Where are they now: A Tyler Hamilton Interview
Tyler Hamilton was a loyal lieutenant within cycling’s most notorious team, and then a leader in a program only marginally less questionable. He won a Tour de France stage with a broken collarbone and ground his teeth down in pain. He won a gold medal and then returned it, tested positive three times and served two bans. And then, right as cycling was beginning to understand the breadth and depth of its doping problem, he wrote a book that told all. In that book’s aftermath, he escaped from the cycling-mad town of Boulder, Colorado, where everyone knew his name and his story, and moved to Montana, where he coached skiing, stopped riding, walked his dogs and, as best he could, left pro cycling behind.
It’s been nearly a decade since Hamilton stepped away from the sport. In that time he found bikes again, but not the drop-bar, go-fast sort. He bikepacks, rides gravel and mountain bikes, enjoys the outdoors. He started a coaching company, and is working toward a job in finance. What is he on? He’s on his laptop, five to six hours per day, studying for the Series 65, which will allow him to be a financial advisor.
Marshall Opel, our man in the Endless Gravel van, caught up with Hamilton near his home in Missoula, Montana. The scene: A coffee shop called Black Coffee, sitting at the base of the Rattlesnake Valley. July heat, near 90 degrees Fahrenheit. At one point, Olympic mountain biker Sam Schultz walks past. Hamilton is relaxed, removed from the modern peloton, unphased by questions about the Postal and CSC eras.
Below is an excerpt of the conversation, edited for length and clarity. The whole 40-minute conversation is available as a podcast, which you can listen to below. Or subscribe to the CyclingTips Podcast via RSS, iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play.
CyclingTips: What are you up to?
I’ve been doing some public speaking over the last like probably five years. When the book [The Secret Race] came out there was a lot of interest in me sharing my story, so I go around and talk about the good, the bad, mostly the ugly. And then, I’m doing some work for a financial group down in Denver called Black Swift Group.
CT: What do they do?
They’re like an advisatory group, financial advisatory group. So I’m getting my Series 65 license, I’ve been studying for that. It’s basically like your investor advisatory law exam. So it’s like going back to school for me, I was studying this morning.
I try to put in, I don’t know, four or five hours every day reading, so I’ll probably take the test at the end of August.
CT: And is investing something you have been interested in?
I always have but … you know, for a lot of athletes there seems like there’s a bit of a disconnect and I’d ideally like to help out athletes. A lot of people don’t… I made so many mistakes financially in myself. And I’d love to help other people make the right choices and make the right decisions. And your career doesn’t last forever, that’s for sure. And a lot of people don’t realize that and then your income can dramatically change. It did for me. And if you’re prepared for that, the transition can be a lot easier.
CT: I heard you been doing a lot of yoga.
I love yoga. I love yoga. It’s helped me a lot. There were some years, when I first moved into Missoula, I didn’t ride at all. At all. I didn’t really do anything, really, athletically, besides walking my dogs. But yeah, my first thing I started doing was probably yoga and helped me get mentally, physically… it was fantastic.
CT: How did you pick Missoula? You were in Boulder.
Yeah, I was in Boulder. There was a lot of stuff going on there and I felt like it was becoming a bit of a fishbowl. I was at a crazy time in my life. I was writing a controversial book and…
CT: People knew you.
People knew me. People knew [the doping story.]
I’d already come out about the whole big lie, the big secret about doping. It was a tough place to live I would say, going through that. And understandably so. Understandably so, people were pissed off. People didn’t like me and it was time to make just a change. Bozeman was originally recommended to me, it was like a small Boulder, and so that was when I first started looking into Montana. I was checking out Bozeman a little bit just online and Missoula popped up, and I was like, “This place looks pretty cool.” And I came here for a long weekend. I know Alex Gallego. We went to college together, raced on the University of Colorado cycling team, and he owns a bike shop here in town. And he loves the place. He loves it here, and so kind of just went on a whim. Didn’t know if I’d be here for six months or a year, but here we are seven years later, and I love it.
CT: So what’s exciting to you in the cycling world now, for yourself, and what are you looking forward to?
