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28th Olympic Games - JO
Athens, Greece, August 14-28, 2004
An interview with Tyler Hamilton, Saturday, August 14, 2004
By Anthony Tan
One of a handful of riders who had a realistic chance of seriously challenging Lance Armstrong at the Tour de France, Tyler Hamilton saw his chances disappear just a week into the race, the victim of yet another crash. He was hurt. He was disgusted. He was angry.
But the Man from Marblehead is no ordinary bike rider. Hamilton is arguably the toughest in the business, and is now in Athens, ready for redemption.
Cyclingnews: How are you feeling right now? Do feel like you've recovered from your back injuries?
Tyler Hamilton: I feel pretty good. I took the first week home off the bike to give my back some time to rest. Since then I've been training hard and doing a lot of physical therapy. I feel better but we won't know how well things have progressed until I start racing.
Tough times at Le Tour
CN: Going back to your crash at the Tour four weeks ago in Angers [Stage 6, July 9], did you know immediately it was bad news when you tried getting back on your bike?
TH: Yes. When I stepped up into the team bus I threw my helmet clear through to the back of the bus, which is a very uncharacteristic reaction for me. It was very disappointing to work another year toward another Tour and wind up in another pile up under another set of unsafe finishing conditions. In that moment I felt like I had been robbed. When I phoned my wife later that night I told her that I hadn't just hurt my back, I had damaged it. Which I think is true. I'll probably be feeling this one for a while.
CN: Obviously at that point, that mountains were yet to come, but you had already ridden some tough stages, like the stage to Wasquehal [Stage 3, July 6] in Belgium and the following day's team time trial [Stage 4, July 7]; how were feeling about your chances for a podium finish?
TH: I intentionally went into the race at about 90%, so we weren't surprised by my prologue result. By the team time trial my body was starting to click into gear. Things were progressing the way we had hoped. Our team rode very strong in the first week. I think we were on track to accomplish our goal of a podium finish at that point.
CN: You finished another six stages before calling it quits on Stage 13 to Plateau de Beille [July 17]. Was it the pain or the lack of power to your legs the primary reason behind your abandon?
TH: There was some pain in my lower back, but that wasn't the problem. I went over the handlebars and landed squarely on my spine. The impact made deep bruises on both sides of my lower vertebrae. When your muscles take a hit like that they seize up. My spine couldn't be adjusted things were so tight. When you can't use the muscles in your lower back, you are only able to push your legs with half the amount of power you would normally. If you saw my face on the La Mongie stage, I wasn't suffering. It was because I couldn't push myself to the point of suffering. It was like I was operating on half a battery pack.
CN: Stage 13 was also the stage that your foundation organized for movie theatres in the US to screen the stage live - was any thoughts about that going through your mind during the stage?
TH: Stage 13 was a big day for the Tyler Hamilton Foundation. We hosted live Tour coverage in over 20 cities in Regal Cinemas around the US. Looking back, I guess I provided the viewers at the theaters with a little drama. But my health comes first, above and beyond my job and my personal endeavors. I think everyone understood.
CN: Did you feel like you owed it to your team - and maybe your dog Tugboat too - to keep going for as long as you could, even though you knew inside your Tour was over?
TH: I am an optimist and I hate to quit. These two qualities have seen me through more than a couple tough situations. When I was first injured, I kept trying to tell myself to stay calm, that things would get better. But I knew when we started to climb that I wasn't going to be able to force myself through the situation I was in. It would have been nicer to see things play out differently. My team-mates and the memory of Tugboat were great motivators to keep going. I wish things could have played out differently than they did and that I could have done something special at the race to honor them both.
CN: Despite the team for the Tour being built entirely around yourself, the two Oscars on your Team Phonak, Pereiro and Sevilla, still rode extremely well given the circumstances, with Pereiro finishing 10th overall. In some ways, does that make the 'What if I didn't crash?' question even harder to deal with, knowing how strong your team was?
TH: I knew we were going to have a very strong team going into the Tour. This race was our sole focus all year, and we built the schedules of every rider with July as the peak. I was happy to see our guys finish strong after I left the race and I wasn't surprised. They are all very talented riders. I knew they would stay focused and would be able to regroup. I was just sorry I wasn't able to at least play a role in supporting them out on the road. That's part of the reason why I went to Paris. To thank them for all the work they did for me, and to tell them face-to-face how impressed I was with their overall performance.
Road to recovery
CN: In retrospect, did you think your decision to keep riding was a sensible one?
TH: It's always a risk to ride when you are injured. I think we did the smart thing by making the decision to stop when we did. If I had crashed again, or done more damage to my back trying to force my body up the climbs it may have ended my season. The way it stands right now, I have a shot of finishing out the year as planned.
