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"You Can Ask Me Anything" A conversation with Tyler Hamilton
 
By Charlie Melk
Date: 3/20/2006
"You Can Ask Me Anything" A conversation with Tyler Hamilton
 

“You Can Ask Me Anything” A Conversation with Tyler Hamilton
This interview traces Tyler’s path from his earliest cycling days through his suspension; it also addresses his hopes for the future, not only for his career but also for the sport in general.

To many, the name Tyler Hamilton implies many things in 2006 that it didn’t in 2004.  A year and a half into his suspension for allegedly transfusing someone else’s blood, and at the end of a lengthy appeal process that ultimately ended negatively for him, he waits now, readying himself for a return to the sport he loves.  But as you’ll read, he’s not just sitting around, letting the external events of this case happen to him.

For some, Tyler Hamilton has always been guilty.  Conversely, others will always remain faithful believers in his innocence.  Many people have already made up their minds, one way or the other, and there is seemingly little ground in the middle to waver for them. The accusations have been made, the sanction has been delivered, and the appeals have been lost—all that is left now is for him to make sense of this chapter of his life and move forward. 

Personally, I find it hard to remain unaffected by the human side of his story, especially after speaking with him. 

I found Tyler to be extraordinarily generous in both the time he took for this interview and the obvious effort he made to answer every question I had, completely and to the best of his ability.  Through talking with him, I found myself affected by his calm, insightful, and clear responses.  His openness, the details with which he supported his answers and his obvious passion for the sport of cycling all speak of a person who possesses a quiet confidence in his own innocence and a firm, implicit belief in himself. 

This interview traces Tyler’s path from his earliest cycling days through his suspension, and it also addresses his hopes for the future, not only for his career but also for the sport in general.  Further on that note, all of the questions in this interview are my own.

Despite the legal travails of the past year and a half and an unsolicited view of many elements of the underbelly of the sport, Tyler remains steadfastly determined to provide honest and detailed answers to anyone who asks—and yes, that means you too.  If you do plan to ask, though, please do enough research first to make sure that your question is well-founded.  This fact sheet is a good place to start.  Many of these topics were also expanded on in this article. Within a matter of weeks, Tyler will have a forum on his website.  Until then, however, all questions can be addressed to him, in a respectful manner, as befits a genuine seeker of the truth on this matter, in his guestbook.

  Just as Tyler said to me at the beginning of this interview, “You can ask me anything.” - now he has said it to you, as well. 

So, how did all of this begin?  How did you get into bike racing?

Well, I was a downhill skier, and downhill skiers ski pretty much from late October through early April.  And then, to stay in shape for the ski season, we do all sorts of things, and riding your bike is one of them. 

I rode my bike as a little kid a bit, before I started to race.  I started, probably when I was 10, just chipping away at it, but I never really raced.  And, kind of, for me, I always needed a carrot.  And I started to race in high school a little bit - my high school had a cycling team - so when I was 17, I started to do some prep-school racing, it was called—it was a private school.  So I did that a little bit.  But it didn’t really start to get serious until I was probably about 19 or 20.  So I started pretty late.  For me, really, my passion was still ski racing.

I mean, I came here, to the University of Colorado, obviously to get my education, but CU has the top ski program in the country - yesterday they just won their 15th national championship.  So I came here for that - skiing was my passion, really, all through my sophomore year. 

And then I broke my back, training with the CU ski team my sophomore year - when I was 20 - and then I had some basis for racing from prep school, and I had done a few USCF races, but, really, my focus again was skiing. 

So after I hurt my back, you know, I couldn’t ski that winter, my sophomore year; which was the winter of 1992, and then the doctor said I could ride my bike. 

So riding didn’t hurt your back at all? 

He said it was ok - riding on the road, obviously - so, basically, I rode all winter, when typically I’d started riding in May.  So that year I started riding in January.  And that next year I became collegiate national champion . . .

That was quick, right?