Oh, I’ve been really enjoying mountain biking, getting out and getting out bikepacking. Basically backpacking but on a bike. I love camping and hiking in the wilderness, but bikepacking, basically, you don’t have to put all the weight on your back like backpacking. The majority of the weight’s on the bike and it’s been awesome. I knew a guy who unfortunately passed away due to cancer, his name was Ryan Corey. He was out of Canada. And we had met a couple of years before he passed and he was super into bikepacking. He gave me a lot of tips and all that, and that’s when I started.
So I’ve done trips to, let’s see, Patagonia, down in Argentina and Chile. Did three weeks down there by myself. A week in western Ireland, I did that. Let’s see, a few trips round here in Montana. Let’s see, the Great Divide mountain bike route from Banff down to Missoula. I did that a few years ago, that was a ton of fun. Going down through the Grizzly Bear Corridor as they call it, or the Grizzly Bear Highway down through the Flathead Valley in southern British Colombia. That was pretty scary, but pretty exciting as well.
CT: Do you ever get any itch to… any competitive itch in you?
Not really, not really, but I’ve done…let’s see, I’ve done a few little races because people have asked. I did a two-person gravel race in Switzerland in, I think it was in February.
CT: Oh, how was that?
Yeah, racing with my old teammate Martin Elminger. We were on Phonak together. And he only retired like a year and a half, two years ago. And you had to stay together with your teammate. He dragged me around.
I don’t think I pulled once. But we won, we won the team competition. There was an individual event and then a two-person team. But it was just because he dragged me around and I remember how to draft, I still remember that.
But yeah, in general, I don’t feel like racing again. I did that. Been there done that. I enjoy just riding socially at a more calm pace. I don’t go out and hammer a whole lot any more. Once in a while I feel like riding hard on a climb, I’ll do it, but typically it’s I like to ride in zone two at talking pace, basically.
CT: And you don’t do any structured training, would you say, you just ride?
I have my clients here who I’m coaching, we have lots of structure.
CT: But for yourself?
For me, no, zero zero zero. Zero.
CT: I just crashed and broke my collarbone, and you very famously broke your collarbone.
That was ’03.
CT: And then you went onto solo win stage of the Tour.
At the end of the Tour, yeah. Let’s see, it was in the Pyrenees. It wasn’t completely displaced like yours, so it was still together but it was had like a V fracture. Yeah, it was a lot of pain. Sometimes I look back and I’m like, I almost wish I didn’t do that because I ground all my teeth down. All my teeth are fake now. These are all caps.
From that and the year before in the Giro d’Italia, I broke the top of my arm and rode through that. I think that happened stage 5 and so just riding through pain and grinding your teeth. I was grinding my teeth at night-
So I’ve destroyed myself. They pop out once in a while so it’s a pain in the butt.
CT: I was listening to you on another podcast and you said one of your superpowers is pain. Where does that come from?
I don’t know. I’m a New Englander, we’re pretty tough. I don’t know. Boston, you know. I kind of grew up with it. My brother’s pretty tough, like I said, my parents are pretty tough, my sister. I don’t know. I would say that’s probably my biggest… my biggest gift I was I guess born with was that, but it’s probably a blessing and a curse too, right? You push yourself beyond what you think is possible and grind your teeth down and it’s a balance.
Now I don’t have to do that any more so it’s kind of nice.
CT: Do you think that level of pain acceptance is a coachable thing?
It’s something you can’t measure either. You can measure everything these days, right?
Your watts and cadence and heart rate and all these different scores, these TSS scores and all this stuff. You can’t really measure ability to push through pain, right? And I felt like there was a lot of riders who were more talented than me but they’d give up way easier than I would. Just a five- or six-hour race, up, down, up, down, all day. The beginning of the race sometimes I would just be suffering but I’d just keep putting one foot in front of the other so to speak and by the end of the race I’d still be there and a lot of these guys who are … I felt like more talented than me would eventually give up.
I don’t know. I didn’t like giving up, that’s for sure. That was never something I enjoyed doing was quitting or … So yeah I pushed myself way beyond. Just twisted yourself inside out sometimes.
