Tour de France

2004: Tyler Hamiliton's Year?

On location updates and photographics from our correspondent,
Colleen Martin-Moceri, and her husband, Joe Moceri.
(On special assignment for Marblehead Magazine).
Click on all photos for larger views.

July 18: From the top of La Mongie torrential rain, lightning, and hail cascaded down on the throngs of fans who covered the mountainside. Despite the majority of fervent Basque supporters, a roar went through the crowd each time Lance Armstrong was shown on the big screen as American fans joined the tour in support of their favorite. By the time the sun shined brightly, in the final 100 meters it was Armstrong battling CSC's and eventual winner Ivan Basso to the finish line of the first mountaintop finish of the 2004 Tour de France. The two repeated this duel in the 2nd Pyrenean stage to the summit of the Plateau de Beille, but this time it was Armstrong showing everyone that victories in mountain stages are his for the taking and the yellow jersey on his shoulders when it counts the most is now only 22 seconds away. The Pyrenees were a different story for the other American champion.

For Marblehead's Tyler Hamilton a back injury sustained in the 6th stage in Angers left Hamilton somewhat defenseless against Armstrong's power on the Col du Tourmalet. Hamilton lost 3 1/2 minutes to Armstrong due to severe back pain which limited his climbing ability. A disappointed Hamilton commented on his back following stage 12 to La Mongie, "I crashed about a week ago all the muscles around it are swollen, it's basically blocking my lower back. When you are climbing you need to use your lower back a lot. Yesterday I didn't have the power. The team did a fantastic job for me. It's just I wasn't ready. C'est la vie. But today hopefully I'll be ready.

Hamilton's heart and mind were ready but his back injury was much more severe than he ever let on. Hamilton, who stole a lot of Armstrong's thunder with his courage in the 2003 tour while riding almost the entire race with a broken collarbone again showed the same resolve and grit, that we've now come to expect out of the native New Englander. His back pain, along with the emotional loss of his trusted companion Tugboat, (Hamilton's pet dog of 9 years), proved to be too much for the Marblehead hero to overcome. Insiders have commented that two broken collarbones would have been less of a detriment to riding an event as grueling as the Tour de France than with multiple deep hematomas in your back. No one can possibly challenge Hamilton's determination, when after 80 kilometers of stage 13 to the Plateau de Beille, Hamilton pulled off to the side of the road abandoning his first tour in 8 attempts. Podium and possibly championship dreams were gone, as Hamilton climbed into a team car, succumbing to his injuries. Hamilton is due for an MRI to further assess his internal injuries as he heads back today with his wife Haven to Gerona,Spain.

At the Phonak team bus before the start of the 14th stage in Carcassone:

Phonak Directeur Sportif Alvaro Pino offered nothing but praise for his team leader:

" The first thing is that he is a true professional. He is a very, very good professional. He is also excellent with his teammates. He always thinks of the team. As a cyclist he is a 10. As a person, he is unbelievable, the same, a 10. He is an excellent person. It's his first year here but the wholeteamis behind him 100%. They hope thant he will have a quick recuperation, as quick as possible. We are already thinking about next year. I hope he recuperates 100% and performs well in Olympics this year, and has a good result in the Olympic time trial."

Jacques Michaud, Phonak team manager elaborated on the nature of the injury.

" The injury has lasted and lasted and has never healed. The chain ring of another bike entered into his lower back (giving him a dotted line of open wounds, 5 in a row in two places.)and also severe road rash on his upper left shoulder. When he cycles he pedals at a very high cadence (and he couldn't do that)."

Michaud also commented on his character,

" As a cyclist for me, for the team, he is one of the best riders in the world. About the quality of the man, he is also among the best in the world."

Urs Freuler:

You know he had a crash the other day and so his back is not good and we don't tell it to the journalists before because we knew that he had a problem. He has bruises and he can't bring his power to the legs and that is why he has to stop early. He starts now 1 hour from the hotel to Gerona and I think we'll have results tomorrow. He left this morning. He said bye bye to the riders andthen he started by car home to Gerona.

