By Andrew Hood
The past six weeks have been a rollercoaster of emotions for the Tyler Hamilton. The bitter experience of abandoning the Tour de France for the first time of his career in July was quickly forgotten in the glow of his gold medal winning performance in the Olympic time trial race on Aug. 18.
Rather than hit the party circuit, the 33-year-old New Englander went straight back to work to prepare for the Vuelta a España. Even before leaving for Athens, Hamilton was considering racing the season’s finale grand tour. Rather than throw away the remainder of the season, Hamilton decided to take a shot at the Vuelta for just his second time in his career.
With a wild course – four time trials and seven summit finishes – and a wide-open field loaded with determined homegrown contenders and a strong field of international usurpers, the Vuelta should be an exciting race.
VeloNews’ European correspondent Andrew Hood caught up with Hamilton after his arrival to León on Tuesday. From the sounds of it, Hamilton isn’t going to Spain to drink sangria and sight-see. A win at the Vuelta would help him forget his Tour disappointment all the more.
VeloNews: When did you decide to race the Vuelta?
Tyler Hamilton: I never said for sure no, I always kept it in back of my mind. If I don’t do well in Tour de France, maybe I can give Vuelta a shot. I stopped the Tour early, and as soon as I got back on bike after a week off the bike, then I started thinking about it.
VN: How did it fit in with the Olympics?
TH: My next objective after the Tour was the Olympics and I focused 100 percent on the time trial. I did a lot of endurance and hard intervals to get ready. I had some time off before the Olympics so I went and saw the stages around Madrid with Haven. I rode the stages start to finish with motor-pacing flats and on the climbs. Before the Olympics, I still hadn’t decided 100 percent. So after the Games, we decided to give it a go.
VN: You’ve only raced the Vuelta once before, right?
TH: I started in 1999. That was the first year we finished at Angliru. On the descent before the Angliru, it was pissing rain. The town close by there’s some industry that emits some sort of soot and when it rains it gets slippery. I crashed with along with 50 guys. I fractured a rib. I finished stage and decided to stop the next day.
VN: So how many Vuelta stages have you previewed?
TH: I just needed to see a few more stages. After I got back from Athens, I flew down to Alicante and saw couple stages there and then drove to Granada. I stayed with Oscar Sevilla, who has home there, and rode a couple of stages there. I’ve done my homework, so here we go. I didn’t want to go into the Vuelta without doing some preparation. But I am going into it a lot more relaxed, so we’ll see how the season finishes. I have treated it seriously, I have previewed the key stages. For me it was important.
VN: Why is important to preview the stages?
TH: If you’re serious about a race, you have to do it. You’re taking a big risk if you don’t know it. You’re not being professional. Knowing what’s ahead of you is key. You hit a 15km climb little do you know the first 2km are super steep. There are so many details, if you know them it helps. When you’re climbing a climb you don’t know, it’s 10 times harder.
VN: So what’s your take on the 2004 route after your recon mission?
TH: It’s going to be hard, it’s certainly a climber’s race for sure. A week ago saw the stage near Almeria. It’s incredibly hard, 150km, very difficult, 3 big climbs, you’re either climbing or descending the whole day.
VN: What are you expectations?
TH: I’m riding for GC in this race. My training for the Olympics was more focused on the time trial, so I’m not 100 percent optimal for Vuelta. I feel relatively fresh for Sept. 1 and I’m excited to train hard and race hard, so that’s good. For racing late in the season, the No. 1 thing is having morale, we have that. Usually this time of year I’m flying home on a plane. I think the form is pretty good. A lot of guys are targeting the Vuelta all year, but I’m confident and my team is, too.
VN: Are you and Sevilla sharing the team leadership?
TH: Sevilla and I will be co-leaders. He’s had the Vuelta a target all year. He’s been a help for me all year, he was great at Romandie, Dauphiné and during the first week in the Tour when I was there. If he’s going better than me, I’ll be the first one to help him out. We’re going to leave it open, see how the first week and see how we’re both feeling. We’re both honest people, we’re good friends, I wouldn’t have a problem sacrificing for him.
VN: Does having a relatively easy first week help you, at least in terms of having some time to ride into form?
TH: You can’t forget about the first week. There’s a lot of wind around here and south of Pyrenees, we have to expect winds. They can rip the peloton into pieces. Alvaro Pino was reminding that of us today. When he was racing, he was in position to win but lost 6 minutes in a flat stage close to here. You see it every year, always some sort of split in the peloton. I’m glad there’s not a mountain stage in day two. I haven’t been doing as much climbing as I normally would have. I was more focused more on flat rolling terrain on for the time trial bike.
VN: So it sounds like you’re excited about racing here?
TH: Normally after the Tour I’m pretty much a zombie. On my first training ride back after the Tour I felt great. At the Tour I missed all but one of the mountain stages, so I saved a lot of energy. That’s when I started thinking maybe I should give the Vuelta a go. It’s a great race, I’ve only done it once before. Normally I’m too tired to do it, but I’m 33, I’m not getting any younger. I always wanted to do it again. This year, now I have the energy, why not give it a go?
VN: The final time trial has been decisive in the past three Vueltas – does that favor you with the flat final-day time trial in Madrid?
TH: It’s good they have two flat time trials, the team time trial and uphill time trial, which is good for me. It’s all going to come down to who has the strongest legs. The mountain stages are so hard. There’s going to be a lot of big time gaps. I have to be on form in the mountains as well.