Tyler Hamilton received an eight year ban from the United States Anti-Doping Agency today effectively ending the 38 year-old's professional cycling career. Hamilton admitted in April that he had taken an over-the-counter anti-depressant that contained the banned substance DHEA. DHEA is a precursor for testosterone. At that time, he also announced that he has been fighting depression for a number of years which was the reason for taking the over-the-counter medication.
Hamilton's career has been marked by some very high highs and some very low lows. In 2002 he became only the second American to stand on the podium of the Giro d'Italia and the first American to win a classic, the Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2003. His Tour de France stage win in the same year, riding with a broken collarbone, was the stuff of legends.
Tyler's Olympic Gold Medal in the Time Trial at the 2004 Athens Games was, undoubtedly, the highlight of his career, but the low point occurred only a month later when he tested positive for non-homologous blood transfusion at the Vuelta a Espana. What followed was two years of trials and hearings which ultimately resulted in Hamilton receiving a two-year ban.
Tyler returned to racing in 2007 with the Italian Tinkov racing squad, but found a better place in 2008 with Michael Ball's Rock Racing team Last year he won the USPRO Road Championships meaning that in 2009, he would be sporting the coveted Stars and Stripes Captain America jersey when he competed. Unfortunately, he only got to wear that jersey in one race, the Amgen Tour of California, before being informed of his positive test at the end of February.
Tyler is one of the nicest persons you will ever meet. The best word to describe this premature end to his career is tragic. I hope that he will be able to rely on the support of his friends and family to fight his depression and move on to the next chapter in his life.
In my last blog I reported on Tyler Hamilton's retirement. In this blog I would like to give a few of my thoughts. First off, it has been my experience in these doping cases that you either believe the athlete or you think he/she is guilty.There is no middle ground here, people are either on one side of the fence or the other.
In the case of Tyler Hamilton, regardless of whether you believe him or not, one thing everyone should be able to agree on is that this is a tragic situation. Depending on your perspective, this is either an athlete who got caught up in the web of performance enhancing drugs, or an athlete who had difficulty handling the pressure of life and made a career-ending mistake. I am not going to debate what really happened as it will not change anyone's opinion.
What I would like to see happen is that people put their opinions of Tyler Hamilton as a bike racer aside and give him the support to deal with his depression.After all, Tyler is a human being first and a bike racer second(or third or fourth). It is quite clear that Tyler will never again ride in the pro peloton so let's put that aside for the moment. Let's try and understand why this all happened so other athletes won't be similarly affected.
You might be thinking that I am completely naive and that this is just another in a long list of lies by Hamilton, but I think at this time, we give him the benefit of the doubt and give him the space to deal with it. As I said earlier, he isn't going to be having an affect on the outcome of any bike races ever again so cut him some slack and let him try to move forward.
The cycling world seems to have it's share of riders suffering from depression. In the past few years we have lost two exceptional cyclists, Marco Pantani and Jose Maria Jimenez, to the effects of depression. Let's not to add Tyler's name to that list. Compassion and understanding go a long way here in dealing with this situation.
American professional bike racer Tyler Hamilton announced his retirement on Friday and also revealing that he has tested positive for a banned substance for the second time in his career. Hamilton was found to have the steroid precursor DHEA in his system after a random drug test a few days before the start of the Tour of California. Unlike his first positive test in 2004 at the Vuelta a Espana, Hamilton did not challenge the result.
The most interesting part of this revelation is that Hamilton acknowledged that he knowingly took the banned substance as part of an over-the-counter anti-depressant medication and that he has been suffering from depression since 2003. As this is his second doping offense it was likely that either a long-term or even a lifetime ban would be imposed. But, Hamilton denied that a lengthy suspension was the reason for his retirement. Instead he insisted that the need to deal with his depression was the reason he has hung up his cleats.
Hamilton told those attending a Friday morning teleconference that he had been on prescription anti-depressants for almost four years, but that a number of factors including his mother's recent diagnosis of breast cancer had taken its toll and even doubling the prescribed about of his medication had no appreciable affect. So, in early February he took the over-the-counter anti-depressant supplement 'Mitamin' knowing that it contained the banned substance DHEA, but feeling like he had few options given his mental condition.
It should be noted that there appears to be no performance enhancing effect to using DHEA, but it is a banned substance. There is so much more to write here. But, in my first blog posting on this subject I wanted to get the facts out there, as I understand them, first then discuss the implications later.
Suffice it to say, anyway you look at this it is a tragic end to Hamilton's career. Before we all start trying Tyler in the court of public opinion, we first need to make sure he can get the help he needs to deal with his depression.