CN: Having ridden on a fractured shoulder and collarbone at the 2002 Giro and last year's Tour, has anyone who didn't quite understand the nature of your injuries this time around questioned your decision to abandon?
TH: No. Most people who have followed my career know I'm a fighter. I did my best to stay in the race this year, but sometimes your body makes the call. If I only had to deal with pain, it would have been no problem. But when you lose power, it's another story. I would have taken the pain of ten broken collarbones over what happened this year. It takes a lot to force me off my bike. Most people who've had a back injury can empathize.
CN: The MRI scan you had on July 21 confirmed there were no broken bones, so what have you been doing to speed up the process of recovery - is it simply a matter of rest so the swelling in your lumbar region subsides?
TH: I was off the bike for about a week, and then dove into a pretty serious physical therapy regimen in addition to riding. After the swelling went down, we realized I did probably fracture a rib in addition to injuring my lower back. But there's nothing you can do about a fracture like this. In training, it hasn't effected my riding so much. We'll see how it feels when I start racing again.
Athens: Going for gold
CN: How hard has it been to balance a dual-concern of rest as well as staying fit enough to contest the Olympic Games?
TH: I have had to listen to my body first in this situation. Rest was important initially, but I was also motivated to get back to work to get ready for the Olympics. I'm not taking the opportunity to represent the United States in Athens for granted. So the Games have been my priority since I was able to get back on my bike. I've been working hard the last couple of weeks, so I think I'll be ready to give it a go.
CN: You have four days between the road race and time trial in Athens. Is that enough to be at the top of your game in both?
TH: My big focus is the Time Trial. But we have five strong guys for the Road Race. We have a well-rounded team and will work hard to cover any key breakaways.
I'll have a couple of days after that to refocus on the Time Trial which is going to be held outside the city along the coast. I'll spend the days between events studying the course and training on my TT bike.
CN: Have you had a chance to survey the parcours as yet?
TH: We saw the route for the Road Race today. They opened the roads to the riders for two hours. It's a technical course with a lot of hard turns and the pavement is partly made of marble so the road surface is really slick and smooth. Guys were slipping just in training, so it's going to be a stressful race. I'll see the Time Trial course after the Road Race, which I hear, is a little more straightforward.
CN: You have the potential to excel in both, so which is your preference?
TH: My primary focus will be the Time Trial.
CN: Obviously, the TT is all about you, but how about the road race? Will the strategy be decided on the road - how are you guys playing this one?
TH: We'll see how it plays out. The terrain will also be a factor, along with the heat given that the start time is around midday. So, these elements combined with the technical challenges could make for an interesting race.
CN: Do you it's possible to control a race with five-man squads? Will this affect your team strategy?
TH: We have five strong guys all committed to working together, so we'll see what we can do. That's not enough guys to control the race. The Olympics is different than the World Championships where you have 12 guys. But if we are smart one our guys could be in the winning move.
On the agenda
CN: I guess the upside to your premature exit from the Tour is that you're probably fresher than most, both mentally and physically; what else is on your agenda?
TH: We're waiting to see how it goes here in Athens before we decide my schedule for the rest of the season. I have been considering the Vuelta, but it may be too much for me to tackle at this point given that my back is still healing. I went to preview the mountain stages last week and it's going to be a difficult race. I want to make sure this injury heals fully and correctly so it doesn't morph into an ongoing problem. So we may opt for a selection of one day races like the SF Grand Prix and the various races in Italy at the end of September instead. I'll keep you posted.
CN: Do you think the World's course suits your abilities better than Athens?
TH: Hard to say, October is pretty late in the year. I haven't competed in the World Championships in a number of years because it's so hard to hold onto your fitness and to stay motivated that late in the season. I haven't checked out the course because at this point, I'm not planning on participating.
Feelings for the future
CN: Is Phonak looking at recruiting more riders in order to contest all three Grand Tours next year? And if so, have any of these additions been decided upon?
TH: Check back with me after September 1st.
CN: There will never be another Tugboat, but do you see Haven and yourself getting another dog, maybe from the same breeder?
TH: Haven and I are definitely dog people so another dog is in the cards for sure. But it takes time. Tug's passing was a huge loss for us. He was a member of our family. And he was a good companion to my wife while I was away. I can't stand the thought of her being home alone right now while I'm traveling. I'm trying to talk her into two dogs next time around - two more Golden Retrievers. They are a great breed. But from where and when is TBD.
CN: Is a non-canine addition to your family on the horizon at all?
TH: Right now my life is too hectic. I'm away from home 200+ days a year racing and training and working with my foundation and sponsors. I don't want to miss out on that much of my children's lives. Maybe someday when things are quieter. Haven and I have pretty much come to realize that we'll probably look more like grandparents than parents if and when we ever decide to have kids!