Yeah, yeah - and the following year I was on the national team - ’94, and ’95 I went pro, so it happened really quick.  You know, as soon as I realized I had a talent for cycling I focused on it.  I improved really quickly.  And things happened so fast.

Yeah, it sounds like it.

I mean, today, it seems like - well, I’ve had the last year and a half to think about it; but it’s amazing how fast it all happened.

Yeah, and you talk about that year and a half - it’s about the same time period that it took for all of that stuff to happen in your life at that time.

Yeah, it was wild.  I couldn’t believe it.  I mean, for me, winning collegiate national championships was huge.  I mean, I thought at that point, this is as good as it’s going to get. 

(Laughter on my end)

No, really! 

No, no, true - I mean, that’s impressive in itself. 

Right.  And then they invited me to be on the US National team.  I was going into my final spring semester of college - it was kind of one thing or the other.  I just thought, “I’ll just come back next year and finish school.”   I just thought that it was an opportunity that I had to take - travel all over the world - next thing I know, it’s 12 years later.

And then it was the same thing on the national team - this is as good as it’s going to get, I was doing big races all over the world - went to the World Championships, and by the end of that year I was riding for Coors Light, which, for me - I mean, they were the best team.  

Yeah, they were the top team in the US at the time.  

Yeah, I mean, they just had such a great name, and so many big wins.  So that was a huge highlight for me.  I was a stagiaire with them - where, when you’re amateur after a certain date, like September 1st, you can ride with a professional team.  I did that in ’94, and then, step-by-step, it just kept getting bigger and better.  And it was all baby steps there, you know?

Coors Light folded after 1994, so I ended up riding for Montgomery-Bell in 1995, and that was through Eddy B., remember? - he was the director there. Eddy Borysewicz.  He was obviously a big name in the cycling world  - so for me it was such a great opportunity to go and ride for him.  That was a lot of fun.  I rode with him for two years.  He was the director on the team for two years.

The co-sponsors of  the team were Montgomery Securities and Bell helmets in 1995.  And then in ’96 it turned into US Postal. 

It’s kind of amazing to think of the genesis of what is the Discovery Channel team now.

 Right, I mean, this all started, really, with Thom Weisel.  He’s the man, really, to thank for this.  US cycling owes a lot to him.  I mean, I don’t know when Subaru-Montgomery started, ’91 maybe?  But that was all Thom, really.  He had an affiliation with Subaru through the US Ski Team and he was the CEO, I believe, of Montgomery Securities - so he made it happen. 

So did you know him through skiing at an earlier time?

 Um, I didn’t.  I knew of him through skiing, but I didn’t know him personally.  I knew a lot of people who knew him.  And he was actually the guy who - I was kind of on the fence at the end of ’94 as far as what I was going to do - and he was the guy who really convinced me to go for it with Montgomery-Bell.  I got a phone call from him, Thom started it, and I really never looked back.

You know, I owe a lot to him, but, really, cycling in the US owes a lot to him, because everybody has pretty much gone through that program.  You know, Lance started with him, way back when, in ’91, he was with Subaru-Montgomery remember, before he went pro?  And he left and then basically came back to him in ’98.  Lance owes him a lot too. 

Who knows, without Thom Weisel, Lance might have stayed in triathlon, or something.  It takes people like that, who have that kind of passion.  He’s also done a lot for the US Ski Team.  I mean, they had a shaky Olympics, but they’re head and shoulders above where they used to be, and a lot of that is due to him. 

So it takes people with a passion for these sports - sometimes it’s just one individual - these secondary sports that are just on the bubble - sometimes it just takes one person to either make it go or make it stop.

Yeah, I mean - someone like Lance, who had so much physical potential - he could have done anything he wanted to.

Yeah, for sure he would have been successful in triathlon.  He would have probably been a good marathon runner.  Luckily, cycling became big enough - taking big, giant leaps - when he was at that point where he was deciding whether it was worth his time. 

Yeah, it all came just in time for you guys - I mean the successes of Andy Hampsten and Greg LeMond . . .