Tugboat? He was so near in his heart. One whole day was a little bit sad, but that's not the reason he stopped, that's clear.

Mentally he's 100%.The team morale was not that bad yesterday. Clear we lost the leader and didn't makethe podium, but I thinkthe guys here are goodguys and we change a little bit the strategy and we gonowto try to win a stage.

His Phonak teammates concurred with the team management,

Bert Grabsch:

" He has a leadership personality. It's too bad that he dropped out, but yesterday it just wasn't going to happen with his back. That's life."

Oscar Pereiro:

" For me he is an even better person than he is a rider. It is important to us."\par
Thomas Voeckler remained in yellow, but that like the Pyrenean weather will be changing soon. The Alps are looming.

July 12:

The 2003 Tour de France witnessed record setting heat, while this year's edition of "Le Grand Boucle" is experiencing the coldest summer since 1917. These inclement weather conditions combined with many serious crashes have made for a very difficult 9 days in the saddle. The riders, including Marblehead's Tyler Hamilton, got a much needed rest and a chance to recuperate today in Limoges and will hope to survive the mountains that loom ahead. The tour will start in earnest for the true contenders today. Hamilton is being touted by the experts and former champions as the man to watch.

French national champion Thomas Voeckler of Brioches de la Boulangerie remained in yellow for the 3rd straight day. Domo's Robbie McEwen regained the green sprinters jersey, while Quickstep's Paolo Bettini may be keeping polka dot climbers jersey warm for 6 time climbing champion Richard Virenque. Virenque, the country's climbing hero, spoke privately in French in the hotel bar of the Novotel in Limoges. He believes that Armstrong will win the tour, but added, "Hamilton has a good chance to finish on the podium. Two Americans on the podium."

In a brief one on one conversation with Laurent Jalabert in the Limoges Press room, the former French and world cycling champion concurred with his countryman, "In my opinion Tyler has a good chance to finish on the podium this year. But for him the problem is Armstrong. How do you defeat Armstrong? " Jalabert is very familiar with Hamilton as the two rode together for team CSC and his brother, Nicolas is a current teammate of Hamilton. Jalabert praised the Phonak captain stating, "Hamilton is my favorite behind Armstrong. I would like very much to see him on the podium. And also, he's a guy I like very much, because he is very nice."

Phil Liggett, the voice of cycling and commentator for the Outdoor Life Network, offered his insights concerning Hamilton's chances this year in the tour. "I still think he is going to make a podium finish. Remember we're speaking before the mountains start, but I watched in the team time trial particulary. I think in the team time trial he sort of became of age, he became a real team leader. He was marshalling the race when they had terrible trouble. They had riders punctures,they had broken handlebars. Tyler organized the race, they waited, they did well, they finished second in the race. Probably the outstanding ride I think of the team time trial and that includes the ride by US Postal. And because he is now mature as a leader, I think he's sitting on great form, I think he's confident, I think the team is excellent. He has got all the combination there to have a good ride in the tour. I'm not too sure he can win the tour, but I really think he can make a top three finish in Paris now."

The following is Tyler Hamilton responding to questions at the press conference in Limoges on Monday July 12, 2004:

How did you spend the rest day today?

" I slept in till 10:00, was worked on my chiropractor/osteopath, had a little breakfast and went for about a 2 1/2 hour 3 hour bike ride, real easy, had a little lunch, took a nap, just finished some acupuncture on my back, I had a crash a couple of days ago. "
What do you think about the upcoming stages?

" Really the Tour de France is just beginning. The Tour de France begins now."

US Postal won the team time trial, does that effect you pschologically and do you think Armstrong can be beaten this year?

