Anonymous no longer
America's Hamilton has made long climb to recognition
Posted: Monday July 20, 1998 10:25 AM
Special from L'Equipe, the French sports daily
PARIS (L'Equipe) -- A surprising second in the time trial Saturday, the US Postal's anonymous little climber symbolizes American cycling's good health in this tour.
A hooded Tyler Hamilton was waiting in the scorching heat by a US Postal van with California plates. He'd finished an hour earlier, but insisted on staying at the finish line to congratulate Bobby Julich, who eventually placed third, behind Jan Ullrich and himself.
They hugged. They may not compete for the same team, but Julich (Cofidis) and Hamilton (US Postal), both 27, and George Hincapie, who was second overall a couple days earlier, are the symbols of American cycling's resurgence on the tour. A brand of cycling that hadn't experienced such euphoria since Greg LeMond's yellow jersey in 1991 and Andy Hampsten's stage win in l'Alpe-d'Huezand fourth-place finish a year later.
"It's a kind of renaissance," Julich, 17th overall last year and currently seventh, said. "Ten years ago, when I saw Greg LeMond's exploits on TV, on my couch, it turned me away from traditional American sports like baseball, football or basketball. I'm here today thanks to him and the Seven Eleven."
Along with Lance Armstrong, absent from the Tour de France, Frankie Andreu, Hincapie and Kevin Livingston, who all formerly raced for Motorola, Julich has incarnated American cycling for five years or more.
Not Hamilton, who, even in his fourth professional season, defines himself as a rookie. "I would have been very pleased to finish in the top 20 of the time trial," he said Saturday. "Second, that was fantastic and unhoped-for, even if I've improved a lot and I've been feeling pretty good for a month. On the tour, my goal was to help my leader, Jean-Cyril Robin. Now, to some extent, I'm the leader."
Although he didn't become the sixth American after LeMond, Phinney, Pierce, Hampsten and Armstrong to win a Tour de France stage, Hamilton is the overall standings' surprise guest, with a ninth place spot Monday. All the more since the Marblehead, Massachusetts native came to cycling late. "I was a good skier, a hopeful in slalom. I competed for the University of Colorado, one of the most prestigious in the nation. In 1992, I had serious back problems. I rode a bike during rehab. I quickly developed a taste for it. A year later, I became the NCAA cycling champion. It opened my eyes on my possibilities. The following year, I was in the national team. In 1995, I turned pro, with Montgomery," he said.
A complete athlete, Hamilton took advantage of Colorado's relief to become a good climber, but it took the quiet and reserved man some time to reveal himself. "Cycling is as popular in the U.S as baseball is in Europe. Being a professional there can be frustrating, sometimes," he said.
Hamilton lives in Boston in the winter, and shares an apartment with Hincapie in Gijon, Spain, the rest of the time. "Ninety-nine percent of the races we compete in take place in Europe, far from home, in anonymity," he said.
Little by little, Hamilton managed to make a name for himself. In 1996, he got his first professional win, a time trial in the Teleflex Tour, in Eindhoven, Netherlands. In August of 1997, he beat the Mount Washington, New Hampshire, climb record, winning an Audi Quattro in the process. With a reputation as a good climber, he worked hard on becoming a complete rider.
In early June, at the end of the First Union Series in Trenton, New Jersey, he jumped in a cab, still wearing his gear, to attend his sister's wedding in Boston. Twenty-four hours later, he helped Hincapie become the national champion before flying to Brussels, Belgium, where he helped Armstrong win the Tour of Luxembourg. Two weeks later, he accompanied Robin in the Tour of Catalonia's mountains, placed eighth in the time trial and finished in 15th place overall.
Hamilton likes time trials but is not really a specialist. He placed 27th in the 1997 Tour de France's first time trial in Saint-Etienne, 22nd in the one in Disneyland, and 39th in the World Championships while he was sick. But even with a new bike, he never thought he could fare as well as he did Saturday.
"Four days ago, I had serious stomach problems, a strong diarrhea," he confessed. He even spent half of the night in the toilets. "I felt bad. My morale was as low as it could be. I'd struck out on a curve ball. My fiancée called me to cheer me up. She told me to show myself up front, not behind."
The latter, named Haven, being a woman of influence, Hamilton began the Tour's second week in the top 10. "It's a new situation for me. Even if I feel well, I don't know whether I'll be able to ride along the best in the mountains. I surprised everyone Saturday, I hope to do it again," he said. No doubt he also hopes to make good on US Postal assistant coach Johnny Weltz' prediction that he's got the legs to finish the Tour in the top 10.
Copyright (c) 1998 L'Equipe
Copyright © 1999 CNN/SI. A Time Warner Company.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.