By Martin Kidston
Tyler Hamilton was at the top of his game as an elite cyclist, winning an Olympic gold medal and securing major victories at the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de Spain. He pushed Lance Armstrong to his first three Tour de France wins as a member of the U.S. Postal Service team, and took top honors at the Tour de Romandie.
Yet while his endurance placed him among the sport’s most elite athletes, and while the accolades became as irresistible as they were abundant, Hamilton’s success was partially based on a lie, and he was slowly unraveling.
From one elite race to the next, Hamilton was cheating the sport’s doping rules and in 2004, at the peak of his career, the lies began to catch up. He received word that he’d failed a drug test. Another person’s cells had been detected in his blood – something he attributes to the transfusions used by team doctors to skirt the sport’s rules on doping.
“There was my opportunity – my moment to finally tell the truth,” Hamilton said. “Instead, with the pressure mounting, I lied. Professional cycling was a brotherhood. We protected each other, and we protected the system.”
Hamilton, who retired from professional cycling in 2009 and now lives in Missoula, recounted his story before 500 people at the 126th annual Missoula Chamber of Commerce banquette, held Wednesday night at the Hilton Garden Inn.
Born in Massachusetts, Hamilton entered the sport of professional road cycling by way of skiing. Early on, he realized his ability to work hard and push through pain. His parents taught him the value of hard work and the essentials of honesty.
“When I came to racing, I always knew I could out-work anyone, and I could win at the highest levels on grit and my willingness to suffer,” he said. “I worked my tail off and I never gave up.”
Hamilton’s work ethic pushed him to the top of cycling, landing him a position on the Montgomery Bell cycling team in 1995. It would later become the fabled U.S. Postal Service team, where Hamilton helped Lance Armstrong win his first three Tour de France races.
“The Tour de France is arguably the world’s most difficult athletic event,” Hamilton said. “It’s 21 days of racing over 2,500 miles on some of the world’s most punishing roads. It’s like running a marathon every day for three weeks. I ran it eight times, putting every ounce of my energy into it.”
During that time, Hamilton saw team doctors distribute “little white bags” to his teammates. He didn’t know what was in them, though it didn’t take him long to realize the contents. He resisted at first, until he collapsed on his bed one night, physically depleted from another grueling race.
It was there when a doctor offered him a little red pill. Hamilton swallowed it, knowing the testosterone it contained was a banned substance. While ashamed, he justified it, knowing that other racers were doing the same thing.
With a little boost, Hamilton could stay on top. His push for success soon led to injections of EPO, a drug intended to increase oxygen flow by boosting red blood cells. He’d crossed the point of no return.
“A little swab in the arm, a little injection, and done – it didn’t feel like a big deal,” he said. “It was a game changer in a race like the Tour de France. It gave the team a definite advantage”
The drugs were paid for and administered by the U.S. cycling team. But during the Tour de France in 1998, the French police raided one of the team vehicles and found it laden with doping products. Undeterred, the team came up with new ways to beat the system, including eventual blood transfusions – something Hamilton now refers to as blood doping.
As he described it, doctors extract a racer’s blood and freeze it. At the peak of the race and the height of depletion, the fresh blood would be transfused back into the racer’s body. Hamilton had heard of such things, though he never thought he’d do it himself.
“You’re watching a big red bag fill up with your own warm blood,” he said. “You never forget it, and you never get used to it. My reality was so twisted by then, I reasoned it was just temporary. Once my career was done, I’d go back to living a normal life.”
That opportunity would come sooner than expected in 2004 when Hamilton failed a drug test. He was sanctioned by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and received a two-year suspension, though the cheating had been going on for years.
“I lied to everyone,” he said. “During that time I had two faces, one with a person they all thought I was and the other being the person I knew I was – a doper and liar. I was unraveling on the inside. I was alone and a prisoner of my own decisions.”
Pacing the stage before an American flag and considering his past, Hamilton recalled his retirement in 2006. Six years after riding his last Tour de France, he was subpoenaed by a federal grand jury and forced to testify in a doping investigation into Lance Armstrong.
It was then, Hamilton said, that he decided to come clean and let it out.
“When I walked into that Los Angeles courtroom, I knew what I had to do,” he said. “From the very first question, the truth came pouring out. For the next seven hours, I unloaded more than a decade of lies. The more I talked, the more I realized I’d spent the last 14 years protecting a culture that was never worth protection.”
The story broke on 60 Minutes in 2011. During an interview with Scott Pelley, Hamilton told the world his story. While he’s still dealing with the consequences of being honest, he encouraged those listening to make the right choice, whether in the world of business or sport.
“I used to hold my secrets inside and not share a lot,” he said. “These days, I’m an open book.”
Hamilton still holds his gold medals and elite performance at the Tour de France as special memories, though winning the collegiate national championships may stand above them. He’s since left the sport behind and works as a realtor in Missoula while running an upstart coaching business to help train other elite athletes.
He’s also running a charity for multiple sclerosis.
“I put on a charity ride every September called MS Global,” he said. “Helping people, that’s what I like to do.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org