 Oh, absolutely, absolutely . . .

And all of that happened - along with the success of the 7-Eleven team - all of that stuff happened just before you guys got to the age where it really mattered to you.

 Right, I mean, we’re lucky we had those teams, those riders - I mean, Greg LeMond and Andy Hampsten, in my opinion, don’t get enough credit these days - I mean, they really started this.  Without them, we probably wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing today.  Everybody should thank them.

Right, even when you look at the guys who weren’t so much the stars at that point—guys like Ron Kiefel—he was winning some important races . . .

 Absolutely.

. . . when nobody over there knew who he was! 

Right, and Davis Phinney.  I have so much respect for all those guys.  Andy lives here in Boulder, Ron lives a couple towns away, here in Colorado - he runs a bike shop.  I see Greg LeMond every once in a while. 

You know, we were just talking about Andy.  When I interviewed him a while ago I asked him what it was like riding with Lance, of course, on Motorola, and I also asked him what riding with you was like in the early US Postal days.  You know, I’d formed my own opinion of you through watching and reading interviews, and you struck me as someone who approached the sport from a very serious, respectful angle.  Well, I kind of brought that up to Andy, and what he said to me was that that was somewhat true, but above and beyond that you were just really fun to hang out with. 

 Oh yeah, yeah.  We’ve had a lot of fun together.  We’ve remained friends.  We just had dinner at his house a couple nights ago.  He’s doing really well. 

That was his final year of racing.  For me it was a huge opportunity, I mean, it was my second year as a professional - to have the great Andy Hampsten on our team.  We were roommates a lot at the races.  We were actually joking the other night that every night I’d probably be asking him a hundred questions.  He was so patient with me, and I was just green as green could be.  He was great, he said that it made it a lot of fun to be kind of like a mentor/rider. 

Yeah, well, when you look at how steep your learning curve was - I mean, most people the same number of years into the sport as you were are still juniors.

 Yeah - totally, totally.  Even in ’96, you know, I was still thinking that to ride in the Tour de France was such a long shot - something way far away in my future, and sure enough, the next year I was there.  It was kind of like being thrown into the fire. 

You know, one thing that Andy told me - we were talking about when Bernard Hinault helped Andy win the Tour of Switzerland in 1986, which helped get his form ready for the Tour that year—and he told me how the tables kind of turned at the Teleflex Toer in 1996 [which Tyler ended up winning, ed.], where he was doing a lot of work for you, and how that actually ended up getting him into great form.

 Yeah, it did.  Well, first of all, he was a great person to have by my side.  I mean, it was the biggest race of my career, I had the lead, and to have somebody like Andy by my side and working for me - helping me to stay calm and focused - that was a big help, a huge help. 

And, yeah, to be honest, he did a lot of work for me, and then a few weeks later we were at the Tour of Dupont and he hit his form, so to speak, and did great - I think he was 5th or 6th overall.

That was great; it was a big result for our team.  I learned a lot from him.  He’s very patient, a great teacher.  And I didn’t know him when he won the Giro;  but I think he’s always been the same person.  I don’t think he’s ever changed.  He’s the same Andy Hampsten I knew in 1996.  It’s just nice to see that he’s the same person - he’s a very giving person. 

So, the next year you rode the Tour?

Yeah, ’97, yup.

You had a good time trial result in that Tour, didn’t you?

 Ahhh, that was the next year - ’98 - I got second in the first long time trial behind Jan Ullrich.

That must have been a thrill.

 Yeah, there was no pressure on me - I mean, I didn’t even have a team car behind me.  It was a neutral support car with a couple of spare wheels in it!  I went early in the race, and obviously wasn’t expected to go that great, and I rode within myself, laid it all out there - definitely died at the end, in the last couple kilometers, but it was a huge result for me. 

That was the result that kind of opened my eyes a little bit and made me realize that, wow, I maybe had a future in a race like the Tour.  I knew that I still had a lot of work to do, but it’s the Tour—it gave me a lot of confidence for the future. 