I hope I am not jinxing the race by welcoming the sun back to the great(well, kind of great, these days) state of California especially when I tell you that temperatures in the 70's might greet the riders in Solvang for the decisive time trial(TT). Just to be sure there was lots of snow lining the roads today in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, but the roads were dry and the temps were moderate.
All this adds up to a bluebird day for the AToC and the racers did not disappoint. Current US Pro Road champion, Tyler Hamilton(Rock Racing), Jason McCartney(SaxoBank) and Serge Pauwels(Cervelo Test Team) formed the break of the day and almost held it into Clovis. But, the sprinters and their teams timed the chase to perfection setting up for only the second bunch finish of the race. Unlike yesterday when the smart money was on sprint phenom Mark Cavendish (Columbia-High Road) and Thor Hushovd(Cervelo Test Team) stole the show, the Cav won by about two inches over another sprinter extraordinaire, Tom Boonen(Quick Step). The margin would most likely have been bigger if Cav hadn't started celebrating before he crossed the line, but that doesn't really matter. A win is a win.
So why did Cavendish seal the deal today, but come up empty-handed yesterday? The answer is in two parts. First off, the sprinter has to feel good enough to want to contest the sprint. In my interview with Tom Boonen yesterday, Tom was pretty adamant that he wasn't going to be going for it on wet roads and risk a crash that might end to his 2009 spring Classics season. That ruled out Tom yesterday, but Cavendish doesn't ride the spring classics to win. He is more a a pure sprinter and while he might try for a win in the flatter races such as Milan-San Remo, he won't be targeting monuments to cycling such as Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. So, that means that Cavendish will be going for sprint wins, even on wetter stages, as long as he feels good.
The second major part is the team's leadout train. These days, to win a big bunch sprint in a big race you either need to be significantly faster than everyone else or have a good group of guys who can set you up for the sprint. A leadout train basically revs up the pace to keep the speed high enough to prevent anyone from breaking away. Then, each rider pulls off at a pre-determined point orchestrated in such a way that their top sprinter hits the front with 150-200 meters to the finish line. The sprinter sits in the draft of his teammates until the very last minute then boom, off go the champagne corks.
Yesterday, in the sprint in Modesto, it appeared that Mark Cavendish was willing to give it a go, but in the final mile of the race, his leadout train got severely derailed. The final three riders in the train were George Hincapie, Mark Renshaw and Mark Cavendish ordered that way because Renshaw is faster than Hincapie and Cavendish is faster than Renshaw. The problem was that Renshaw couldn't hold Hincapie's wheel. It was probably not due to speed, more than likely there was too much 'barging'(pushing and shoving) and Renshaw just got pushed off of George's wheel.
Today, in Clovis, the sun clearly improved the spirits of all the riders, including the sprinters so Cav and Boonen were ready to contest the finish. And, unlike yesterday, the Columbia-High Road leadout train did not get derailed. On the flip side, Boonen's Quick-Step leadout train look disorganized. Advantage Cavendish.
Jason McCartney spent a long time off the front in both Stage 2 and today's stage, but has yet to grab the brass ring. I talked with him briefly after his long escape on the way to Santa Cruz. He was initially dropped by Quick Step's Carlos Barredo on the final climb, but he clawed his way back into the lead halfway up the climb. I asked him if he had a stage win in his sights, "Yeah, for certain, but I just kind of locked up at the end. It was cold out there and I just needed a little more freshness." Here is a photo of a very tired and cold McCartney embracing his family at the finish line.
I thought I would throw in this photo from yesterday of the riders heading out on the course from San Jose. Hopefully, this will be one of my last rain photos.
Tyler Hamilton won Amgen's Breakaway from Cancer Most Courageous Rider Jersey for his efforts in the breakaway today.
Not So Race Notes
Tomorrow, the race route will take the racers right past the location where legendary actor James Dean died in a tragic car accident in 1955. At about mile 98 they will pass the intersection of State Highway 46 and State Highway 41 where the accident occurred. Coincidentally, Dean was headed to Paso Robles, the site of the stage finish when he died. There is a memorial to Dean at the small diner at the intersection.
More powerful rain storms dogged the riders on stage 3 from San Jose to Modesto. The riders are pros and they don't complain, but they are clearly hoping for sunny skies and the pleasantries are wearing a bit thin. At the line it was Norwegian Thor Hushovd who won the stage for Gerard Vroomen's and Phil White's Cervelo Test Team. I spent a lot of time at the starting line talking with the riders and trying to find out how they are holding up.
