling. His legs must perpetually trace perfect circles; straining so hard on the uphill it looks like grapefruits have been sewn into his calves, whirling so fast on the downhill it seems as if any minute they might spontaneously combust.

He will do this for 6 1/2 punishing hours, for 120 leg-pounding, back-screaming, butt-throbbing miles. He will do this today just as he did it yesterday. As he will do it tomorrow and the day after that.

Some days he will do it on the fixed-gear. On others, he will ride his more conventional, 20-gear bike. But he will ride. He will ride to train his muscles, to forge his lungs, to flog himself into an ever higher realm of fitness, the realm of Olympic gold medalists and the even more rarefied realm of those who refuse to let shattered bones prevent them from triumphing in the most boiling crucible in all of sport.

But these days, the Toughest Guy in the World also does it for another reason. He rides to distract himself from the very real scenario that all this arduous training might be for no reason at all.

And so if it seems that Tyler Hamilton -- he of the altar boy face and the soul full of grit and tenacity -- rides as if his life depended on it. Well, in a way, it does.

Today is the first day of the Tour de France, the world's most grueling cycling race -- perhaps the world's most grueling athletic event. But for the first time in nine years, Hamilton won't be at the start. Not out of choice, but by virtue of a two-year suspension based on a charge of illegal blood doping.

It is a charge the part-time Boulder resident disputes. So instead of cycling against the world's best, he cycles mostly alone, knowing that his toughest test won't come on pavement on a lonely mountain road, but in a Denver hearing room where three strangers will decide if he's a liar and a cheat or a victim of some terrible mistake.

The 'nightmare' began in Spain

What Tyler Hamilton and his wife Haven alternately refer to as "madness" and a "nightmare" began to unfurl in September after he had competed in the Vuelta a Espana, the prestigious Tour of Spain. A newly-instituted blood test found Hamilton and Santiago Perez, a Phonak squad teammate, had used blood transfusions from other people to gain an illegal advantage.

Transfusions provide a competitor with a wealth of new red blood cells; the more red blood cells you have, the more oxygen gets carried to the muscle tissue, the better the muscles work. The samples he and Perez had provided after the race tested positive for blood that had different "markers." In the eyes of the International Cycling Union, Hamilton and Perez were cheaters.

The shock waves that flew out were practically percussive. Tyler Hamilton a blood doper? The guy known as the Boy Scout of professional cycling?

"So many people said, 'If Tyler is guilty, then I've lost faith in the entire sport,' " said Neal Rogers, an editor at VeloNews, a national cycling publication based in Boulder.

Things would get worse. Officials retested his "A" blood sample from the Athens Olympics, where Hamilton had won a gold medal, and claimed to have found new evidence of an illegal transfusion.

Impossible, Hamilton said.

No way I'd ever do that. I've never even donated blood. I wouldn't risk putting someone else's blood in my body -- what if it was tainted? What if I wound up infecting Haven? Must be a mistake. Take another test.

Sorry, that wasn't "protocol," he was told. He also was told he was going to be suspended from competitive cycling for two years.

His stage victory in the Tour of Spain was forfeited. His Olympic gold medal would have been, too, except that his "B" blood sample had been frozen and, therefore, rendered invalid. Since two positive results were required for a blood test to be conclusive, the International Olympic Committee could do nothing. Nothing, that is, but tarnish him.

"He can keep his medal," said IOC president Jacques Rogge, adding pointedly, "It will be up to everyone to judge what the value of the medal is."

Hamilton had his medal, but the ground beneath him was crumbling.

He appealed his suspension before the North American Court of Arbitration for Sport. Opposing him was the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

The skepticism -- indeed, perhaps the antagonism -- of sports officials toward Hamilton might have been, in part, a by-product of the huge scandal that had engulfed the 1997 Tour de France when a car belonging to one of the teams was found to contain large amounts of performance-enhancing drugs. Subsequently, the team director admitted that some of his cyclists routinely were provided with those drugs.