It’s like you said before - baby steps - you got a little bit better every year.

Yeah, my whole career has been like that.  I mean, if you look at my results from year to year, there’s never a crazy jump up.  There was a year or two where I had injuries and I didn’t take my typical step up - for example, 2001 I got injured a lot; but every year was just a small step.  Every year I set the goals a little bit higher.  But it wasn’t like I went from one year just trying to hang on in the Tour de France to the next year winning a World Cup - it was nothing like that.

To be honest, nothing ever surprised me.  Sure you’re always a little surprised, to win you always have to be a little bit lucky, you’re always a little bit surprised - but I was never shocked -  like, “Wow, this is above and beyond what I’m capable of.”

Right, well, you’re there every day, and you see how much work you put into, so . . .

 Yeah, I’ve never felt that way.  Winning the Olympic Games, winning a World Cup, winning a stage in the Tour . . .

It just seemed like the next step up.

 Yeah, yeah.

I remember the year that you got 2nd in that time trial at the Tour, Bobby Julich got third, right?

Yeah, I think he did, I think he did. 

I remember being so excited for US Cycling - there’s Jan Ullrich and then there’s you and Bobby . . .

 Yeah, and then Bobby went on to finish 3rd overall, too, which was great. 

Yeah, and he’s still doing awesome . . .

 Yeah, he’s doing great .    

You know, earlier we talked about 7-Eleven and Greg, and Andy; how all of those people made it possible for you guys.  But now we’re seeing a new generation, with Saul Raisin and a couple other guys who are really taking it to everyone too, and it’s great to see.

 Oh, it is great to see.  I mean, last year I was impressed.  The US racers over in Europe Arial"> did fantastically.  I don’t know where we finished exactly in the Pro Tour - the US - but . . .

It was 3rd or 4th, I think [actually, it was 2nd, ed.]

I remember, a long time ago—we were lucky to even get into the top 10!  Not like that’s a big goal—it’s not like—I mean, we’re on different teams—a lot of times we’re actually fighting against each other—but they do rank the country, so it’s impressive—very impressive. 

I mean, so many big wins by Bobby—obviously by Lance—by Levi—and a lot of big results by George, by Floyd—and it started already again this year.  Americans have won the last two editions of Paris-Nice—that’s pretty cool. 

True, and for him to win his first two races - Tour of California too; that’s pretty amazing.  

 I mean, it’d be interesting to go back today, we’re just into the 2nd year of the Pro Tour - it’d be interesting to look at the Pro Tour stage races.   We must’ve won almost half! 

Oh yeah, definitely—it was an amazing year.

Right?  I mean, Bobby won Paris-Nice and Benelux—Levi won the Tour of Germany—Lance won the Tour—an American almost won the Dauphine - taking a step back and just looking at that, we’ve won quite a bit - 40% probably, of the stage races; and that’s huge!

What do you think it is that helped make American’s so strong in the Pro Tour?

 Well, I think that American’s are typically stronger in the stage races. 

Why is that, do you think?  I’ve noticed that too.

Well, I think we spend a little bit more time concentrating on the time trials beforehand—we’re notoriously more fanatical, I mean crazy, about our equipment.  Certain teams and certain riders seem to not care too much about their position on the time trial bike, their equipment on the time trial bike, but I know all the top US time trialists are very serious about their equipment.  Look at Dave Zabriskie last year - we didn’t even mention him! 

Exactly—winning the 1st Stage of the Tour.

Tom Danielson - we didn’t even mention him!   It’s crazy.  Tom Danielson, I think is 6th overall in Tirreno right now, and most likely he would’ve finished top-5 overall, but they cancelled the mountain-top finish tomorrow.  More or less, he probably would’ve moved up a spot or two. 

So things are looking good for him in the Giro . . .

Yeah, yeah, but just in general, the American’s are kicking butt.  It’s good to see.   Unfortunately, y’know, one of ‘em’s not there.  Hopefully, if I was there, it would be even more significant.

