Last year, like usual, Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France, and also like usual it was a killer, with thrills every day; but not as usual, the lion's share of them were supplied not by the Texan Terror, but instead just kept coming day after day from deep inside the suitcase of courage of his mild-mannered former teammate turned dangerous rival, New Englander Tyler Hamilton.
Tyler "Nails" Hamilton
Without a doubt, Hamilton was the real hero of the 2003 Tour de France, and holy hell, did he ever earn the distinction. After catapulting himself into a broken collarbone at the finish of stage 1, it looked as if little Tyler's jig was up, but the fat lady wasn't singing, and the next morning, he was there at the start and all kitted up to ride! Wincing in agony atop slightly de-pressurized tires and double wrapped handlebars in an attempt to cushion the blow of every little imperfection of the road's surface, he vowed to carry on to aid his teammates in the Team Time Trial on stage 4 and then? "we'll see," he said. His bags were packed in the feedzone that day, but he didn't quit. By stage 8, he was attacking the heads of state on the Alpe D'Huez while we all gasped in amazement, and 8 days later, he won stage 16 after a Herculean 100 km breakaway, the pain writ large all over his New England face, and this reporter cried real tears. By stage 19, he had clawed himself into 4th place in the G.C. by taking second in the final time trial, only 9 seconds off David Millar's winning time. Like I said: Holy Hell. That was a ride.
This year, Hamilton is back (and so far, uninjured), with his new Phonak crew. Word is, they are 100% dedicated to supporting his bid for Tour glory. Hamilton's performance in last year's tour with broken bones, figured alongside the excellent form he's shown in recent weeks, along with the fact that at 33 years old, he's not getting any younger - it's now or never, baby! - adds up to a pretty interesting package.
Hamilton's had a good year, with strong performances all season, including a solid second consecutive victory in the Tour of Romandie - which he targeted, said he hoped to win and did win; always the mark of someone to look out for, and a second behind Mayo in the Dauphine, riding, he says, below his best form. For my money, Hamilton is the only contender who's top form and peak performance as the unquestioned leader of a strong team against Armstrong in the tour is truly an unknown quantity. I'm thinking that things could get interesting when we find out what Tyler's got under the hood.
Hamilton will be supported by a strong crew in the Tour, headed up by another man who's been something of a sleeper: Oscar Sevilla. Sevilla is putting two wretched years of misfortune, injury and upheaval with the Kelme team to bed this season, and seems to have found a new rhythm with Phonak. He's riding strong, and his third place behind Hamilton in the Dauphine says he's on track to excellent Tour de France form.
In 2001, Sevilla, looking about 13 years old, rode into a 7th place finish, scoring the best young rider's jersey by staying glued to Big Daddy Jan's wheel. He's been hiding that light under a bushel (except for that one time, in Interviu magazine, though, in that case, I think it might have been a cycling cap rather than a bushel...), but I have a feeling he's going to let it shine on the bike this season. Will he work for Hamilton? I say yes: this is the man who worked for Aitor Gonzalez after being attacked as Kelme's team captain in the 2002 Vuelta. Ever the sportsman and an excellent team player, I think Sevilla will do yeoman's work for Hamilton in France, and could salvage a nice finish for himself as well.
Jose Gutierrzez & Oscar Pereiro
Santi Perez & Santos Gonzalez
Joining Sevilla as Hamilton's escort in the climbs will be Santi Perez, who has shown burgeoning form in the Tour de Suisse; along with Oscar Pereiro, winner of this year's Classique des Alpes, and more recently, strong enough for a top 10 overall finish in the Dauphine. Pereiro will also lend power to the Team Time Trial effort, as will Jose Gutierrez, who was third in the Classique des Alpes, and in addition to winning a stage at the Duphine, scoring top 10 results in all but one stage on his way to a 6th place in the GC; and Santos Gonzalez, who is a former Spanish National Time Trial Champion. Nicholas Jalabert brings with him a wealth of Tour de France experience, and first-timers Bert Grabsch and Martin Elmiger, a fast-finisher who took a sprint victory at the recent Tour du Languedoc, round out a quality troika of all-rounders.
Nicholas Jalabert & Bert Grabsch
Bottomline, race fans: Phonak is a tough team rallied behind a true contender. Some are calling Hamilton a dark horse for this tour, but I'd say that with a strong and dedicated team, his hard as nails true grit, and an ability to manage the agony that rivals anyone in a bike saddle, he's a bit more than that, and his team will, no doubt, be motivated to help him prove it, and what more can one say to that, except Vive le Tour!