The redemption of Tyler Hamilton
He’s a stage victor in all three Grand Tours, and the winner of the 2003 Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He’s also a former pro rider, past doper and current anti-doping advocate. Tyler Hamilton spoke this month to a crowd of students and academics in Oxford, England. He opened up about his past in the sport, using his example as a cautionary tale about the pressures of sport and the temptation of doping.
One day before that talk he gave a detailed interview to CyclingTips about the crucial lessons learned during what has been a convoluted and painful journey.
A curious thing happened back in 2010. Tyler Hamilton, former US Postal rider and past teammate of Lance Armstrong, had been called to give evidence in front of a federal grand jury. It was investigating allegations of doping within that squad. When the subpoena arrived, he had no choice.
Hamilton spoke, baring his soul to the jury about all he had done and seen in the sport of cycling. Afterwards, he was staggered by how he felt.
“It was almost a bit spiritual, really,” Hamilton says, looking back at that time. “It was just a huge weight coming off my shoulders. The first time I told the whole truth all at once was in that grand jury room in Los Angeles.
“I went in with a 100 kilogramme backpack on. When I came out that thing was really empty. It was just liberating.”
But what was most curious came later. The following year Hamilton decided to speak to the 60 Minutes TV programme about the Armstrong investigation. The Texan was fighting tooth and nail about recent allegations of doping made by another former US Postal teammate, Floyd Landis. Armstrong denied the claims, of course, but suffered a blow to his credibility when Hamilton came forward and opened up.
That second catharsis also helped, as did a third days before the programme went out. Seven years after his positive tests at the Olympics and Vuelta a España, Hamilton finally stood before his parents and told the truth: contrary to what he had said to them for years, he had doped.
It was tough, of course. Telling the truth hurt and so too hearing it. His parents had spent years believing and insisting that their son had raced clean. They now had to face up to what really happened.
The family worked through it and afterwards, Hamilton noticed a difference.
“I had been on anti-depressants for ten years,” he tells CyclingTips. “I have some family history with depression. I still think I have it today. I go through some periods where I am a little bit more quiet and reserved. But telling the truth totally helped things.
“I don’t take medication any more. Even if I still have those quiet periods, times when I am maybe not super social, telling the truth helped so much. Before, I wanted to disappear from the world at times.”
In retrospect, he believes a lot of what he felt was due to the doping and the deceit. It was a rot which gnawed away at him without him realising the damage it was doing.
“Looking back, I do think a lot of the depression was situational,” he tells CyclingTips. “I first got diagnosed with clinical depression around 2002, 2003. But I was also in the middle of this massive lie. And I couldn’t tell my doctor that.
“He just said, ‘yeah, you have depression. You have a family history of it.’ But I think a lot of that is situational. You take out the massive lies, the secrets and all that and things get a lot better.
“Okay, I still have my little moments. But it is all good. You don’t freak out about it. You just lay a little low. I am used to it, once you come to terms with it. And it’s much better than it was before.”
“Cycling is a cut-throat sport, for sure”
There will inevitably be fans of the sport who read this and feel anger. Every rider had the choice to dope or not, they will say, and Hamilton made his decision.
He understands that. At 45 years of age, he doesn’t offer excuses. Armstrong may still be claiming everyone was at it, that he was no different, and that he deserves to keep his seven Tour titles. Hamilton, though, owns his errors.
He doesn’t offer justification. He made mistakes and doesn’t try to sugar-coat things.
He wants to make amends, not excuses. Because of that, he travels around the world and gives talks about his history. He wants others to understand the decisions he made, the consequences they caused, and what he should have done differently.
In terms of drawing on experiences, he’s got plenty to talk about.
In 2004, after years of using banned substances, Hamilton tested positive for a blood transfusion. While there is no test to detect the reinjection of a rider’s own blood, it appears a botched reinfusion where the wrong person’s blood bag was administered may have triggered the positive.
Hamilton denied doping but was given a two-year ban. After his return he raced with the Tinkoff Credit Systems and Rock Racing teams before failing a test for the substance DHEA in April 2009.
At the time he said it was in an over the counter anti-depressant he was taking. Handed an eight-year ban by USADA, he decided not to fight the sanction. He retired and also handed back his 2004 Olympic gold medal.
Aside from the damage to his career and reputation, he also paid a personal price. Hamilton has been through two divorces: things have not been easy.
Looking back, he doesn’t have a rose-tinted view of the sport. It was, and is, brutal.
