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Tyler Hamilton: A whole new deal

Tyler Hamilton will be in uncharted waters July 6 in Luxembourg. For five straight summers, the quiet New Englander rode the Tour de France in the blue-and-white colors of U.S. Postal Service, the only professional team he’d ever known. His first two Tours were tests of survival. Arriving in Paris with the entire team intact in 1997 was a major victory for the Postal team in those early days. But with the 1999 reincarnation of Lance Armstrong, who would go on to win three consecutive Tours, Hamilton found himself first lieutenant to a five-star general. This year, Hamilton is stepping out

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No longer Lance’s trusty lieutenant, Hamilton takes on the 2002 Tour as a general

Photo: Cor Vos

Tyler Hamilton will be in uncharted waters July 6 in Luxembourg. For five straight summers, the quiet New Englander rode the Tour de France in the blue-and-white colors of U.S. Postal Service, the only professional team he’d ever known.

His first two Tours were tests of survival. Arriving in Paris with the entire team intact in 1997 was a major victory for the Postal team in those early days. But with the 1999 reincarnation of Lance Armstrong, who would go on to win three consecutive Tours, Hamilton found himself first lieutenant to a five-star general.

This year, Hamilton is stepping out of Armstrong’s shadow and into the spotlight. Instead of protecting Armstrong’s flank, Hamilton will be probing it for weakness.

And as if that weren’t tough enough, Hamilton is scheduled to go into the Tour after racing the Giro d’Italia in May and June. Two grand tours in three months? At 31, Hamilton is laying all the cards on the table and going for broke.

“I’m confident I can be ready for the Tour,” he says. “I’ll take a little rest after the Giro, then give it a go. Why not try it? What do I have to lose?”

Not a lot. And he stands to gain everything. After signing a two-year deal with CSC-Tiscali, Hamilton is re-energized about his career. He’s thrilled about being a team leader and having a chance to ride for himself in cycling’s most important races.

“It’s been nice to have a different focus this year,” Hamilton says. “I really feel like a kid again. I feel young in the sport. Changing the focus has made a big difference in my attitude.”

At the Giro, Hamilton was the team leader; the go-to guy, their man for the general classification. At the Tour, he will share responsibility with veteran Laurent Jalabert and rising Spanish star Carlos Sastre, who has moved to CSC after five years with ONCE. Jalabert will have a free hand to chase stages and whatever jerseys suit his fancy, while the team will support whoever has better form between Sastre and Hamilton.

This low-pressure approach will help both the team and Hamilton, said CSC-Tiscali’s directeur sportif, Johnny Weltz.

“It’s better for Tyler to go for the overall classification at the Giro, then take some time off and get ready for the Tour,” said Weltz, former U.S. Postal Service director. “Jalabert just wants to do his own thing, which is fine with us. When he feels good, he tells us and the race is for him. That’s the way we want it. JaJa is the main guy, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for Tyler. It’s a great mix for the team.”

Hamilton is confident he’s up to the challenge of racing for the overall in the grueling Giro, then tackling the Tour, though he’s never finished two grand tours in one year — and he’s never even started the Giro.

“I started the Vuelta one year after doing the Tour, and I crashed and broke two ribs [in 1999],” he recalls. “I couldn’t even breathe. I think it would be very hard if you had a full spring schedule, but I’ve been pretty low-key about the number of racing days so far this spring, so I feel confident about it.”

Hamilton’s buildup has been steady and methodical. After his announcement that he was leaving Postal, the team dropped him from the Vuelta a España lineup last September. In fact, Hamilton’s last European race before his debut this spring at the Tour of Valencia was last August’s Zürich World Cup race.

“They haven’t put a lot of pressure on me this spring, which is great, because it shows they respect me and are taking care of me. They just aren’t throwing me in the mix, like so many other teams would.”

After Valencia, Hamilton took a break, then started at Milan-San Remo and Setmana Catalana in late March; he got a cold and pulled out on the third stage. Allergy-related health problems lingered through the Tour of the Basque Country in April, but he finished despite rain and cold. His Giro buildup included the Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour de Romandie in early May.

It’s tough work, but this is just where Hamilton wants to be — at the front, taking charge, taking chances. During his six seasons at U.S. Postal (preceded by one at Subaru-Montgomery), Hamilton knew his options were limited. Armstrong was the man for the Tour, Roberto Heras was the man for the Vuelta, and Postal never rides the Giro — end of story. Hamilton didn’t want to end his career without the opportunity to write his own name in the history books.

“At Postal, it was great, but it came to a point where I could look ahead three years and back three years, and see myself in the same role,” Hamilton says. “I had to make the decision whether I wanted to do that. I felt I needed a change. I don’t want to end my career and say, shoulda, coulda, woulda.”

And just how will it feel to race against Armstrong instead of for him? Hamilton doesn’t even hint that he dreams of beating his old teammate. His Tour de France goals are simply to arrive in his best form and make the most of it, whether that means fifth or 25th.

“I’ve already raced against Lance this year,” Hamilton says. “It’s no big deal, and I’m sure he feels the same way. It might feel a little different at the Tour, but it’s part of the sport. Riders are always changing teams. We’re still good friends.”