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A new Mr. Hamilton?

When you meet Tyler Hamilton, you think, "This guy’s too nice to be a pro bike racer." His dark, wavy hair is neatly trimmed, his eyes twinkle, and his mouth always has a hint of a smile. And with his calm, polite demeanor you would think that this slightly built 28-year-old New Englander was a banker sitting down to discuss a line of credit, rather than an elite athlete about to embark on his fifth Tour de France. Hamilton might well have become a corporate lackey, as he majored in economics at the University of Colorado. But while studying at the Boulder campus, he transitioned from

Postal’s Tyler Hamilton is more than Armstrong’s right-hand man

By John Wilcockson

Photo: Graham Watson

When you meet Tyler Hamilton, you think, “This guy’s too nice to be a pro bike racer.” His dark, wavy hair is neatly trimmed, his eyes twinkle, and his mouth always has a hint of a smile. And with his calm, polite demeanor you would think that this slightly built 28-year-old New Englander was a banker sitting down to discuss a line of credit, rather than an elite athlete about to embark on his fifth Tour de France.

Hamilton might well have become a corporate lackey, as he majored in economics at the University of Colorado. But while studying at the Boulder campus, he transitioned from downhill skiing into cycling, winning the national collegiate championship in 1993. Within two years he was a professional cyclist with the Subaru-Montgomery team, which morphed into the U.S. Postal Service squad the following season, 1996.

Along the way, the 5-foot 8-inch Hamilton changed from a chunky 150-pounder dashing down ski slopes into the sleek 140-pound athlete we’re now familiar with. His high power-to-weight ratio enables Hamilton to charge up mountain climbs as fast as anyone in the peloton, and also match the best in the Tour’s longest time trials.

What then can we expect from Hamilton at this year’s Tour? Will his work for team leader Lance Armstrong again result in an erratic overall performance, or will this year’s different course layout see him play an even more prominent role? Perhaps U.S. Postal 2001 (with Armstrong, Hamilton and Roberto Heras) will be like La Vie Claire 1986 (a team that ended the Tour with Greg LeMond in first, Bernard Hinault second, and Andy Hampsten fourth overall). Such a possibility is clearly something that has crossed Hamilton’s mind, as he revealed during a mid-April conversation at a hotel outside of Paris.

When asked if he had studied the course for this year’s Tour, Hamilton said he had— and clearly in some detail. “I was thinking it over,” he said. “You have the team time trial [stage 5], then you have one medium [mountain] day [stage 7] … and assuming it’s Alpe d’Huez [stage 10] that makes the big time difference, then a rider like me, if I can still stay in the G.C. hunt, I can be dangerous….”

And staying in the G.C. hunt might be possible for a rider who has finished second, third and fourth in Tour time trials over the past three years. Especially as a 30km uphill time trial from Grenoble to the Chamrousse ski resort immediately follows the demanding stage to Alpe d’Huez.

So how will his performance this year be different from the past two? Hamilton explained, “Rather than just sitting up on Alpe d’Huez and losing a lot of time, which normally I’d do—I’ll do my job [setting tempo for Armstrong], and then sit up—it might be important to try not to lose too much time. And then in the Pyrénées, if I follow a break [when] somebody attacks, that takes pressure off our team. Maybe Telekom has to chase, and they have to put four or five riders at the front to bring back the breakaway because I’m in there.”

In such a scenario, both Armstrong and Hamilton would be able to follow wheels until Armstrong was ready to make a move—and that might mean the Texan jumping across a narrowing gap and then riding away from the break with his teammate. Too far-fetched? Well, that’s just what happened at the ’86 Tour, when LeMond raced clear with Hinault on the Croix-de-Fer climb before the pair finished 1-2 on Alpe d’Huez.

Riding together is something that Hamilton and Armstrong do often. During their build-up to the past two Tours, they lived in Nice and trained on the back roads of the Alpes-Maritimes. Now they are staying near Gerona, Spain, not far from the Pyrénées. “I train with Lance pretty much every day, as we’re normally on the same race schedule,” Hamilton said. “For me, that’s a big bonus, being able to train with the best rider in the world.”

The terrain in Spain may not be as ideal as Nice, where, according to Hamilton, “you can ride out your door and not ride a flat road all day.” Neither does the Gerona area boast a Col de la Madone, the climb near Nice where the two Postal riders have done power test rides in recent years. “But there’s other ones we’ll probably use to test ourselves in May and June,” he said.

As he looks toward July, and the Tour, you sense the excitement mounting in Hamilton’s voice, compared with his tone when discussing the early season: “The spring for me is more about just being patient, listening to my body. My focus is on races all in the summer months. It’s important for me not to get frustrated: ‘Okay I’m not getting results here in March or April.’ You know, there are not too many guys that are going well in March, and still going well in June, July and August.”

As for Hamilton, his form was starting to improve in April, especially at the Circuit de la Sarthe, where, he said, “I felt stronger, felt I played a part in the race, whereas I was pack-fill, more or less, in the early-season races. You need little things like that just to build up the confidence.”

There can also be little things that set you back, like the crash Hamilton suffered at Liège-Bastogne-Liège a few days after this interview. Luckily, the broken bone in his elbow would have time to heal before his next scheduled race, Spain’s Bicicleta Vasca in late May. Prior to that, he and Armstrong would be setting off on their annual training road trips, riding the Tour’s key stages, including Alpe d’Huez.

And if we can believe him—and who wouldn’t trust such a straight-up guy?—that infamous mountain might see the start of something very different from our modest Mr. Hamilton.

Tyler’s Tour record

Year Overall Best Stage Team Leader
1997 69th, at 2:47:51 17th, stage 7, Bordeaux Robin, 15th overall
1998 51st, at 1:39:53 2nd, stage 7, Meyrignac TT Robin, 66th overall
1999 13th, at 26:53 3rd, stage 19, Futuroscope TT Armstrong, 1st overall
2000 25th, at 56:30 4th, stage 19, Mulhouse TT Armstrong, 1st overall