That team, Festina, was expelled from the race. Soon, officials were raiding the headquarters of other teams, prompting an outcry of harassment from many riders.

In the end, six teams dropped out in protest, and by the end of the Tour, fewer than 100 riders remained from the original 189.

It took cycling a long time to recover, and ever since that debacle officials, and media, have been hyper-vigilant and skeptical. Even Lance Armstrong's six consecutive Tour de France victories, during which he always tested negative, produced muttering in some quarters that he had to be "dirty."

Given this, it was inevitable that when Hamilton's tests came up positive, lights and sirens would follow.

Feeling the weight of the USADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency and the ICU, Hamilton and his wife embarked on a long, expensive path to build his case.

Preparing the case

One point involved the blood test itself, which had debuted at the 2004 Tour de France and which they said was flawed. The flow cytometry test searches a person's blood sample for surface proteins -- minor antigens -- that can be used to distinguish one person's blood from another, even if they are the same blood type. But the cytometry test can be finicky, the Hamiltons alleged. And, in this case, unreliable, they said.

Corroborating this was Dr. Gerald Sandler, a professor of medicine and pathology at Georgetown University Hospital, who said the cytometry test was "being misapplied" when used in blood-doping cases of athletes because results could differ from lab to lab.

Another point was the testing procedure. One of the bedrocks of testing is that testers must not know whose blood is being analyzed.

This was not the case with Hamilton. In fact, the "positive" result from the blood sample he provided at the Olympics was deemed negative at first. It wasn't until nearly a month later that the IOC formed an outside panel of experts who then ruled his Athens sample positive.

Not only did the panel know whose blood it was analyzing, the group doing the testing was composed of people who had been paid to develop the testing method -- in other words, they had a vested interest in the process.

"The whole protocol under which the, quote-unquote, testing was done was not normal," said David Housman, a professor of molecular biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "There's no protocol that says, if at first you don't think a sample is positive, you can call up a whole bunch of people and have them decide that it is positive. That doesn't really count."

But these weren't the points of Hamilton's defense that lifted eyebrows -- and detonated sarcasm. No, that happened after he raised the possibility of chimerism, a rare condition where someone can have different blood markers in his system without doping. One path to chimerism might arise from what is called the "vanishing twin."

During pregnancy, a woman might begin carrying twins. Then, without her knowing, one aborts and its cells are absorbed into the mother or passed on to the remaining fetus.

The vanishing twin theory generated a slew of cynicism and catcalls. Sports Illustrated ridiculed it in its weekly "This Week's Sign of the Apocalypse." The head of WADA sneered that Hamilton should consider an "exorcism."

And yet, according to some scientific experts, chimerism is not medical voodoo. At least not according to Housman, who read about Hamilton's case and volunteered his help.

According to Housman, chimerism could be reason for a "false positive" and should have been accounted for as a possible result. But the creators of the test that Hamilton failed had not established a false positive, dismissing chimerism as an absurdly remote possibility.

"I do not regard the (WADA) criteria and its use in this context in any way, shape or form being appropriately applied," Housman said.

Other scientists spoke out on behalf of chimerism. Dr. Ann Reed, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic, contended that 50 percent to 70 percent of healthy people are chimeras.

For his part, Hamilton wasn't basing his defense solely on the fact he might embody chimerism. Or that he might have had a vanishing twin. Or that the test was flawed. Instead, he was basing it on all three possibilities; together, they should raise doubts about his guilt, he said.

Christopher Campbell agreed. Campbell, one of the arbitrators hearing Hamilton's appeal, wrote that the testing method "fails to satisfy the prevailing standards of the scientific community. In this situation, USADA should not be able to sustain its initial burden of proof and the case against Mr. Hamilton should be dismissed."

But on April 18, by a 2-1 decision, the arbitration board ruled in favor of the USADA. Campbell's dissenting opinion notwithstanding, the majority was not swayed by Hamilton's arguments and, unlike American jurisprudence, in doping cases, the burden of proof is on the accused. Hamilton's two-year suspension went into effect immediately.