Well, next year, right?

Exactly.  But it’s just impressive to see in general.  After 2004, one of the top American’s wasn’t even able to race, and it’s still a dominant presence.

It really is amazing.  So, switching back a little bit to what we were discussing before - you’re riding for Postal - Lance comes onboard; how does everything change once Lance comes onboard?

 For me it was great to be able to ride with this guy who was World Champion, he had an awesome career thus far - obviously, he was coming through a huge fight with cancer - trying to make a comeback.  When he came onto the team, the team changed a little bit.  When he came onto the team it became a little bit more serious of a team.  I mean, in ’97 we were just happy to be there (laughs).  By ’98 we had a couple of European Directors—I think we hired Ekimov - George Hincapie - it was becoming more of a European team, so to speak.  But we were still a low-budget team.  When Lance came, it gave us more confidence.  He kind of had a slower spring, and then he started to come around - and when he started coming around it gave us this great leader on the team - not just off the bike, but now on the bike.  It gave us a lot of motivation.  We rode a lot for Lance in the middle part of the season - the later part of the season - that was in ’98.  And obviously, in ’99, after finishing 4th in the Vuelta in ’98 - we made it a priority to focus on the Tour. 

But, for me, ’99 was one of my favorite years, because it was like - we called ourselves “The Bad News Bears” (laughs) . . .

Yeah, I was going to bring that up (laughing too).

But we were up against well-financed, big budget teams with two big busses, and all that - I mean, we didn’t have any of that.  We had a couple campers - campers that we rented, you know?

Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, right? (laughing)

Yeah, one of them was called Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, and then there was another one - two campers that we rented from, like 1-800-RV, or something.  It was fun.  And, you know, as soon as Lance got the jersey after that time trial, the long time trial, nobody believed we could defend the jersey.  They believed Lance was strong - well, in the mountains they didn’t know - but what they DID know was that the team wasn’t strong enough - that much they did know - for sure.  We were basically written off.  That made it a lot of fun.

I’ve always liked the underdog.  I’ve followed sports since I started watching TV, and I’ve always rooted for the underdog.  That was a fun position to be in, because every day was a big challenge, and every day was, “Oh, we’re gonna lose the jersey this day.”, but we kept coming through.  That was a lot of fun.  And I’m sure if you spoke to a lot of guys on the ’99 Tour team, they’d say that was a pretty special year.  For one, it was the first Tour win for Lance.  But I look back on that year and it was definitely fun.  It gave not just Lance a lot of confidence, but the whole team - a lot of individuals - you know, we all stepped up our game; we all rode to the maximum of our abilities that year.  But that’s the power of the Yellow Jersey - that’s the power of motivation. 

Yeah, I heard George Hincapie say one time that you guys didn’t just ride to 100% of your capabilities, that it went a lot deeper than that - he said this in 2001, I believe.

Yeah, you find that extra 10%.  You can’t believe it!  You think, “I’ll pull for 5 more kilometers, but then I’m done!” - and then you pull for 50 more!  And George was a horse!  I mean, at that time he was not regarded as a climber, but he was still - I mean now it’s a little bit different; but back then he was known more as a Classics rider and sprinter - you know, someone more for the flats.  But I remember him pulling up these big mountains and just being impressed. 

Right, and then you on Alpe D’Huez - didn’t you pull over halfway up?

Yeah, I pulled until about the halfway point - there weren’t too many guys left.

I remember watching that and just going, “Holy Sh**!”

 Y’know, when you have Lance barking in your ear and Johan Bruyneel barking in your ear with motivation, you know, that always helps.

So Lance was talking a lot to you guys on the climbs?

Yeah, you know he’s really good at giving you encouragement, - that’s for sure.  And that helps.  And, obviously, Johan is back in the car, giving you encouragement.  That’s when we first started using a race radio.  It’s amazing how much those can help.  I mean, if you use the right words, that helps a lot! 