“Cyclists are put through the wringer. It is the hardest sport in the world,” he says. “So hard. You go from riding in the Tour de France, just killing yourself every day for three weeks. You are on the top of the world, you have all this adrenalin, and then two days later you are sitting at home, quiet. It is hard.
“For the next two, three weeks maybe you are super low key. And then, boom, you are back at another race. It is hard. You are travelling a lot. You are away from your friends and family. It is a brutal lifestyle. So I think a lot of cyclists probably also have situational depressive moments.”
The mental and physical toll is exacerbated by the need to be as lean as possible. In his autobiography The Secret Race, Hamilton talks about needing to put a folded towel under him when sitting down for food. His reason was that with the extensive fat loss he and others experienced, his pelvic bones had less cushioning and became very sore.
When even sitting hurts, things have gone to extremes.
“The dieting…man, the dieting was brutal,” he says, repeating the last word for emphasis.
“It is unfortunate but it makes a difference. Being a few pounds lighter makes a huge difference. And then being a few pounds lighter than that again makes an even bigger difference.
“Cycling is a cut-throat sport, for sure.”
If this sounds like a justification for doing what he did, he doesn’t mean it that way. Asked what he would change about the past, he’s adamant he would do things differently if he had the opportunity. Even if that meant he had a fraction of the success he did.
“I would try to do it clean. For sure,” he says. “I mean, I was clean for a while … I did it for two plus seasons as a professional. I won some smaller races clean in Europe. But I think eventually [as a clean rider] I would have probably thrown the towel in. It would have been hard not to. I would have known what others were at.
“It was impossible to not see any of that back then. Guys have said, ‘I saw nothing. I lived during that dark decade or two decades, I raced then and I didn’t see anything. I never saw it, never heard it.’ But that is not feasible, it is almost impossible.
“It would have been hard [as a clean rider] to know all my teammates are doping. To know that I am not being selected for the Tour because I am not doping, and all that. In that scenario I think eventually I would have probably chosen to go elsewhere, to do something else. And that would have been great too. But I do wish I gave it a try, or continued to be clean, I guess.”
“Okay, I wouldn’t have won a whole lot. But it would have been cool being a domestique. There is a lot less pressure being a domestique. A lot less.”
In retrospect, with the benefit of experience, he now feels the success wasn’t worth it. By way of example, Hamilton speaks about the Olympic gold medal he took in 2004.
“I remember watching the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. Seeing the hockey team win. And watching Eric Heiden win five gold medals in speed skating.
“Ever since watching those Olympics, I had a clear goal. ‘I want to win a gold medal, end up on the podium and hear the national anthem.’ I always dreamed of that and imagined what it would feel like. But when I got there and did it, it didn’t feel remotely like it was supposed to.
“I mean, obviously it was a thrill to win. But I felt empty too. I knew eventually they were going to come calling for the medal, but I gave it back before they even asked for it, voluntarily. That felt really good.
“You know, it is just a piece of metal. It is just this thing. I don’t even know what it represented … it became so twisted and dark. It felt much better to give it back.”
Baring his soul
When Hamilton looks back on his life, that confessional talk with his family may well linger in his memories. It was one of the most difficult things he’s ever done. It was also one of the most liberating.
“I have two great parents and they taught me the difference between right and wrong,” he says of his childhood.
“They let my brother and sister and I get away with a lot, but lying was not one of them. So when this all happened, it really affected me. Maybe the other riders don’t feel as much, maybe it is just an act, but it affected me greatly.”
Despite that burden, he intended carrying his secret for the rest of his life. He’d already been sanctioned and had nothing to lose in terms of his reputation, but still felt obliged to say nothing.
“At that point in time I was still believing. I felt like I was a proud fraternity member,” he explains. “I got caught, the others didn’t, what I need to do is just keep my mouth shut. Do it for the sport of cycling. Do it for all my co-workers and competitors.
“Basically, I felt like that until I got subpoenaed … I had been backing up, backing up, backing up and finally I was on the edge of a cliff. It was either jump off and keep the truth secret, or tell the truth.”
Internally, he had justified his silence. He believed saying nothing was the only course of action.
“I didn’t want to implicate anybody else. I knew if I told the truth they were going to be asking the other questions; who, what, where, when. I just thought it was the best thing for everybody, including myself, to not tell.
“Even after I got caught, don’t say a word. Omerta – I was fully in it. But looking back now, it was crazy. I was living in my own personal hell. I was really, really suffering and yet it was the simplest thing: just tell the truth. And once I did that, it was like, wow.
“How I felt afterwards was incredible. I had been looking for the answers, ‘how do I feel better? How do I feel better?’ I just wanted to disappear and that is just awful.