" If I had to grade this past week, team work I'd grade an A , A+. If I had to grade luck I would grade our team a C. You know in the team time trial we had four or five flat tires and one broken handelbar. Something like that almost never happens. We still finished second and that's just incredible. We also had some unfortunate crashes. I was involved in the crash 3 days ago, and I hurt my back pretty badly. Again, teamwork was an A. I think we did just as good a job as Postal. I think if we had luck on our side in the team trial we would have given them a run for their money."

Tyler mentioned that the the time differences are really close between the top three contenders and that Thomas Vokeler showed a lot of heart winning the yellow jersey and the upcoming stages will really show who's going to win the Tour de France.

Could you speak about your hand picked your predominantly Spanish climbers?

" A lot of these guys grew up on bikes. When I was 7 years old I was handed a baseball glove and a football and these guys were handed racing bikes and the french riders as well, they were brought up on the bike. I didn't know anything about racing until much later in life. But I think the Spanish,French included and Italians all these countries spend that much more time on their bikes. The possibilites of finding a diamond in the rough so to speak are much greater than I think in America.The opportunities to try out bike racing are that much greater."

Tell us about your crash:

" Three days ago I was involved in that crash with one kilometer to go. I flipped over the handlebars. The last two days I was in a lot of pain. We have a great osteopath/chiropractor, whatever you want to call him, here with us, actually from Denmark. He's done a great job with me. I had a vertebrate that was blocked and today he was able to release it for me, it makes a world of difference. Hopefully tomorrow I'll have my legs back."

At the Dauphine you said you wanted to win the Tour de France:

" I feel the same now as I felt at the start of the tour and during the Dauphine. We're basically where we need to be now. Our goal for the first week was not to be eliminated and not to have any catastrophic time losses. We didn't have any. So far so good. Sure we could have a little bit better luck and maybe we could have put a little time on Armstrong, but we're a little bit behind. But the tour will now be won in weeks # 2 and 3 so we're confident. That's what you need to be to be able to win the Tour de France. Sure it's a big task, I think Lance is going very well, Ullrich is going well, there are over a dozen guys who have an opportunity to be on the podium, it should be tough task, but we're ready."

What is your race strategy?

" I really can't tell you, because I can't give away our secrets. But no, we have a lot of strong climbers on this team and certainly one tactic is to attack. Certainly I'm the leader but we have the guy to the right of me Oscar Sevilla who is riding very, very well right now. He's dangerous for all of the GC contenders. He's won himself, so if he goes up the road early it's going to force other teams to chase, especially if teams have been whittled down to only a few riders. It's going to make other GC contenders themselves have to chase. That's definitely one option we have, but whether we'll use that or not we'll let you know in a couple of days."

About confronting Jean Marie Leblanc about the narrow road at the finish:

"The day after there were some reports in the press that I had an argument with him or had very stern words. It was just a very open conversation about future Tour de France finishes and we both discussed some ideas andone option would be maybe the first week ofthe tour youtake the time at 3k to go. So everybody whogets to the3ktogo gets the same time andthe GC riders get out of the way and the sprinters have the freedom todotheir thing. Another option is to have more straightforward finishes with Less turns, wider roads. But he was very open to it and very friendly to me about it and also said that he was discussing the 3k to 4k to go mark, making the time there. He was discussing that with the UCI."

(After the cameras went off, here are our questions for Tyler - there were still reporters swarming all around him, but he had gestured to give me the microphone during the conference, so he spoke with me first during the "personal interview")

\With the current world situation how would you compare the american fan base with the past few years?

I haven't noticed a difference to previous years. The last three years it has really been incredible,you can really feelthe americanpresence here in France.

How does it feel being 2nd in the GC of all prerace favorites?

It feels good. It doesn't mean too much now. It's nice to still be in contention not be eliminated by a crash that would take major time.

How do you feel about your Alpe d'Huez preparation?

Every mountain stage is a major thing. Those are just as important asAlpe d'Huez. If you can't climb wellin the othermountain stagesthen Alpe d'Huez doesn't mean anything.

What do you have to say to your fan base in Marblehead, Massachusetts?