CT: I don’t think people really understand what that means.
It’s hard to even explain it really. In the Tour, every Tour, I did eight Tours. Every Tour I’d die a thousand deaths whether I was in the front or in the back. A thousand deaths but you just keep … sometimes it’d be so hard, you were hoping that your bike would break and then you could skid to a stop. Or you’d get a double flat tire and you could just stop, the pain would just stop, or whatever.
CT: You ever try to rationalize that pain?
I don’t know, you just had worked so hard to get there. Arguably my whole life had been built up to that moment, to get to the Tour de France. I’d been an athlete my whole life. Didn’t love school but athletics I loved. Loved, loved, loved. You worked so hard to get there you’re at the top of your game, in the biggest race in the world, you can’t give up. So yeah, you just go… I don’t know, it’s hard to say why you don’t quit sometimes but it was just…
CT: Do you find that in your endeavors now, like when you’re studying and paddle boarding and bikepacking, do you live your life in a similar vein?
I’ve mellowed out a lot. I mean, it’s helped I think in my studies just recently. I’m trying to be pretty disciplined about it. It’s a lot of information and some dry stuff too, so you got to stay really focused, but for the most part, no. I’ve racked it down a couple of notches. It can become a problem when you’re that focused on something, you make poor choices. Which I did. And then yeah, so it’s a double-edged sword. Double-edged sword of sure.
But it’s neat, the good, the bad, the ugly. It was a crazy experience. There were times I felt it was just a crazy movie. You know?
It was in this crazy sport over in Europe, racing at highest level, and doing things I never imagined I’d be doing.
CT: I’ve got friends now that are racing in the World Tour. They are younger than you, but they talk about just the seriousness of racing now that they don’t have … the doping culture has changed. I don’t really know what it’s like now on the inside of the peloton but for sure, every other aspect of the sport has ratcheted up in terms of their seriousness and weight and…
Everybody’s skinny now. Back when I was racing not everybody was as skinny as they are now.
CT: This was a Tour like we haven’t seen in a long time.
Yeah, I mean the tours have become a little bit boring. And I think having that, the unknown, like this year’s Tour … that was so prevalent in this year’s Tour, the unknown. No one knew what was going to happen. Like the guy in fifth could’ve ridden to fourth, ridden to first on any stage. It was a wild Tour, but yeah we’ve seen less of that due to x y z. I’m not sure exactly, but race radios have to do with it. Everyone knows each other’s numbers it seems like. Your wattage numbers and all that. Directors can almost control a race from behind and in a way they’ve got the joystick and they’re controlling the riders, a little bit, a little bit.
And training has become much more specific. The way we were training back in those days, everybody’s doing that now. Back in my time, it felt like there were a lot of guys that didn’t train that hard and really work on stuff. Having a higher cadence, being really focused on interval work, being really focused on your diet, being really focused on rest. All these different things besides the doping, all these different things that really mattered but a lot of guys were just lazy or they just relied on their talent. And their talent got them far enough but had they focused as much as some of us did, I think they would’ve been that much better. Who knows?
Nowadays, if I could’ve been racing in these days, maybe I wouldn’t be that good anymore. I was able to train really hard and all that. I feel like I was one of the earlier guys to realize how much interval work and cadence and all those kind of things mattered. Your weight. You know we were kind of privy to that information early on, where a lot of individuals weren’t. And nowadays, its everybody knows and everybody’s doing the same kind of workouts. 40/20s, for example, those things are awesome.
CT: What are 40-20s?
40 second on, 20 seconds easy, 40 second on, 20 seconds easy, 40 seconds on, 20 seconds easy for 10 minutes. That’s like one set, typical to do 3, 4 sets in a workout. Brutal. Brutal.
CT: Those 20 seconds go by fast.
If you’re going by a scale of one to ten, you’re going at a 9.5 effort for the 40 seconds then 20 seconds as easy as possible. So we coach a lot of people these days, we have them do a lot of 40/20s. Super effective and you should do them.
CT: No thank you.
