By Andrew Hood
If there were ever any doubt before, Tyler Hamilton cemented his reputation Wednesday as the toughest man in the world’s toughest sport.
The 32-year-old New Englander gritted his teeth and rode on the rivet to a spectacular stage victory in Wednesday’s deceptively challenging 197.5km mountain stage from Pau to Bayonne.
Hamilton shook off lingering pain caused by his fractured right collarbone and held onto a solo breakaway win on what compatriot Floyd Landis called “the toughest stage in this year’s Tour.”
Hamilton’s victory puts him in elite company – he becomes only the sixth American to win a Tour stage (can you name them? See list below) – and his win nudges him back into contention for an outside shot at the Tour’s final podium.
“I’ve never seen anything like that. It was fantastic,” said Team CSC team manager Bjarne Riis. “He was going on his limit the whole way, but he was riding very fast, it was impressive.”
Meanwhile, Lance Armstrong rolled through the 2003 Tour’s final mountain stage unchallenged by second-placed Jan Ullrich (Bianchi) and finished in the main bunch to retain his overall leader’s jersey.
Telekom’s Erik Zabel showed signs of life to take the bunch sprint 1:55 behind Hamilton to revive his campaign for the green jersey. With two flat and rolling stages ahead, the fight for the green jersey will take center stage prior to Saturday’s much-anticipated time trial.
Shrugging off the pain
Hamilton has been dogged with pain since crashing in stage 1 and fracturing his right collarbone in two places. His shoulder still hurts so badly that he has trouble sleeping.
“The shoulder is feeling better, but it’s still not 100 percent,” he said. “I can’t sleep on my side. I have to sleep on my back and I’m getting kind of sick of that. This is my seventh Tour de France, but after two weeks, it’s been the hardest ever. The pain the first week was brutal, both on and off the bike. I took it day to day and wanted only to reach the team time trial to help Carlos Sastre … but here I am.”
Hamilton became one of the Tour’s inspirational stories when he fought on in the first week, but became a legitimate contender when he rolled out of the Alps sitting in fourth overall.
His hopes of finishing on the Tour podium seemed to fade when he struggled up two grueling climbs, to Ax-3 Domaines and to Loudenvielle. Hamilton came back to life on Luz-Ardiden, but entered Wednesday’s stage sitting in seventh, more than nine minutes back.
Everything changed when Hamilton attacked up the day’s first major climb, the Cat. 1 Col de Soudet, to bridge up to a breakaway that was more than 2:00 off the front. Hamilton dropped the break for good when he attacked solo heading up the Col Bagargui.
“We’ve had a good Tour, but Bjarne reminded us not to lose focus. A lot of people start to think of Paris when there’s still a lot of racing left,” Hamilton said. “When we hit the Soudet, Bjarne said if I felt good, I should make an attack.”
Hamilton felt great, and he hammered up the Bagargui with an absolutely twisted face of pain, opening up a five-minute lead that would be enough for him to win. The chase was on – but Hamilton has proven that he is able to suffer like no one else.
Despite Telekom, Fassa Bortolo and Euskaltel leading the chase, Hamilton was still able to finish with a very comfortable winning margin of 1:55.
Coming into the finishing stretch, he waved his CSC team car forward and shook hands with Riis, his mentor, coach and friend.
“Today has made up for everything. To win a stage in the Tour de France is fantastic. It’s beyond my wildest dreams,” said Hamilton, who jumped ahead of Fassa Bortolo’s Ivan Basso into sixth overall at 6:35 back.
Hamilton got an on-stage podium hug from former teammate and Spanish neighbor Lance Armstrong. His wife, Haven, also embraced him on stage.
“Up until now the Tour has been a little disappointing. Under the circumstances of my injury, I’ve done a respectable Tour,” he said. “Without the injury, I could have done more. But now I am going to forget about the disappointment. I am extremely happy.”
Armstrong rolls on
Here’s a first: Hamilton’s victory makes it back-to-back American stage victories in the Tour (Armstrong won Monday’s stage to Luz-Ardiden, and the Tour’s peloton rested Tuesday).
“When I saw Tyler make his move, I thought, ‘Oh, Tyler, that’s a brave move,'” Armstrong said. “He rode incredible today. He deserved to win.”
As for Armstrong, he trotted through a difficult, but stress-free day.
“I’m sleeping a lot better now with a 1:07 lead instead of 15 seconds,” said Armstrong, who finished safely in the main bunch. “The team is working well and the stage went smoothly.”
With two flat stages up next, all eyes are looking toward Saturday’s 49km time trial from Pornic to Nantes as the Tour’s final battleground. Armstrong holds a slim but perhaps sufficient lead over Ullrich. Third-placed Alex Vinokourov lies 2:45 in arrears and also cooled his jets in Wednesday’s stage.
“I’ve never lost a final time trial in the Tour and I don’t plan on starting this year,” Armstrong said. “My goal is to win the stage Saturday.”
Armstrong’s dramatic victory Monday to Luz-Ardiden lifted the mood among the U.S. Postal team workhorses. “That was the most exciting stage I’ve ever seen in the Tour de France,” said George Hincapie before the start in Pau. “It was a spectacular performance by Lance. It was a huge boost for the team.”
Hincapie led Armstrong over the grueling Col Bagargui, a further sign that Hincapie is back in top form after health problems in the spring. “Definitely I feel better than I ever had. I’ll race the World Cups but my major goal is the world championships,” he said.
Postal’s Roberto Heras rode better to finish 77th at 2:10 back after suffering breathing problems in the Pyrénées, while Landis called Wednesday’s stage very difficult.
“It’s hard, that was the hardest stage in the Tour. It was unbelievable,” Landis said. “Tyler deserved to win, he went fast, for sure.”
Oh yeah, here’s the list of American Tour stage winners: Greg LeMond, Davis Phinney, Jeff Pierce, Andy Hampsten, Lance Armstrong and, now, Tyler Hamilton.
To see how the stage unfolded, just Click Here to bring up our live update window.