Tyler Hamilton doesn't speak French, but he understands it better than he lets on. As he sat in a hospital in the riverside village of Meaux after crashing in stage 1 of the Tour de France on July 6, he listened as three doctors discussed his fractured right collarbone. Just one day into a race in which he was expected to challenge his friend and former U.S. Postal Service teammate Lance Armstrong for the yellow jersey, Hamilton, a Massachusetts native now employed as the leader of the Danish Team CSC, appeared to be out of the competition. "C'est ne pas possible!" two of his doctors kept saying about his staying in the race. But a third saw Hamilton's condition as relatively bon and, more significant, stable. "That gave me hope," says Hamilton. That evening Hamilton appeared at a press conference with his right arm in a sling but did not say whether he would ride on. The next morning, with his shoulder swathed in bandages and his handlebars wrapped in gel tape to absorb shock, he signed in to start stage 2. When he finished with the leaders 121 miles later, U.S. cycling had its newest star.
This is a good time for cycling. Fueled mostly by Armstrong and his inspiring tale of recovery and sustained success, the sport is thriving in America as never before. As Armstrong battles to win his fifth consecutive Tour, ratings for Outdoor Life Network's coverage (a startling 195 hours) have nearly doubled, from last year's 0.7 to 139. Last September, 500,000 fans showed up to the T-Mobile International in San Francisco—an overwhelming crowd for a year-old event. And, according to the manufacturer Trek, road bike sales have ballooned over the last four years, leaving mountain bike sales in the dust. Visible everywhere along the Tour's route are gaggles of Lycra-swathed American tourists cycling up Alp and down Pyrenee, as bike-besotted as any European.
Hamilton, 32, amiable and wiry at 5'8" and 137 pounds, is the right man for these times when Americans are ready to investigate the sport beyond Armstrong. As Hamilton has completed each stage—he was in seventh place after Monday's stage 15, 9:02 behind Armstrong, who clung to first, 1:07 ahead of Germany's Jan Ullrich—so many cameramen have swarmed him that he has to worry about being jostled and reinjured. His perseverance is so improbable that one of his doctors has brandished Hamilton's X-rays to better explain to journalists the nature of what they're seeing. An excruciating broken bone may not hold the drama of Armstrong's return from testicular cancer in 1998 or of Greg LeMond's winning the Tour in 1989 with 30 shotgun pellets inside him after a hunting accident, but tolerating agony has become Hamilton's hallmark. A former University of Colorado skier who got into cycling after breaking his back in a 1991 fall, Hamilton finished second in last year's Giro d'Italia despite fracturing a bone in his left arm in a crash. The pain was so intense he needed 11 caps on the teeth he ground down fighting it. "In 48 years of practicing I have never seen a man who could handle as much pain as he can," says CSC's physical therapist, Ole Kare Foli, who massages Hamilton extensively each night and uses acupressure to lessen the swelling around the collarbone.
Every day before he gets his shoulder wrapped, Hamilton weighs again whether he can continue. He's partly motivated by his wife, Haven—who along with their beloved golden retriever, Tugboat, has been a familiar sight along the race route—but the chore has become tougher as the stages wear on. Favoring his left side has put his back out of whack, and he's also nursing a badly pinched nerve. "Some days are a lot worse than others," says team doctor Piet De Moor. "But every day he walks like an old man." That's O.K.; as his new fans across America have noted, he rides like a hero.