CT: What’s the sport going to look like in ten years? What’s the Tour de France going to look like in 10 years?
Hopefully it’ll have some … as we were talking about earlier, hopefully, it’ll have some gravel stages. Wouldn’t that be cool?
CT: From your time living Europe, in that era, does anything stick out as a fun story that you could share with us?
A fun story? Oh man. We were so serious. We had a lot of fun times on the Postal years. For me probably, the best years during the Postal era was kind of when we were calling ourselves “The Bad News Bears.” It was in the early years, like the ’99 tour when Lance got his first victory. The next year, the 2000 tour, those were exciting years just because we were a smaller team.
Camper vans instead of buses. We were a low budget team that was in the Tour, just proving everybody wrong, you know.
I remember the media saying, Lance was strong but he had a weak team, and we couldn’t support him in the mountains.
It motivated all of us. So we all rode … Just having the yellow jersey on your team it really puts you to another level, for sure. It was a lot of fun. It was a lot of fun being in the team campers with all the guys and telling stories and it was a pretty exciting time. I love doing the training camps with Tour de France training camps ahead of time, that was a lot of fun.
CT: It was just dieting and getting all serious?
But it was cool, you were there, training on some of the roads up there France in May, end of May, and it was quiet and some of the big passes had snow on them. You couldn’t ride all the way through and a lot of challenging weather. May in Europe can be … in the big mountains, you could be getting dumped on snow or 40 degrees and raining. And you felt back then, it seems like these days, all the teams do it, preview the courses, but back then not everybody did it. So you felt like you were special, you were doing something, you were getting ahead of the competition by doing this.
CT: You set a trend with that?
I think with set a trend, I think we set a trend. I feel like nobody worked harder than us, for sure.
CT: Well, that and…
And there’s obviously the doping side and all that. We can talk about it now or later. There was that too, but we worked harder than anybody. That’s what I felt like.
Yeah, yeah for sure people think it was just the doping and we went and rode our bikes a little bit and then doped and were really strong.
We worked our tails off. And when I left Postal I continued with that and I was like, I knew what I had to do. I knew I needed to be super focused. I treated my training like doing homework. And so every day I’d go out training … my training would be either in my pocket on a piece of paper or taped to my stem. I’d do the workout to a T and then I’d send it in right after to show my coach that I’d done the work. And it was a lot of fun but it was really a lot of hard work, a lot of really hard work.
CT: Who was coaching you then?
Luigi Cecchini. Yep. He was the guy who started the 40/20s. So that’s his interval.
CT: Did he have a bunch of cool Italianisms about how one should do certain things?
Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
He taught me about … before I really met him I didn’t … the interval work that I did wasn’t hard enough and so we did a lot more shorter intervals, a lot more explosive. During the Postal years, they almost coached me to be like a diesel engine because I had to ride on the front. Ride these long climbs on the Alps and the Pyrenees and for Lance. And then once I moved over to CSC they were looking for me to try and win races so I did learn to become more explosive and all that. Like I would never have won Liege-Bastogne-Liege without the 40/20 work that Luigi Cecchini taught me.
CT: Was that the biggest win of your career do you feel or was it the Tour stage?
That Tour stage was pretty cool. Winning alone was pretty cool and I was out in front for a long time. That was kind of neat.
CT: Grinding our teeth off.
Grinding my teeth, yeah. Liege was pretty cool. Winning Liege was pretty awesome because, at one point in my career, I was told I wouldn’t finish the race. And then to be winning it or to win it one time is pretty special. But yeah, it was just a little bit of luck. I made it to that front split and I think there was six, seven of us and I made it.
CT: Do you remember who was up there?
Let’s see. Eban Mayo, Michael Boogerd, couple of other Spanish guys. But yeah, it was just attacks going left, right, and center, and I made the right attack at the right time. I’m a pretty good time trialist so I was able to stay away and win alone. That was pretty neat.
