At first it’s odd not to see Tyler Hamilton in the blue and white uniform of U.S. Postal Service. The 31-year-old had spent his entire career with the team since turning pro in 1995. But Hamilton finally had the chance to ride for himself when CSC-Tiscali came calling last year with a two-year deal to lead the team through 2003.
The team was looking for a rider to complement Laurent Jalabert in the grand tours. More specifically, they were looking for someone to ride for GC. It was a perfect fit for both CSC-Tiscali and Hamilton. VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood caught up with Hamilton at last week’s Tour of the Basque Country. Here are some excerpts from the interview:
VeloNews Remind everyone how things went down with CSC and your departure from Postal:
Tyler Hamilton “I started having heavy discussions with CSC during the Tour and it looked like things it was going to work out. Rather than wait until the end of the season, we figured it was better to announce it during the Tour. For me, it was important to talk to Lance and Johan and discuss this option I had. I talked with those guys before I made my decision. It was nice. They thought it was a good opportunity for me and supported my decision. It made it a lot easier, so let’s make this announcement now. Lance, Johan and Bjarne (Riis) all made comments during the Tour. It was important to me and Lance and to the team, and important that I didn’t leave the team with a bad feeling.”
VN You didn’t race much after you made the announcement because the team took you out of the Vuelta a Espana:
TH “I did the GP San Francisco and then the GP Zurich. I had one day racing in Europe after the Tour de France last year.”
VN You’ve been taking a light schedule so far. Tell us about your training and racing so far:
TH “Valencia was my first race back in Europe in six months. Then I did Clasica Almeria and I took a bit of break. I hadn’t raced in so long, so they didn’t want to throw me into the mix too soon. I had three weeks off, and then I went to Milan-San Remo and then Setmana Catalana. I was sick. I started the race sick and the third day was a big mountain stage. It was raining and snowing and I made a bad decision to start and fought through it.
I should have packed halfway through, and then my sickness got even worse At the start line the next morning, Johnny Weltz looked at me and said get in the car, you’re not starting. I must have looked pretty bad. I had to skip Criterium International. I was wiped out. I just finished Pays Basque and the GP Primavera. I’ve only had 15 days of racing, which is not really that much. A lot of guys have already 30-plus days. For me, the team’s been really supportive because I have a big program — the Giro and the Tour – so that’s nice. A lot of teams would just throw you into the mix. It’s nice they are really starting to care about me.”
VN You haven’t had a real strong race yet. Is that something you want before going into some of your bigger races?
TH “All my races so far I’ve been using them as training. I’ve been training a lot, but training is a lot different than racing. To get to that high level of racing, you have to finish some races. I haven’t had stellar performances yet, but I can feel the form is coming. But they haven’t put a lot of pressure on me yet.”
VN What’s your racing schedule look like going into the Giro?
TH “I’ll do Fleche Wallone, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Tour of Romandie. Maybe I’ll do Amstel Gold, but it’s uncertain right now.”
VN What’s bigger for you, the Giro or the Tour?
TH “They’re both big focuses for me. At the Giro, I will be sole team leader, which is a great opportunity for me. At the Giro, they’re throwing it all on my shoulders and building the team around me. The Giro comes first and it’s hard to focus on both the Giro and the Tour at same time. Right now I’m just focused on that and in June, I’ll have some time to shift gears and change my focus. At the Tour, Jalabert will be riding for stages and whatever else. Carlos Sastres will be there and so will I, so we’ll have some options for the Tour.”
VN You must be keyed up about racing against such racers as Casagrande, Simoni and Garzelli at the Giro?
TH “I’m excited. We’ll have to wait and see, but I’m confident. The results haven’t been stellar, but I feel like I’m on the up and up. For me it’s a great opportunity to be a team leader for such a big race. They’re expecting a lot from me.”
VN Where does the team expect you to finish at the Giro?
TH “You do your best and whatever happens, happens. If you fail, at least you tried. Bjarne’s told me that a lot. If you do your best and it doesn’t work out, as long as he knows you work hard and put everything into it, then you can walk away satisfied. The team is thinking if I can show up in the shape that I know I can be in that a top-5 is possible, maybe even better.”
VN How has your transition gone from being a lieutenant to a team leader?
TH “It’s been a big change for me. I haven’t raced that much, so I haven’t spent that much time with these guys. It’s been an adjustment because they look to me. They need a leader and some leadership. They look to me for that. Sometimes it’s hard that I haven’t been riding super-fast. To lead the team, you have to be at the front, but it’s not all done on the road. A lot is done in the dinner table, discussing things. All the guys are real nice and we get along great. It’s a great group of riders. I’ve enjoyed it.”
VN You’ve been reunited with Johnny Weltz, your former director at Postal. How is going with Riis?
TH “I’ve known Johnny a long time and he’s a close friend, so it’s good to be working with him again. Bjarne Riis has been such a great person to work with. I didn’t know him so well until August when he invited me and my wife to his house in Tuscany to talk about this year. We spent 4-5 days at his house. I’ve never heard of any director doing that. We’ve become really close. I consider him a good friend as well as my boss. He’s very relaxed. He makes you work hard. As a cyclist he was a hard worker, very focused but calm in the big pressure situations. He leads this team the same way. He really pays attention to each rider, to their training and their preparation. A lot of directors just go home after the race and they just expect you to show up at the next race in shape. He really goes above and beyond what a normal director does.”
VN I heard you went skiing during the winter. How was that?
TH “It was the first time I skied in five years. Bjarne found out I had a skiing background, and he told me to do some cross-training for some power work. I did a bunch skiing in New England and some days in Europe. I took it seriously. I skied hard to use it as a workout. On the days I’d ski, I’d ride the bike in the morning then ski three to four to five hours, then ride in the afternoon. It wasn’t easy. There was no time for après. It was a lot of fun, and it really made my off-season. I was kind of dreading the off-season because it was going to be a lot of long days on the bike. I skied about 20 days during the winter and it really broke things up.”
VN Do you stay in touch with Lance?
TH “We’re on completely different schedules. I haven’t seen him that much this year. When we’re in town at the same time, we’ll train once in a while, but even our training schedules are quite a bit different. We’re still good friends and we stay in touch.”
VN How much did Lance help you?
TH “He did a lot for me and my career. It was a great opportunity to ride alongside for him for 4 years. What better way to learn than from the best? He’s an incredible rider. I learned a lot and hopefully I can use the experience from U.S. Postal and use it with CSC and do well in these races.”
VN What about you, Lance and Levi on the Tour podium?
TH (Laughs) “You have to ask Levi that. It’s good to see Levi to finally be able to shine last year. He surprised a lot of people last year at the Vuelta, but I knew he had that sort of talent. He had a big result at the Vuelta and I think you’re going to hear his name a lot in the future. He’s shown already he deserves to be a team leader.”