I bet it does, because you’re not just hearing that voice in your head, which might be doubtful—you’re hearing a lot of positive things.

Oh, Johan was great on the radio.  And then when I went on to CSC, Bjarne Riis was great on the radio.  I liked Bjarne a lot when I was time trialing.  He was really good at that.  I think I liked Bjarne better for the time trials.  Johan typically didn’t follow me in time trials because he was following Lance, but Bjarne was good in the time trials. 

Yeah, I was just watching the CSC documentary, Overcoming, and when you talk about Bjarne in the time trials it makes me think of what he says to all the riders, “Catch the moto!  Catch the moto!”  (laughing)

Yeah, yeah, yeah!  That helps - it helps.  He’s done a great job.

Yeah, it’s an amazing team.  And then Phonak did great last year too.  I think CSC and Phonak were 1-2 in the final Pro Tour team standings.

Yeah, they were 1-2, exactly.  Yeah, Phonak did great, especially under their circumstances.  I mean, at the beginning of ’05 they didn’t even know if they were going to be a Pro Tour team.  They went through a lot.  It’s good to see.  A lot of those guys who are on the team now are guys that I brought to the team at the end of ’04.  It’s good to see. 

Right, and Floyd is doing a good job of getting the team going again this year.

Absolutely, absolutely!  He did a good job last year, too.  It was his first year of being a team leader and he did fantastic.  He said he was disappointed a little bit - I know he wanted to do better in the Tour - but that’s not bad - first year . .

Right, 9th place, that’s not bad at all.  And this year it’ll be totally different, without Lance being there . . .

 Yup, it should be interesting.

I can’t wait to see the Tour this year.

It should be a good one - I wish I was going to be there.

Once your suspension is over, will it be possible for you to get back on a Pro Tour Team?

That’s the plan, that’s the plan.  My suspension officially started in September ’04, and we don’t have a 100% green light yet - we’re discussing that with the UCI; but David Millar - his suspension started before the Pro Tour so, obviously, he’s finishing after the Pro Tour started, and there doesn’t seem to be a problem with him.  The Pro Tour rules should start on January 1st of ’05.  That’s what we’ve been told, and since my suspension started before that, that’s the plan.  They can’t do it one way in one case and then do it another way.  If they can do it with David [and not me] then I don’t understand. 

Yeah, I was surprised when I saw that he signed for Saunier Duval, that he could sign that early.

Yeah, I was surprised that it was before his suspension ended, but I think that’s great.  You know, he made a mistake, he admitted to it - move forward.  It’s nice to see them back him up like that.  I mean, he’s a big name in the sport of cycling - he’s done a lot in his career; in my opinion, he made a mistake, but he did the right thing, and people make mistakes.  Move forward, and somebody is giving him a second chance.  I guarantee you he’ll be back strong. 

Yeah, I agree.  Now back to the teams you’ve ridden for and your evolution as a rider - like you said, you took baby steps every year.  After a while, you could see that with your teams, too - you could see that you were moving up in the team structure.  First you were a lieutenant at Postal, then a co-leader at CSC, and then once you went to Phonak, you were the man. 

Yeah, exactly.

So was that the intentional plan, or did it happen more on its own?

Part 2 of this interview will be continued on Wednesday.

Charlie Melk Interviews:
Andy Hampsten - An American Pioneer
Andy Hampsten - The Interview
Andy Hampsten Interview #2: Racing Stories
Chris Horner: Back to the Big Leagues
Chris Horner: Back to the Big Leagues - Part Two
The Gamble Pays Off--Catching Up with Chris Horner
Mike Creed:
Feeling Better and Looking Ahead--a Conversation with Creed
Erik Saunders Interview: Talking Straight
Erik Saunders Interview: Part Two
Erik Saunders Interview: Part Three
John Lieswyn: Student of Life: An Interview with John Lieswyn
Reference:
Tyler Hamilton Interview Part 1
Tyler Hamilton Interview Part 2

 
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