"In the age we live in, the common defense of all athletes, with the exception of a very rare few, is to deny and publicly deny, even in the face of overwhelming evidence," said Travis Tygart, USADA general counsel.

"It would be a sad day for clean athletes if we blindly accepted an accused athlete's denial. That's why these cases are not decided in the media, they're not decided by me, and they're not decided by the athletes. They're decided by the arbitrators, who weigh and consider all the evidence -- and that's what was done in this case."

But Hamilton refused to quit. Even as his suspension was draped over him, he filed one last appeal. Maybe it was an act of desperation. Then again, maybe his unwillingness to quit simply was embedded in his DNA.

"There's just no give-up in this kid," said Steve Pucci, Hamilton's first cycling coach.

A gifted athlete

Everyone knew the boy was special -- a natural athlete, good at any sport he tried. And there were a lot of sports to try in Marblehead, Mass., where Bill and Lorna Hamilton raised three children. Sailing, soccer, cycling, skiing -- there was no off-season for the Hamiltons.

But it wasn't just that Tyler was gifted. It was something more.

When he was about 5, he jumped off a bunk bed and landed hard. He hardly complained, so the family continued its usual weekend ski trip. A few days later, they found out Tyler had been skiing on a broken foot. It was perhaps the first time, but certainly not the last, the Hamiltons realized Tyler had, according to sister Jennifer, "an insanely high threshold for pain."

To say nothing of an uncanny ability to attract it.

Take the time he got his foot caught in Jennifer's bicycle spokes and "filleted" a chunk of his heel. Or the summer he wound up splitting his chin three times -- stitches upon stitches.

"He was fearless," his sister recalled, "the more scabs the better."

Years later, Tyler himself would say he had no time for fear because fear "makes you slow down."

Which is why he was such a perfect fit for the Crazy Kids of America. At least that's what the young ski racers at New Hampshire's Wildcat Mountain called themselves.

During breaks from weekend training, they'd find fun stuff to do. Like grabbing the bamboo poles that served as ski gates and using them to pole vault over the half-frozen river. Or jumping on a slab of ice on the river and riding it downstream. Or slipping out when it was dark, taping flashlights to their helmets and flying down the frozen slopes of the ski run on their sleds.

Pucci got a glimpse of the relentless side of Hamilton when his charge was 19 and competing in a 115-mile road race, where the top finishers qualified for the national championships. Hamilton, who had come late to competitive cycling, was rolling through the feed zone, where riders were handed a bag of food to eat while pedaling on.

Hamilton got tangled up in the process. Instantly, he went flying through the air one way, the bike going the other way and both clattering across the pavement.

Bloody and banged up, Hamilton grabbed the bike, climbed back on it and rode the remaining 65 miles. On a two-wheeled death trap.

"It's virtually unridable," Pucci said. "The crank arm is bent and clacking up against the frame; the brakes are shot; the wheels are hitting the brakes every revolution. I'm telling you, I couldn't ride this bike 50 feet -- and he's gone 65 miles!"

And qualified for the nationals.

But for a long time, cycling was Hamilton's second love. Skiing was his focus, ever since he saw Phil Mahre win a 1984 Olympic gold medal. He expected to do the same.

Skiing brought Hamilton to the University of Colorado. He didn't make the varsity as a freshman, but he did land on the developmental squad. Then came his big break. His big, bad break.

In September 1991, while dry-land training with the ski team on his mountain bike, Hamilton went off a jump and landed awkwardly, breaking two vertebrae. Suddenly, skiing was off-limits for a long time.

Focus on cycling

Out of boredom, he began to ride during the winter. And spring. And summer. By 1993, he was captain of the CU cycling team, which he led to the NCAA championship. He was named collegiate cyclist of the year.

So long, skiing.

By 1995, Hamilton had turned pro. By 1996, he was competing for the U.S. Postal Service team. By 1997, he finished the Tour de France. By 1999, he was on the U.S. Postal team that won the Tour de France, serving as a "lieutenant" for Lance Armstrong.