With Jonathan Vaughters in Europe attending to his new duties as president of the professional rider's union, directorship of the Garmin-Slipstream team is being shared by former Discovery Channel pros Matt White and Chann McRae. I talked with Chann about the outstanding win by team member Thomas Peterson on yesterday's stage to Santa Cruz.
"The game plan was to get him (Tom Peterson) and Steven Cozza or Trent Lowe into the breakaway and they did that. Once they established the break the plan was to have Steven Cozza do most of the work with the other guys in the breakaway and have Peterson ride the last climb fairly fresh. We know that he (Peterson) is climbing well, he tested really well in the testing we did before we came out here and he backed it up. I told him there were two races, one was to be the first to the top of the climb, the second was for the finish line and he did both of those."
Stage winner Thomas Peterson gave his account of the win. "It (the plan) was perfect. I had already pre-ridden the course so I knew what to expect. I also knew that I could probably hold his wheel. It was a perfect situation." When asked about not sharing the pacemaking with Levi, Peterson explained, " He tried to wave me through a couple of times, but he knew I couldn't pull because Zabriskie and Danielson were back there."
Lance Armstrong is in fourth place overall, but he is riding this race in support of his teammate Levi. I asked him if he felt the team could defend the jersey. "We've got a good team. You are never totally sure, there are other strong guys in the race. The boys are strong. He's(Levi) motivated and he's obviously riding really well." When I asked him about how his comeback was progressing, he replied, "Not bad for an old man."
Floyd Landis has had his comeback derailed a bit by some bad luck, flatting out of the lead chase group on stage 1 into Santa Rosa, but he has been soldering on. I asked him how the weather was affecting his comeback and how he was holding up with all the rain. "The weather could be better, but the bike race is the same for everybody. Bike races are determined by training, strategy and sometimes luck. I think everyone would be much more pleasant if it was sunny but, we'll get through it."
Tyler Hamilton's mother was diagnosed with breast cancer a few months ago. His pre-season training has suffered as he returned to Boston to help her through her cancer treatments. Tyler reflected on his role with the team at the AToC. "I have no problem being in the support role. For me it is all about the team whether it is me up in front or Oscar Sevilla or Paco Mancebo it is all the same. Yesterday, I rode in the front all the way to the base of the last climb. For me that was a lot of fun. It is something different, but to be honest, I stayed warm, probably a lot warmer than the rest of the guys."
With all the highly publicized troubles the team has endured in the pre-season, a lot of people have written off Michael Ball's squad. Tyler summarized how the AToC has been going for Rock Racing. "We won a stage. We did a lot of work yesterday in defense of Paco's jersey. Unfortunately, he was still pretty beat up from the day before. But, we did our best and obviously Paco did his best so we will take it day by day now. Sevilla is looking very strong. He is our GC guy."
After an off day yesterday, Rock Racing's Francisco Mancebo looked in better spirits sporting the AToC Sprint Leader's jersey and several other accessories. I asked him how he was feeling. "Last night I tried to get as much rest as possible. We will see today if my strength has returned."
Tom Boonen, who won a stage in the AToC last year, has been absent from the front, even on the flatter stages. I asked him why he was hanging back and it was clear that the best Classics rider over the past four years has the legendary spring races on his mind and is holding back on contesting the sprints. "Yeah, but I don't like to do it(sprinting) in the rain. I was hoping that today was going to be a little bit better. I am trying to avoid the risks of crashing."
When reminded that the California weather was much like that found in Belgium, he jokingly replied "In Belgium it is 50F and good weather right now. The next time somebody says 'I hate to come to Belgium' They're going to mean California"
The weather report looks good for at least the next four days with rain nowhere in sight. It is also warming up.
The riders on the Ouch Medical Team are a true class act. Yesterday, as the racers came across the line I first asked Tim Johnson, then Rory Sutherland, for a quick interview. Both begged off citing the cold weather and the need to get to the team bus to warm up after five hours in the rain. This morning at the stage start both came up to me and apologized for not being able to give me an interview. True class.
The race organizers are concerned that, at 5200', the top of the Palomar Mountain climb might be in snow if the rain returns. They have an alternate route which eliminates the final seven miles of the Palomar climb by heading straight (south) on Highway 76 and doing a loop around Mesa Grande before returning to the original race route at the bottom of East Grade Road on Palomar Mountain. Mesa Grande is still a bit high at 3200', but should be snow-free.