I appreciate everybody's support. Everybody has been fantastic. Sending words of encouragement. I miss Marblehead. It's a great town and it will be my hometown forever regardless. Wherever I am in the world I always think about it. I've travelled all around the world and its a place, when I come back to it there is nothing like coming back to Marblehead. It's fantastic.

How do you think the Red Sox will do this year?\b0\par

I was just wearing my Red Sox shirt earlier. They wouldn't let me wear it to the press conference. I think they'll make a late season run and take it back from the Yankees.

When asked about his wife Haven and loyal canine companion Tugboat?

" They're coming in the Pyrenees and the Alpes."

(Now other questions after the cameras were off...)

Similarities and differences between Phonak and US Postal?

" I think I'm a different kind of leader. I'm more of a quiet leader. I did a lot of work building the team to be like a family atmosphere. I haven't ridden there in four years but it is a lot different atmosphere. The way of riding is quite similar. The first week is about staying together riding as a cohesive unit. You didn't see us going after any stage victories and US Postal was the same, but that doesn't mean we're not a strong team. For example CSC spent a lot of time up the road this week, they didn't get any victories. The only effort we made to win stages was the team time trial."

Last year you had to spend a lot of time coping with the pain, not having to do that this year what kind of difference has that made for you?

" Do you want to see my back?"(laughter) "I've been in a lot of pain lately." (Comparable to last year?) "It's different, but I'd take this over a fractured collarbone."

Today's 160.5 kilometer stage 9 is from St. Leonard de Noblat to Gueret. Hopefully the riders and fans will get to enjoy the race under sunny skies.

July 9:
Angers, France

Many of the riders in this years Tour de France will take the starting line today bruised and sore after a very serious crash just inside the final kilometer of stage 6 in Angers. Overly agressive sprinters, narrow road, and the demise of a breakaway combined for a dangerous mix which saw Lance Armstrong, Tyler Hamilton and green jersey wearer Robbie McKewen among others thrown from their bikes. This was yet another crash in a tour which had already seen the departure of two of the sports biggest names Alessandro Petacchi and Mario Cipollini due to injuries.

Despite the crash, Belgian Tom Boonan won a bunch sprint that contained all of the remaining top sprinters. The 23 year old star on the rise who was plagued by chain problems in his native Belgium, redeemed himself with a fantastic victory. French National Champion, Thomas Voeckler of Brioches la Boulangerie remained in yellow for the second day. Armstrong had relinquished the yellow jersey the previous day without a fight. Armstrong admitted he wanted to avoid the effort that goes into defending the jersey on the road. As OLN correspondent Paul Sherwen has stated, "The Tour de France is won in bed," the yellow jersey wearer is obligated to attend the podium ceremony as well as extended press conferences.

In stage five into Chartres, Voeckler and four others broke away from the peleton. Due to poor weather conditions and US Postal's decision not to defend the group stayed clear for over 10 minutes. Australian Stuart O'Grady sprinted to the victory. Armstrong has predicted that Voeckler will remain in yellow into the Pyrenees.

The atmosphere outside the Phonak team bus was one of concern.

Phonak's directeur sportif, Alvaro Pino said he was not sure about the extent of Tyler's injuries following the crash and that he was being attended to by doctors in the bus.

Tyler said in an interview after the race, "It's been better. Today was a bit frustrating. At the end guys were nervous and I feel like it was a dangerous sprint. The last few corners the road was really narrow and similar to last year's stage one where I cracked my collarbone. The road got narrow and guys have nowhere to go but into each other. I think a couple of sprinters took each other down. It was just a mass pile up. This is unfortunate but for me there was nowhere to go but into other guys. All I know is I went over the handlebars and somehow I landed on my back. I laid there for a couple of seconds. I knew I was under the 1k (kilometer) banner." The rule that all riders finish in the same time if a crash occurs in the last 100 meters certainly came into play today." Hamilton continued "I'm just a little bit battered and bruised. It was just unfortunate. I think we deserve better finishes, safter finishes. C'est la vie. I guess it's part of the sport. They made a lot of changes for the riders' health inthe past few years, what about safer courses? I think that's the next step."

