‘I did nothing wrong’
By Andrew Hood
Even though he’s facing a two-year suspension after testing positive for banned blood transfusions, Tyler Hamilton vows his racing days aren’t over yet.
In an exclusive interview Saturday, Hamilton told VeloNews he “will race again” despite an admittedly uncertain future. The Phonak rider has staunchly defended his innocence against what officials say is the first positive to result from a new test designed to detect illegal transfusions.
Because of the ongoing investigation, Hamilton declined to address specific question regarding the case, but he said he remains confident that he will eventually prove his innocence.
“Regardless of what the UCI decides, I will race again,” Hamilton said in a phone interview Saturday. “I hope to be racing in 2005. Even if they decide to ban me, my career isn’t over. We’re going to fight this, but what if it takes one and a half years?” On Monday, news broke that Hamilton failed not one, but two anti-dopingtests. The first, a test following his victory in the Olympic time trialon August 18. The result, if confirmed, meant that the American would bestripped of the gold medal, but International Olympic Committee officialslater said the “B sample” had been mishandled, making it impossible topursue the case. (see “Hamiltonblood tests show inconsistencies“)
B samples are taken at the same time as the original sample and, as a protectivemeasure, are tested separately to certify the original result. IOC officialssaid Thursday that the B sample had been frozen, destroying the red bloodcells contained in the vial, making further testing impossible. (see”Olympiccase dropped against Hamilton; Still facing Vuelta sanctions“)
But before any of that news became public UCI officials took a second set of blood samples following his stage 8 time trial victory at the Vuelta a España on September 11. Follow-up tests conducted Thursday confirmed the positive result. While Hamilton is likely to keep his Athens medal, he is now facing a racing ban under UCI jurisdiction.
“The worst week of my life”
Hamilton spoke to VeloNews while waiting to catch a flight Saturday evening to Madrid to cheer on his Phonak teammates in the Vuelta’s final stage. Hamilton said the past week has been harrowing.
Hamilton learned of the news after the UCI called Phonak director Alvaro Pino to tell him of the results.
“Pino got a phone call,” Hamilton recalled. Phonak CEO “Andy Rhis was at the Vuelta. He talked to me and the team provided their 100-percent support. I made the decision to leave the Vuelta.”
“I went home to Girona. Haven was back in the States so I went home to an empty house. I just felt like I was in this bad dream. I was hoping I was going to wake up and it would be over.
“It was devastating. It’s been the worst period of my life,” he said. “I’ve had some highs and lows in cycling, but this was the worst week of my life.”
“I felt like I was numb for three days. I was just in shock. I didn’t even know what it was. I had to look it up on the Internet to see what it (homologous blood transfusion) meant.”
Regarding Thursday’s IOC announcement, Hamilton said he’s pleased that he will keep his medal, but it’s more important to him that he clear his name.
“It’s nice I get to keep the gold medal, but I want to make it clear that I won it with hard work and dedication,” he said. “I still have something to prove with the IOC, because they’re just saying it’s a problem with their method. I don’t want an asterisk by my name.”
Hamilton continues to insist that despite the results from the Olympics and the Vuelta, he is not guilty of doping.
“Bike racing is my livelihood, it’s very important for me, but it’s not worth risking my life,” he said. “They’re accusing me of taking someone else’s blood. No. 1, I’d be risking my life. It could kill me. No. 2, I could get a disease, AIDS, hepatitis, the list goes on. No. 3, I could endanger Haven, and everyone knows how much I love her.”
“I’m not saying I’m a genius, but I have a college degree,” he added. “I’m pretty smart. I don’t take risks – I take educated risks. It was a risk to go to CSC, then to switch teams to an unproven team to Phonak. This is crazy – this is a risk I would never take. If it were a life-or-death decision, okay, but like this, never.”
The fight ahead
It’s uncertain what will happen next, but the UCI is expected to hand down a two-year suspension from racing, a decision that many say could spell an end to the 33-year-old’s career. Hamilton said his legal team will appeal the decision and promised to try to challenge the accuracy of the new testing method used to detect blood transfusions.
“I’m confident, the team’s confident and I’m confident in the (legal) team we’re organizing to fight this. I can’t say much at the moment because of the legal issues. I wish I could, but I can’t,” he said. “There have been plenty of people who’ve talked in the press, but I can’t defend myself yet.”
Hamilton, popular among fans for his grit and humble manner, says his priority will be on trying to clear his name.
“We will spend every cent we have to show my innocence,” he said. “I would rather be poor and proven innocent rather than have a lot of money and have a lot of question marks about my life.”
Hamilton admitted it must be difficult for fans to believe his word against the evidence of the anti-doping tests, but he said the legal battle is just beginning.
“It’s frustrating. Everyone looks at the paper and they have to make their own decision. All I can say to those people is just give me a chance. We have yet to fight our case,” he said. “Be patient and I will prove my innocence. I am confident in that.”
In the meantime, he plans to be in Madrid on Sunday for the final stage of the Vuelta. From there, he’s scheduled to travel to France to re-shoot scenes from the 2003 Tour de France with an IMAX film crew in the French Pyrénées and then return to the United States, where he will attend the Interbike trade show October 5-8 in Las Vegas.
“People say you’re crazy to go to Interbike, but I did nothing wrong. If some people don’t want to talk to me, well, that’s their decision. I’m continuing with my life now,” Hamilton said. “Life goes on. I’m not hiding. I’m not afraid. I know what I did and didn’t do. I’m very angry but I have to continue with my life.”
That life these days isn’t exactly going the way Hamilton had expected. Instead of finishing the Vuelta and beginning what amounts to a victory parade, he is now working to defend his reputation.
“I’ve traveled to Zurich twice – first for the press conference then again for the testing,” he said. “I was there for two days. I went to the UCI labs in Lausanne. This is my life they’re playing with so I had to go see it. It’s a lot better to be there than to be at home waiting.”
“I took a week off the bike. I rode four hours yesterday,” he said. “I feel strong as hell. I wish I was at the Vuelta. I wish I was the last guy on the hill to help Santi (Perez).
Instead, “I’ve watched the last two grand tours end on TV.”
If there is a bright spot, Hamilton noted, it’s been the level of encouragement he’s received from friends, family, sponsors and fans.
“I can’t believe the support people have been giving me, they’ve been so supportive. Random people have called. I’ve received over 1,000 e-mails last week, entries in my guest book of my web page. It’s really moving. My sponsors have backed me up,” he said. “The biggest surprise for me has been the outpouring of support for me. It’s been incredible. Every call has meant so much to me.”