Most Americans don't know cyclist Tyler Hamilton. Lance Armstrong does, though, and you can bet the house that the Texan will know exactly where his former lieutenant is over every inch of this year's Tour de France.
The potential for psychological and physical battle between the former teammates reads like a shoot-out scene from a Clint Eastwood "spaghetti western." Only this would be a "Chardonnay western," with the brash Texan and reserved New Englander staring each other down for cycling supremacy on French pave. At 5-foot-8 and 135 pounds, Hamilton doesn’t have Armstrong's size, swagger, or star power. But this humble racer from Marblehead, Mass., has the heart, the willpower, and the world-class talent, especially in the mountains and time trials, to crash Armstrong's late July party in Paris. Provided he doesn't crash.
Completing the Tour's 2,082 miles of grueling terrain and absurd inclines requires grit and stamina. To win it demands an inhuman pain threshold - Hamilton's forte. During one harsh mountain stage of the 1998 Tour, he was suffering severely from hypothermia, requiring intravenous fluids. Instead of quitting, Hamilton battled back, hanging tough in the Alps. Then there are crashes, which Hamilton attracts like a windshield invites bugs. Often it's a case of "wrong place, wrong time," when a passel of racers hit the pavement because of one rider's mistake. Sometimes equipment failures are to blame. In last year's Giro d'Italia, on a perilous Stage 5 descent, Hamilton went down at nearly 50 miles an hour when his rear wheel disintegrated, leaving him with a broken shoulder, shredded tendons, and road-seared flesh from head to toe. The next day, he wrecked on the same shoulder to avoid a pile-up.
The flip side of these chills and spills is one irrefutable fact - they highlight Hamilton's preternatural tenacity. He simply doesn't abandon races. After his demoralizing Giro crash, Hamilton bounced up, grabbed a teammate's bike and completed the stage with the race leaders. Fourteen stages later, he finished in second place overall despite pain so agonizing that he ground through the enamel of his molars, requiring 11 caps (but only after completing the Tour de France a month later). The effort earned him a newfound respect in the "peloton."
"He can suffer a lot, that's for sure," says his Danish team director, former Tour champ Bjarne Riis, chuckling. "Tyler knows how to deal with pain."
That's one reason Riis plucked Hamilton from the successful US Postal squad after the 2001 Tour, after the quiet American helped Armstrong garner three Tour championships. Riis, who in 1996 ended Miquel Indurain's epic run of five consecutive Tour victories, likely sees himself in the modest American. And he sees Hamilton's potential as team leader, potential that couldn't be fulfilled in Armstrong's shadow. "Tyler has what it takes to be a big rider in the big tours," says Riis. "The most important thing is to have the ability, and have good recovery, after three weeks. Tyler has a big engine."
That engine was on display this spring during two stunning victories– in the brutal 165-mile Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and Switzerland's Tour de Romandie. In Liege, Hamilton went pedal-to-pedal with his former captain, streaking by a fading Armstrong in the last few miles before launching a daring burst off the front. Calling on his steely resolve, Hamilton pushed through the pain and cold Belgium rain to capture the Grand Classic in grand fashion. Two weeks later, he showcased his time trial skills, overcoming a 43-second deficit in the last stage to claim the six-day Tour de Romandie.
"You can't win a race like Liege on luck. If it's not the most difficult World Cup race, it's one of them," says Hamilton. "Then, to win Romandie, which is a strongman's race, you have to climb well and time trial well. I did both of those, against some of the toughest competition out there."
Perhaps most important to Hamilton's Tour de France ambitions was his post-Romandie agenda. The 32-year-old did nothing, staying off the bike for a week. The formula – to rest and recover before building to another, higher peak – mirrors Armstrong's training regimen. Riis and his prized pupil understand that for Hamilton to be at his best during the Tour de France, he must focus solely on July. The same holds for his Team CSC, which Riis has built to be Tour-tough, featuring climbing sensation Carlos Sastre (10th in last year's Tour), and workhorses Nicki Sorensen and Jakob Piil.
"A lot of people think it's an individual sport, but without a strong team, it's impossible to win the Tour," Hamilton says. "Last year, Postal had arguably the strongest team in Tour de France history."
If Hamilton and his teammates stay upright through 21 stages, he's a legit threat to knock Armstrong off his perch. You just won't hear him say it – he's too smart, and he knows Armstrong too well to provide any motivational material.
"There's been a lot of people talking over the years about how they're going to beat him, and Lance has really shot them down," says Hamilton. "The way he's ridden, he deserves to be put on the pedestal. He's really slaughtered everyone. Until the day comes when I can show that I'm a clear contender, I'll stay quiet."