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By William Fotheringham, The Observer
ONE OF THE great metaphors inspired by the Tour de France is that of the race as a road to Calvary. Le calvaire has been routinely used throughout the 100 years since the great race was born to describe the process of a cyclist continuing in the face of great affliction, be it injury, or illness, or the mental agony that follows the death of a close relative.
Tyler Hamilton has put all the past century of two-wheeled battles against pain into a new perspective over the past two weeks. He has ridden on in spite of a broken collarbone, holding a high place overall as the race entered the Pyrenees yesterday. The doctors can barely believe it. Hamilton’s is le calvaire against which all others will be measured in future.
‘I work with the pain, and that’s how I go about my daily life,’ he says. ‘Accepting the pain has turned into part of my daily routine. In my opinion, it’s better to accept it and not resist it. If you resist it, it’s even harder.’
Hamilton, like all Tour cyclists, is smaller than you would expect when seen up close. He has the same deep tan, the same shuffling, strength-saving walk, as the rest. But when he comes into the lobby of his Toulouse hotel, he shakes hands with the left. The right cannot be used.
An unassuming man from Massachusetts, Hamilton is no stranger to pain. A keen and talented skier, he broke several vertebrae in a fall and got into cycling when in rehab. Last year, famously, he came second in the Tour of Italy, bearing a cracked shoulder blade. He ground his teeth in agony so strongly that 11 have needed replacing. He lists his symptoms modestly and emphasises: ‘I feel I’m complaining a lot.’ But much of the last two weeks has been spent in silence. Just him and the pain.
The first station on his calvary was Avenue de l’Appel du 18 Juin 1940 in Meaux two weeks ago, where Hamilton’s front wheel landed on the prone form of the sprinter Jimmy Casper, catapulting him over the bars at 30mph and on to his right shoulder.
X-rays showed a V-shaped double crack in his collarbone, and that, it seemed, was that. But the next morning, Hamilton was on the start line. ‘When I saw the X-rays, and I saw my Tour de France was over, I’m not ashamed to say it, but I cried. For three or four hours I was devastated. Then I learned it was maybe possible to try.’
CRITICALLY, THERE WAS no displacement of the bones – the two parts remained in a straight line, meaning that in medical terms, it was possible for Hamilton to go on without damaging it further. Riding with three layers of foam on his handlebars and reduced pressure in his tyres to ease the shocks from the road surfaces, Hamilton rode into Sedan that evening as pale as a ghost, but hundredth.
His initial target was the team time trial, to assist his team, CSC, the computer software company, to a respectable placing. That obstacle surmounted, more than respectably, further X-rays last Thursday showed no further movement in the fracture. Even so, he was expected to quit when the race arrived in the Alps a week ago yesterday. But at l’Alpe d’Huez six days ago, he finished with Lance Armstrong to move to sixth overall. Casper, the man he fell over in Sedan, went home the following day. Twenty-two others quit in the Alps through illness or injury.
‘A couple of days after the crash I was in so much pain when I woke up that I thought it was over,’ Hamilton says. ‘Mentally, it’s been a rollercoaster ride. There have been points where I didn’t think I would be able to continue. The first night I got four hours’ sleep, the second five. I didn’t get a decent night’s rest for five nights.’
The pain, says Hamilton, is ‘constant, numb. On a scale of one to 10 it was 10, now it’s seven or eight. On my bike I get sharp pains, and every bump I can feel it. When I put pressure on it, it tells me to stop.’
The worst point, thus far, came on Tuesday, when the race left the Alps for Marseille. ‘I’d had a twisted spine since the crash, and they couldn’t put pressure on it to push it back into place. It was putting pressure on a nerve that runs from my back to my stomach. It got inflamed and when I woke up I was in so much pain. Normally, to breathe, I push down with my stomach, but I couldn’t push it out an inch.’
By sheer good fortune, that day’s route was mainly downhill and the peloton relaxed after letting a group of backmarkers escape. ‘If it had been a mountain stage, I’d have been in trouble, and fortunately the next day was the rest day. They gave me a muscle relaxant and pushed it back. The night before, my body was just too tense for them to do it. I was in so much pain.’
Why do it? ‘One thing is my team, I owe it to them to push on. I didn’t want to give up at the first problem.’ There is also the fact that Hamilton is now 32, and has only lately emerged from a career largely spent working for Armstrong. Time is not on his side.