And then he got really good.

In 2000, he made the U.S. Olympic team and finished 10th in the time trial. In 2002, after he had left U.S. Postal and become the lead rider for the Danish CSC team, he finished second in the prestigious Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy). Not only was Hamilton only the third American to finish in that event's top three, he did so despite breaking his shoulder early in the race. Tough. The pain was so excruciating that he continually ground his teeth together, necessitating 11 caps after the season. Tougher. Before the season ended, he finished 15th in the Tour de France with the bum shoulder.

By 2003, he was back for more. Much more.

In April, he became the first American to win the Lige-Bastogne-Lige, the oldest one-day race in pro cycling. The next month, he took Switzerland's Tour of Romandie. As Hamilton headed for the Tour de France, he felt big things were in store. Too bad he was right.

On the first full day of competition, there was a horrendous 35-rider pileup. Armstrong emerged relatively unscathed. Hamilton, of course, did not. His right collarbone was fractured in two places. He finished the stage, but barely. Haven drove down from their summer home in Spain to pick him up because, hey, toughness has its limits.

In the hospital that night, his limited French enabled him to understand that the doctor was saying, "The only way I could continue was if I could withstand a lot of pain."

Hmmm.

Incredibly -- collarbone taped into place, unable to properly grip the handlebars because of the pain, riding on tires underinflated to lessen the bouncing -- Hamilton soldiered on. Tough.

And then he did something really epic. During the 16th stage, on a 122.5-mile course that sliced across the mighty Pyrenees, Tyler Hamilton didn't just finish; he finished ahead of everyone. Tougher.

Four stages later -- after 23 days, 2,129.75 miles and the usual assortment of blistering heat, driving rain, lashing wind and general discomfort that make the Tour de France a nightmarish stew of endurance, valor and athleticism -- the ordeal was over. Of the 219 riders who started, 147 had finished. Among the latter was Tyler Hamilton, who wound up in fourth place. Toughest.

Even years later, putting Hamilton's achievement into perspective would prove difficult.

"I just can't imagine what it was like for him," said Ron Kiefel, a Colorado cyclist who finished the Tour six times. "Even if you're in perfect form, it's very difficult. But when you have the injuries Tyler did ..."

"Legendary," pro rider Scott Moninger said. "He took pain and suffering to a whole new level."

Maybe what made Hamilton's feat even more compelling was that the Toughest Guy in the World also was one of the nicest.

"It seems like most guys at his level in cycling are forced to put on two faces ... but Tyler is a genuine guy. There's only one face to Tyler," Moninger said. "Tyler's truly a humble guy."

Dismay to triumph

But by 2004, Hamilton wanted more than just a moral victory in the Tour. He switched teams, joining the Swiss-based Phonak squad, with one goal. "He wanted to win the Tour," older brother Geoff said.

The season started with promise -- he won the Tour of Romandie again. He had the fitness. He had the confidence.

He also had his usual bad luck.

On the first full stage of the Tour de France, five cyclists went down in front of him. Hamilton, skimming along at 45 mph, couldn't avoid the pileup. He flipped over his handlebars and landed on his back. He got up, changed bikes and finished, of course. But something was wrong.

That night, softball-sized bruises began to stain his back. He felt the pain, different from the broken collarbone in 2003; a debilitating pain that made him feel like a "broken-down car stuck in second gear."

He "faked it" for a week, hoping for a miracle. But this was the Tour he wanted to win, the Tour he thought he could win. Just finishing didn't hold the same cachet.

Then, too, there was another trauma -- the death of his beloved dog Tugboat, who had to be euthanized after suffering an adverse reaction to, ironically, a blood transfusion. Hamilton was devastated, weeping openly, wearing Tugboat's tag around his neck.

Everything was hitting him at once, and he just couldn't go on.

The Toughest Guy in the World blinked.

