IN LATE May of 2011, Tyler Hamilton aired his confession on the 60 Minutes programme on CBS News, finally owning up to his years of doping after his years of denial, and shining a light on the sick culture of the sport and the men who have prospered within, chief among them his one-time team-mate at US Postal, Lance Armstrong. Before he did that interview, he partly guessed what he was letting himself in for. He knew because the man who forced him to tell the truth in the first place all but predicted what would happen.
The man was Jeff Novitzky, special investigator for the FDA (the Food and Drug Administration in America). “Not long after that interview,” says Hamilton, “I got some death threats and Jeff told me that death threats were par for the course once I spoke out. I got one on my business Facebook account and one via e-mail. Look, 99 times out of 100 it’s not serious, but it’s not comfortable reading. Most of the time it’s just some pissed-off cycling fan, but I reported them to the federal investigators anyway. Last week I read that Travis Tygart [head of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, USADA] got three death threats [over his work in bringing down Armstrong] and I thought, ‘You, too, huh?’ It comes with the territory. I’m sure I’ll get plenty more.”
The story of Hamilton’s fall is told in his book, The Secret Race – Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups and Winning at All Costs. It is a searingly honest piece of work, a forensic and hugely important study of how a sport turned rotten and how he went along for the ride. The erythropoietin (EPO), the blood transfusions, the lies upon lies. He tells a story about looking his own father in the eye and promising him that he was not doping when he was up to his eyeballs in it, the really shocking thing being that he found it easy to lie, even to his own parents.
This was the way of it. “We got into a habit of putting our used syringes in an empty Coke can. The syringes fit neatly through the opening – plonk, plonk, plonk – you could hear the needles rattle. And we treated the Coke can with respect. It was the Radioactive Coke can, the one that could end our Tour, ruin the team and our careers, maybe land us in a French jail. Once the syringes were inside we’d crush it, dent it, make it look like trash. Then [Dr Luis] del Moral [now banned for life from cycling] would tuck the Coke can at the bottom of his backpack, put on aviator sunglasses, open that flimsy camper door, and walk into the crowd of fans, journalists, Tour officials, even police, who were packed around the bus. They were all watching for Lance [Armstrong]. Nobody saw the anonymous guy with the backpack, who walked quietly through them, invisible.”
He was in a world where the dopers toyed with the testers like a cat would a mouse. It took the drug-testing authorities several years and millions of dollars to develop a test to detect EPO and team doctors spent five minutes figuring a way around it. These were the evil geniuses, the experts who changed the game. The “Little Devil” Del Moral, and his assistant Pepe Marti; Dr Michele Ferrari, now banned for life but so mysterious to every rider bar his special case, Armstrong, that they used to call him “The Myth”; Dr Eufemiano Fuentes who called himself “El Importante” – The Important One. There were more, many, many more.
“I’m proud of the way I got to the elite level of the sport because I did it clean, I worked my ass off and it was fun,”says Hamilton. “But I’m not proud of what I did in the years 1997-2004. As far as I’m concerned the UCI [the sport’s governing body, Union Cycliste Internationale] can take away every result I had from March ’97 onwards because that’s when I started doping. They can remove me from cycling’s history if they like. I would actually encourage that because every win I had in those years was a lie. I wish they’d do it. I wish they’d do a lot of things at the UCI.”
He mentions two riders now. Christophe Bassons of France and Filippo Simeoni of Italy, two men who were driven out of the sport because they refused to dope and refused to observe the omerta – the code of silence. This is the twisted morality that Hamilton has woken up to, the kind that is on nearly every page of his book. Armstrong, Hamilton and the rest of the peloton saw Bassons and Simeoni as riders who were anti-cycling, who were damaging things by speaking up. They were bullied and ostracised and forced out.
“You know, I’m going to contact those guys. When things calm down I’m going to reach out to those two. I’ve no idea how to reach them but I will. I feel awful about that. The tide is turning. They got pushed out of the sport and it was shameful and we were all to blame. It’s clear that they did the right thing. Those guys deserve gold medals. When I was at the elite level of cycling there were only two riders who came out against doping. Two. Bassons and Simeoni. Eight years and only two guys. The code of silence. The omerta. The culture was dark. You didn’t talk about doping, but they did and I want to apologise for what we put them through. Those guys are the real champions in my eyes.”
Now he’s talking about the impact his book has had. So many revelations about his own cheating and the mass cheating of those around him, Armstrong being the ringleader and bully-in-chief, and he despairs at the silence of the UCI, the very people who should be looking at Hamilton’s life story and learning from it. “A lot of people are trying to save face now,” he says. “There’s still a lot of bad apples in the sport who aren’t coming clean. We all were wrong. The culture of the sport was dirty from the top to the bottom. And we need to look at that and for the UCI to admit [last weekend] that they had no part in anything that went wrong is pretty upsetting. [UCI president] Pat McQuaid said they had nothing to apologise for. That’s just mind-boggling.
“I think they need to read the book. Give him his time. In a month if Pat McQuaid hasn’t read the book he shouldn’t be in the sport any more. I would be happy to talk to them, to tell them everything we did and how we did it. I would go all the way to their headquarters in Aigle, Switzerland to talk to them. But they need to be truthful. If you can’t admit to your mistakes then maybe this isn’t the right spot for you. If he doesn’t want to know what happened then maybe that’s the time to step down. From what I can see, all the UCI is doing is suing Paul Kimmage [the former rider and journalist] for speaking out about this, for asking the tough questions that needed to be asked. Everybody needs to be strong with Paul. There needs to be an uprising.”
More than once, Hamilton refers to the bad apples still alive in the sport. Oh sure, the game is cleaner now, much cleaner than it was when he was in his drug-fuelled pomp. But there is much that still troubles him. He says he’s not comfortable with what he sees, not by a long way. “If the bad apples are still in the sport then the same problems are going to come up again. I guarantee it. I guarantee. When is the next Festina Affair? When is the next Operation Puerto going to happen? It’s going to happen again, you know it. If things don’t change it’s going to happen. There’s still a lot of bad apples. Let’s just say I’m not comfortable with the sport today. I’m more comfortable now than I was ten years ago, that’s for sure. I would have much preferred racing in today’s world than ten years ago, but you can see it, there’s still a lot of denial, a lot people just wanting to save their own ass.”
In America, Armstrong’s support is not as it was, but there are still many who refuse to believe that his story is a lie. “Lance failed two tests in 1999 and 2001 and nothing happened. We always joked around that he was like a cat with nine lives. He always got through these difficult periods, always found a way out. The truth is coming out even if people don’t want to believe it. USADA’s report is coming out around 15 October. The only thing I know about is that a lot of what I’ve said is confirmed about Lance Armstrong and the dirty culture is repeated by other riders and other staff members. Travis Tygart said the case against Lance is going to be 30 times worse than what’s already out there today. That’s mind blowing. When that document lands then it’s really going to hit home with the American public. If you don’t believe the truth now, just wait a few weeks.”
I ask him what would he do if he could freeze that moment in 1997 when he was about to dope and talk to that younger version of himself. What would he say? “I’d say ‘Don’t do it, Tyler. Stop. Ride clean’. But I did it and that’s the truth. And then I felt I owed it to cycling to keep my mouth shut. Sick, huh? It took way, way too long for me to come out and admit it all, but I’m glad I did. It felt like I was peeling away layer after layer when I was doing the book, but I feel liberated now. I feel so much happier with my life. I hope all the guys I rode with and against do the same thing. The truth will set them free. I promise.”