Rob Jensen, owner of the Testarossa Winery in Los Gatos, hosted the Versus team, Phil Liggett, Paul Sherwen, Craig Hummer, producers John Carter and Mike Long and me for a special wine tasting and dinner after the stage into Santa Cruz. It was a great time for everyone to sample some tasty wines and relax after some hard days in the saddle(so to speak). Thanks Rob (and his wife Diana).
What to do? What to do? Does an athlete need to confess to a doping positive to be accepted back into favor with his fellow competitors and fans? In the past few days we have seen Alex Rodriguez(A-Rod) admit that he used steroids during the height of his career in 2001-2003 when he was voted the league MVP. The problem is that in 2007, A-Rod told Katie Couric that he had never taken performance enhancing drugs(PED's).
Why the flip-flop? Because several journalists at SI.com were able to obtain the identity of some of the 102 baseball players who tested positive for steroids when Major League Baseball did anonymous testing in 2003. So, faced with pretty hard evidence that he did use steroids, A-Rod came clean. In cycling, a similar situation occurred several years ago when Ivan Basso denied drug use until bags of his blood were identified in a refrigerator in Spain. David Millar also denied drug use then came clean when syringes containing EPO were found with his fingerprints at his home.
Why am I bringing this up? Am I jealous that A-Rod hooked up with Madonna and I didn't? No, it is because the 4th annual Amgen Tour of California starts on Saturday and Basso will be there. Millar rode the race last year. But, more importantly, Americans Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis will also be there. Basso, Millar, Hamilton and Landis all served suspensions for doping infractions, but while Basso and Millar admitted their transgressions, Hamilton and Landis did not.
There is a good reason that Tyler and Floyd have not admitted to doping. Both contend that they didn't do performance enhancing drugs. The question here is, do Tyler and Floyd need to admit that they took PED's to be accepted back into the pro peloton and be embraced by the fans much like what has happened to both Millar and Basso? Is it good enough that Tyler and Floyd served their suspensions, paid their debt, so to speak?
Personally, I think that Tyler and Floyd should be allowed to compete and their fans should be allowed to cheer and cheer and cheer for their success. If you are not a Tyler of Floyd fan, then fine, don't cheer for them. Don't put them on your Christmas card list. What I have a problem with is people calling Tyler and Floyd dopers. Yes, they were dopers, but by the same token so were Basso and Millar. So, if the shoe fits, then everybody should wear it.
ps - unless some huge story breaks in the next week, this is the last blog I intend to write about doping. The Tour of California is America's premier bike race so let's focus on the positives!
pps - if you are saving an asterisk for any of Barry Bond's records, don't forget to save a few for A-Rod.
While the cycling world is still reeling from the revelation that Lance Armstrong will make a comeback, several other high profile American riders are staging comebacks of their own. However, unlike Lance, who has never tested positive for performance enhancing drugs (PED's) both Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton did test positive. Hamilton served his two year suspension and returned to the pro peloton in 2007 with Rock Racing while Landis' suspension ends in January 2009; he has been linked to the Momentum Sports Group which has Health Net as it's title sponsor.
Tyler's comeback got off to a rocky start when he was initially excluded from the Tour of California then at the last minute given the green light to participate. He chose to support his other two excluded teammates Santiago Botero and Oscar Sevilla and not start as well. His form gradually increased throughout the season and peaked in mid-summer with a win at the Tour of Quinhai Lake a week-long UCI-rated stage race in China. However, his biggest win was undoubtedly the USPRO road championship in Greenville, South Carolina which will enable the 37-year old Boulder resident the privilege of wearing the so-called "Captain America" jersey next year.
Though there is no official verification, Floyd Landis has been linked to team Health Net-Maxxis' management company, Momentum Sports Group. Health Net is discontinuing its sponsorship at the end of 2008, the rumour is that Smith&Nephew, the company which makes Floyd's artificial hip will step in as title sponsor.
While just about everybody is hailing Lance's comeback, both Tyler's and Floyd's return to the pro peloton are being met with mixed reaction. Many are unhappy that two riders, who have never confessed to their doping positives, are back in the fold. Others feel that Floyd's and Tyler's positive results were fraught with enough doubt that they should never have had to be sanctioned in the first place.
Regardless of how one feels the facts are that both Tyler and Floyd will have served the entire length of their suspensions and by the regulations that govern professional cycling, they are now free and clear to return to racing. If the governing body of the sport is able to grant the riders a second chance shouldn't the fans be able to do the same? Even if you feel that they cheated, under the rules of the sport as they stand now, they are allowed to return. Can the fans forgive?