Concerning his condition Hamilton said,"Just bruises and some road rash as they call it. Lost a lot of blood today but c'est la vie. I'll probably be a little bit stiff in the morning, so tomorrow could be hard for me. I'll survive."

The next two stages head into the northwest coastal corner of France starting with today's 204.5 kilometer stage from Chateaubriant to Saint-Brieuc.

July 8:
For the first time in the history of the Tour de France the podium is shaping up to be a battle between two Americans. Defending champion Lance Armstrong and his former teammate Tyler Hamilton were fueled by their teams strong showing in the 64.5 kilometer time trial from Cambrai to Arras. Its early but they have separted themselves from the pack as the two primary favorites. Prior to the race Marblehead's Tyler Hamilton was being mentioned by the european media as an outsider for podium position, but this changed dramatically following the team time trial.

US Postal won the team time trial for the second straight year, and sent their leader into the yellow jersey for the first time in the 2004 tour. Armstrong and his team rise to the occasion when the weather is inclement. Heavy rains and strongs winds prevailed for most of the day. Postal showed it really is a team sport. With regard to a new rule about the maximum amount of time a team can lose in the team time trial Armstrong said, "You can't change the rule. I think the only concellation we can take is you lead with 20 seconds, but you also have the knowledge that you have the best team in the race."

The Swiss Phonak team's strong 3rd place finish catapulted Marblehead native Tyler Hamilton to 8th place 36 seconds off the lead. Prior to the start of the race Hamilton said of the poor weather conditions, "Everybody has to pay that much more attention and be careful." When asked if he was happy that the pave was behind him he nodded his head. He had stated, "We were very concerned about the pave but we did exactly what we needed to do. I don't think pave in the tour is meant to be. They're not going to put \line Alpe d'Huez into Paris Roubaix." Hamilton thought it was unfortunate that prerace contenders Iban Mayo and Haimar Zubeldia lost four minutes and probably all hopes of a podium position yesterday, but it certainly benefited Team Phonak.

Armstrong himself seemed to set up the media by stating repeatedly that Jan Ullrich was his number one rival. Many of those in the know are coming forward and stating that Tyler is every bit as talented as the German. Rudy Pevanche,UIlrich's personal trainer also concurred that Hamilton is a threat. "I agree that one shouldn't forget Tyler. They (the media) speak only about Ullrich and Armstrong." Frankie Andreau OLN correspondent and former US Postal rider said, "Lance is very well aware of Tyler's capabilities and how he's going." Ullrich lost 40 seconds to the Texan and is now 55 seconds off the lead following the time trial

Team Phonak used an unconventional and specially designed team time trial bikes for the race. The one piece carbon bikes arrived by airplane from Switzerland just before the start of the race. The philosophy at Phonak is quite different from other top teams in that these bikes are molded and sized to perfectly fit each rider. Other teams believe in adjusting riders positions on the bike depending on the geographical make up of the course. Of the new bikes Hamilton said," This new bike is incredibly unique. Already after the first training rides I knew that this bike was unique and would be very fast." Their successful team time trial performance confirms this.

Today's stage should once again be affected by rain and high winds as the race heads south for 200.5 kilometers from Amiens to Chartres.

July 5:
Sprinters dominated the Tour de France again today as Australian strongman Robbie McEwen took top honors in the 197 kilometer stage from Charleroi to the capital of the Wallonie region of Belgium, Namur. Todays ideal weather conditions were welcomed by both the cyclists and the throngs of yellow and red rooster flag waving Belgian fans who lined the route. McEwen, the 2002 Tour de France points champion timed his sprint perfectly to outduel other super sprinters including Mario Cipollini and Giro star Alessandro Petacchi. Petacchi has come up empty thus far in the 2004 edition of the Tour de France. Norway's Thor Hushovd took over the maillot jaune as race leader following two strong second place showings in the first two stages.