That was Liege. And the Tour stage was … it was the last day in the mountains. I think I was … I broke my collarbone early in the race, and I lost some time in the mountains, so I wasn’t at my best, I think I was in sixth or seventh on general classification and so it was the last day in the mountains, and my director said, “Let’s just go for it and go for a breakaway and see if you can try to win today.” And my teammate was in the breakaway ahead and bridged up on a climb and then he drove it, he drove the break for a while and then I think I attacked on the next climb then rode the next 90 kilometers by myself.
CT: Was there any specific, strategic lead up from transfusion standpoint to that win?
Oh yeah. We’d done a transfusion I think a few days before that.
CT: So you were ripping that day. You were feeling good.
I was ripping. I was ripping. I was ripping. Yeah. I felt pretty good that day. For sure. Yeah, so, I don’t know. I know the truth behind that victory and so I really don’t talk about it a whole lot, I know it has an asterisk behind it.
I mean, honestly, if they want they can take away all my results from the minute that I took that first red testosterone pill which was in the spring of 1997. Because really, everything was affected after that. Even if you stop doping, you’re still … say you doped for three years and then you stop, you’re still at a … you’ve gained all this fitness and you’ve got all this residual fitness from it. So in a way it’s like… Yeah, they can take it all away if they want.
CT: But you’ve got those memories. You know what you did.
I’ve got the memories, but you know, yeah. I feel a little bit different about them now. I don’t talk about it much and it’s not…
It was a challenging time for sure. Doping was rampant. My first tour was ’97, I’d be surprised if five guys were clean. I’d be very surprised. So it was just kind of what you were expected to do and, you know.
CT: And if you didn’t do it?
You could try to do it clean but eventually, you were going to get replaced by somebody that was probably on the program.
CT: Would you speculate what percentage of this year’s Tour was doing something, maybe it wasn’t EPO or transfusion, but doing something?
Yeah I have no idea. I have no idea. I’m so removed from the sport.
CT: But you expect that it’s out there in some way or another?
Well, I mean they still catch guys once in a while so … and typically you’re catching a small percentage of, right? It’s still out there. We know that by the fact that once in a while they announce that they’ve caught somebody but I would assume it’s a lot cleaner than back in my day, the Wild West days.
CT: A lot of people would.
I hope so. It’s a tricky scene, it’s a tricky scene, there’s a lot of pressure on these young kids to race their bikes super, super fast and if they can’t get it done, they’ll get replaced by somebody else so the pressures are still there.
CT: Question for you, mechanical doping, remember when that cyclocross female racer got caught with a motor. I remember thinking that didn’t start with the women’s under 23 level. Did it start from the top or did it start from the amateur level? Mechanical doping, you know, now they’re x-raying bikes… Is that a thing?
It was a thing, supposedly. I had some inside sources that know way more than that’s been, I guess, leaked out to the press, really.
It was a thing, it was a thing and riders were using it. And there was also magnetic wheels that they were using too and that could be engaged from the Director’s car from behind, so.
I don’t know, that’s what I hear. The sources I heard from sounded pretty legit but luckily they saw that it was a problem and they started doing these x-rays and all that.
But supposedly, from my source, there were people using at the highest level. Yeah.
CT: Yeah, It is shitty. And there something about mechanical doping that seems, much worse even than…
Ah, yeah, I’m not … I’m probably not the right person to say which is worse. Doping’s pretty awful.
CT: Doping’s doping.
And I’m sorry that I did all that. But yeah, mechanical … I don’t know. It’s like a whole other level, really, but maybe if the dope … if there’s less doping maybe, this popped up and people decided to start using it. At first nobody knew about it and so the pressure to succeed is so high people were choosing to do these things. But hopefully, that’s well beyond us. I try not to think about it that stuff much.
And same with the doping. I just … I don’t know, I enjoy … It’s fun just to watch. The Tour this year was super exciting and it was fun to watch just all the different scenarios play out.
CT: It’s a beautiful sport.
It is a beautiful sport. It is a beautiful sport and it’s had its problems, obviously but it’s the hardest sporting event in the world, the Tour de France. I mean, what sports harder than bike racing? I don’t know, right?
CT: Tyler, thank you for taking the time to chat with me. It’s cool to hear that you’re doing well and you seem happy.
I am happy. Yeah, I am happy.