“But it was as simple as that. Just telling the truth. Sure, it wasn’t easy, but life is starting to become easier. Living with lies in your life is awful. The bigger the lie is, the more you have to make up all these smaller lies. You are constantly lying. Small little lies to protect the big lie.
“You get sucked into this second life. It is no way to live. It is no way to live. Even in the best of my times, when from the outside it looked like I was on top of the world, it was not that fun. It was pretty miserable.”
Encouraged by how he felt, Hamilton spoke to the 60 Minutes programme. Prior to its broadcast he knew he had to face up to his biggest confession: owning up to his parents, his brother and his sister.
“I told them a day or two before the interview aired on television. It was … awful. Awful. That was probably the worst part about the whole thing. I mean, I think way back as a kid … why are you trying to be successful in sport? You are trying to make your parents proud. And it keeps going as you get older.
“So to have to go and stand in front of them and tell them … it was very tough.”
It was shock to them but, deep down, he believes they may have had a feeling about his true past.
“There was a lot of stuff out there. They always believed me or said they believed me. They always had my back. But I am sure … they are smart people and I am sure they had their guesses.”
Getting over that moment took time for all the family, but their forgiveness helped him finally end the lies. He was free.
An important warning
In the weeks and months after he revealed all on 60 Minutes, the Armstrong investigation headlines grew and grew. The Texan was handed a lifetime ban by USADA in August 2012. The following January, he went on the Oprah Winfrey show and admitted to many years of doping, including during his seven Tour de France victories.
Fast forward three and a half years and many of Hamilton’s peers are getting on with their lives. They opened up about their own indiscretions, helped USADA nail Armstrong, and then closed up again. Many had short six-month bans and then returned to racing.
Hamilton has taken a different route. While he has conducted group rides and has a coaching practice, he also travels around the world speaking about his experiences. Some of the talks are paid; many others are pro bono.
Although he finds public speaking difficult, he says he wants to make a difference.
“People appreciate the truth and being honest,” he explains. “I don’t necessarily like doing it. It is hard. It has become a little bit easier, I guess, but it is still not easy. Yet it is always nice to see how people react. They appreciate the honesty and not holding back.
“I have never gone to confession, but sometimes it feels like going to confession. I learned some tough, tough lessons and I feel like I am a better person because of it. People need to hear the truth, the whole truth [about doping in sport – ed.]. And I don’t feel like we have really heard all of that.”
In short, Hamilton feels that he has an obligation to teach others what he learned about himself and the truth. He also wants to ensure they don’t make the same mistakes.
By talking about how doping affected, consumed and ultimately upended his life, he hopes that others don’t go down the same road.
However he has a concern. At various points in the past, usually following scandals, the subject of doping has been a big point of discussion. After Operacion Puerto, the Floyd Landis case, the Michael Rasmussen affair and Armstrong’s suspension the spotlight was on the issue. Riders and others within the sport would give their thoughts, responding to the inevitable questions.
Thanks to the tremors from those investigations, there was both a dialogue and a clear and constant pressure to improve things.
Now, not so much.
“A lot of things we were taught to bury deep down inside and really don’t talk about,” Hamilton says. “But it is important. You know, I wish more guys were doing it. As you know, it is not just going away. It didn’t go away in 2006, in one day. It is still out there.
“Obviously things have changed a lot since the dark days but everybody wants to be, ‘okay, we will wipe our hands clean of that.’ But no, there is still plenty of work to be done.”
While Hamilton doesn’t believe there is the same sort of systematic doping that was in place before, he says there is a big danger in taking the pressure off.
Shadows creep in where light doesn’t shine. Similarly, believing the problem is solved is asking for trouble.
He points out that there are still ways to cheat. “The anti-doping agencies won’t say there are giant loopholes, but there are still pretty big loopholes. Blood doping still exists. EPO still exists. And there are new drugs out there.
“It is getting a little bit quiet. I wish I heard more people talking about this subject, saying ‘I won this race clean.’ We simply can’t forget what happened in the past. If we do, we are going to have the same problem again. The last thing we need to do is say, ‘okay, that is over with now, now we can relax.’
“Now plenty of amateurs are getting caught, masters are doing it. People know what they need to do if they want to dope. At least back then I didn’t know what to do, but there were smart people who did. And the only way you knew how to do that if you were in on the inside.
“Now we have to work harder than ever because there is more information out there. It is easier than ever for kids to get their hands on this stuff. In the past you had to have some sort of connection, but now, with the internet, it is a whole lot different.
“People know the secrets. Or a lot more of the secrets, which is scary…”