AG2R's Jaan Kirsipuu took the 202.5 kilometer stage 1 from Liege to Charleroi. It was a long day for the cyclists due to the windy and rainy conditions. The weather took its toll on many riders including those of Team Phonak. Phonak's team leader Tyler Hamilton was forced off the road after five riders had fallen in front of him on a wet corner. "We had a little bad luck today with four crashes," said Hamilton. "The first ten days you really have nothing to win, but you have a lot to lose," stated the 2004 Tour de France podium hopeful. "The first ten days is a race of elimination," said the rider who showed incredible determination to not only complete last years Tour de France with a broken collarbone, but to finish just shy of the podium in 4th place.

Team Phonak had more success in Stage 2 and showed their strength by riding on the front together today. Team Phonak mechanic Cyrille Perrin is proud to be working for this very strong cycling team and gave some insight on the machines he services. Tyler is well equipped for this tour with a total of 7 bikes at his disposal. "The team is riding BMC carbon bikes and Tyler's mountain bike is as light as the 6.8 kilogram limit allows," said Perrin. Hamilton may need all of those bikes to overcome Armstrong, who is currently in 4th place 18 seconds off the lead. A healthy and happy Tyler Hamilton is in 19th place 16 seconds behind his former teammate.

Tomorrow's stage leaves Waterloo, Belgium on a long and flat 210 kilometer stage onto French soil for the first time in the 2004 edition of the tour. Thus far the sprinters teams have controlled the peleton and have shut down all breakaways. The city of Wasquehal should be witness to more of the same.

July 3
(Liege, Belgium): The 101st edition of the Tour de France kicked off today with a short 6.1 kilometer prologue over the windy streets of Liege. The fanatic Belgian cycling enthusiasts lined the course, but it was the Americans celebrating the fourth on the third by placing 3 riders in the top ten and 6 riders in the top 20. Five time defending tour champion Lance Armstrong led the American assault against the clock, 2 seconds behind Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara.

Cancellara, riding for team Fassa Bortolo, set the standard that was unsurpassed by all the major tour contenders. He garnered not only the tour's first yellow jersey, but also received a crystal trophy specially designed by Val Saint-Lambert Crystal works, worth an estimated $25,000. Cancellara, riding in his first Tour de France, expressed a combination of joy and disbelief as he accepted his coveted prizes.

Although cycling is the most popular sport in Belgium, the Americans certainly flexed their muscles in the prologue. Their strong showing confirmed that American riders have made inroads into what was once a sport dominated by Europeans. US Postal was the top team of the day, with George Hinapie's 10th place and Floyd Landis' 17th place complementing their team captain's effort. CSC's Bobby Julich, who placed 3rd in 1998, finished 9th and Rabbobank's Levi Leipheimer placed 13th.

Armstrong's performance certainly showed the world and his major rivals that he has the form to win a record setting 6th straight Tour de France.

Marblehead's Tyler Hamilton, fresh off his victory at the Tour of Romandy, finished 16 seconds behind the Texan. Hamilton, headset in place, was completely focused during warmups, as he tried avoid any distractions prior to the start. He did extend his greetings to everyone in Marblehead on Friday on his way to the team presentation ceremony. Former tour champion Jan Ullrich, who fell victim to the rain drenched streets in last year's penultimate Nantes time trial, expressed satisfaction that the rain held off throughout the day making for a fair competition, despite losing 15 seconds to Armstrong.

The flat profile for tomorrow's 202.5 kilometer stage from Liege to Charleroi should ensure an exciting field sprint finish. Sprinting specialists such as Italy's sprinting machine Alessandro Petacchi and the "Lion King" Mario Cipollini and Germany's multiple Tour de France sprint champion Erik Zabel will certainly compete for podium honors at the finish.