LAST MONDAY, ON the final Alpine stage, he was a few yards behind when the Spaniard Joseba Beloki skidded on a patch of melted Tarmac on a descent, flew over the bars and broke his hip, elbow and wrist. Going downhill through hairpin bends at 50mph is a supreme test of nerves and clear-headedness – with one arm partly out of action and a shoulder in agony from every bump, it hardly bears thinking about.
‘You try to relax. If you’re tense on a descent, it just makes it worse. The descent where Beloki fell was incredibly dangerous, the Tarmac was melting and it was one of those turns that just kept going.’ Asked if falling again worries him, he doesn’t get the question. It clearly isn’t in his mental terms of reference.
‘The doctors have said it will heal normally if I crash on it again. Maybe I’d need an operation with a plate in it, but that didn’t happen when I broke it the first time. For me it’s worth the risk. I worry, but you can only worry so much.’
Hamilton’s courage may be admired by many – asked how he feels about what his protege is doing, his team manager Bjarne Riis simply spreads his arms as wide as they can go – but his wisdom and that of his team have been questioned. Eddy Merckx, who finished the Tour in 1975 with a fractured cheekbone, feels that that hastened the end of his career, and that Hamilton is making the same error. One rival team manager has alleged that the fracture is not real, and had to be shown the X-rays to prove that it is.
There is one question that Hamilton cannot be asked. That is how he will react if his strength deserts him, or if he falls again, and all the pain of the last two weeks was for nothing. There is no point in asking the question, as it is something that he is just not contemplating.
The Tour has captured the imagination of its followers for 100 years because it drives men beyond their physical limits. Episodes of great courage in the face of pain are the norm rather than the exception.
Even so, Dr Gerard Porte, 32 years on the Tour, 22 as chief doctor, says Hamilton’s is the most surprising case that he has ever seen. ‘A normal person would have to have four weeks off work. It is the finest example of courage that I’ve come across. It has amazed me. Obviously, medically it is possible, in that there are no counter-indications, no sign that it’s getting worse. It’s simply down to how much pain he can stand. That he still has the courage to be with the best is incredible.’
Porte has seen other men drive themselves through injuries that would normally call for complete rest. He remembers the case of Johnny Weltz of Denmark in the mid-1980s, when the Dane broke a finger on stage six and got to Paris with it in plaster. By happy coincidence, Weltz is now one of Hamilton’s directeurs sportifs
In 1983, Porte was forced to look on as the Peugeot squad pushed their leader Pascal Simon from the Pyrenees to the Alps in spite of his broken shoulder blade. Simon became a legend, but he was never the same cyclist again. In 1985, Jean-Claude Bagot of France managed four stages with a broken elbow, simply because his pride would not allow him to quit before the Tour had entered his native Normandy.
‘To understand why Hamilton is still here, you have to look back a year, when he fell in the Grand Prix,’ explains Porte. ‘There he suffered a real fracture of the collarbone, the bone was scarred and acquired a big lump. He fell in Meaux on the same shoulder, and cracked it in the same place, in the knot of scarred bone. It is an incomplete fracture, two fissures, which are not as bad as a classic fracture which would have sent him home no matter how brave he was.’
What chance does Hamilton stand of getting through the Pyrenean stages today, tomorrow and on Wednesday, and of making it to Paris? ‘I think he has a chance,’ says Porte. ‘He’s been going for 10 days, it’s through the most painful period for a fracture – and it’s becoming less painful. The question is whether riding without the full use of his right arm has weakened the rest of his body.’
IN AUTUMN NEXT year, the first Imax film of the Tour, provisionally entitled Brainpower, will be released. Partly sponsored by America’s National Science Foundation, it is being shot on this Tour with a 49-strong team. By freaky coincidence, it deals with the mind’s ability to overcome pain, and it is being shot largely with Hamilton and the CSC team. The scriptwriters could not have dreamt of the current scenario.
‘It’s quite extraordinary,’ says the writer-director Bayley Sillick. ‘Tyler has decided that this is his year, and he will push it as far as he can. It’s not for a team, or himself, or for a movie. We’re trying to work out what makes some guys do this and others call sick when they break a toenail. He has a talent for pain that would kill the rest of us. I don’t know what it means for his brain, but it’s amazed the cycling world.’.
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