But by Aug. 18, the pale-blue lasers were back in focus. Over steep climbs, claustrophobic turns, cobblestone swaths and the stray oil slick, he did what no American had done on an Olympic road course in 20 years. Standing on the podium, wearing his gold medal, Hamilton felt a surging pride as The Star-Spangled Banner played and the American flag was hoisted. It wasn't the Tour, but it was close.

A month later, he arrived in hell.

Hamiltons' view

What awaits you outside the windows of Tyler and Haven Hamilton's 4,200-square-foot house up Boulder's Sunshine Canyon is not so much a view as a panorama. But if you can pull your eyes from the vistas of Mount Evans, the Flatirons and the Denver skyline, the inside visuals aren't too shabby: tasteful art, comfortable furniture, a killer kitchen, memorabilia and awards won by the man of the house, including the jersey he wore during his first Tour.

But as she sits in her wonderful home, watching Anchor and Tanker, their golden retriever pups, romp, Haven Hamilton is not in the best mood. She is "disgusted and appalled." She is "angry." She is "frustrated." She is "heartbroken."

Not that her husband, sitting next to her on the couch, is doing so great himself.

Asked how much the suspension has cost him in legal fees and lost sponsorships, he estimates $1 million and climbing.

"And that's not considering the potential endorsements I'd have had from winning an Olympic gold medal," he said, sounding more matter-of-fact than mercenary. It also doesn't factor in the impact on corporate sponsorships for the Tyler Hamilton Foundation, which raises money for multiple sclerosis.

Then, whatever vestiges of neutrality are left slide from his voice.

"Doesn't it show the world something -- what I'm doing for my defense? Would I spend all this time and money doing this if I was guilty? Of course not! I'm not that stupid."

He knows his appeal before the Court of Arbitration for Sport is his last hope. The hearing is scheduled in Denver later this summer; the ruling either will allow Hamilton to ride immediately or effectively end his career. He will be 36 in 2007, well past the age when he seriously could contend for the Tour de France.

Asked about the prospect of his career being over, he insisted, "I'm not thinking that way. I'll race again. I guarantee it. It can't happen (that he'll lose the appeal), it can't."

But it can. And even if he won't say it, he knows it. Just as he knows the toll the blood-doping charges have taken on his image, although he won't talk about it much.

Of course, others will.

"Has his legacy been tarnished? Oh, definitely," Kiefel said. "Sure, if Tyler is exonerated, he'll ride through it and persevere. But this will always hang over his head."

And what do members of the cycling community think?

"I've definitely spoken with people who absolutely believe Tyler. They don't believe he's guilty of blood doping; they believe there's a mistake in the test," Rogers said. "But there are also plenty of other people who believe that one of the nicest guys in the sport just got caught."

And what does Rogers believe?

"Put me in the camp that wants to believe Tyler. ... I consider him one of the sport's heroes."

A pause.

"At the same time, I don't know who to believe."

He's not alone.

"If you polled people in the cycling community, you'd find it's pretty mixed," said Travis Brown, a mountain bike racer in Boulder who competed in the 2000 Olympics.

"It seems to me like it's pretty mixed -- there are people who think his appeal is legitimate and there are people who don't."

Brown, a CU classmate of Hamilton's, backed away from an opinion. Still, "Look, Tyler is a nice guy, but through my long history in cycling, I've found that's never something you use to judge whether someone is using performance-enhancing substances. There are guys out there you probably think are jerks but who are straight as an arrow."

Kiefel is equally on the fence, although, "Personally, I believe that Tyler has enough strength of character that if he really did something he would fess up to it."

So does Gary Erickson. But the founder of Clif Bar, and one of the sponsors who has stood by Hamilton since the charges were leveled, insisted, "I believe 100 percent that Tyler is innocent."

That kind of support buoys Hamilton. "Believe me," he said, "I'll be back."

And so on he goes. Relentless. Over mountains. Down valleys. Through canyons. Mile after mile. Riding for his sanity. Riding past frustration and lurking suspicion. Riding fearlessly because fear only slows you down. And slowing down just isn't an option when you're the Toughest Guy in the World.


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