Tyler Hamilton tells story of how he and Lance Armstrong became drug cheats
October 14, 2012
IT took the drug- testing authorities several years and millions of dollars to develop a test to detect EPO in urine and blood. It took (Italian doctor Michele) Ferrari about five minutes to figure out how to evade it.
His solution was dazzlingly simple: instead of injecting EPO subcutaneously (which caused it to be released over a long period of time), we should inject smaller doses directly into the vein, straight into the bloodstream, where it would still boost our red blood cell counts, but leave our body quickly enough to evade detection.
Our regimen changed. Instead of injecting 2000 units of Edgar (EPO) every third or fourth night, we injected 400 or 500 units every night. Glowtime minimised; problem solved. We called it microdosing.
(This proved to be a good example of the information gap between testers and athletes. Dr. Michael Ashenden, the haematologist who helped develop the EPO and transfusion tests, was not aware of the in-the-vein microdosing strategy until former Postal rider Floyd Landis explained it to him in 2010.)
The trick with getting Edgar in your vein, of course, is that you have to get it in the vein. Miss the vein - inject it in the surrounding tissue - and Edgar stays in your body far longer; you might test positive.
Thus, microdosing requires a steady hand and a good sense of feel, and a lot of practice; you have to sense the tip of the needle piercing the wall of the vein, and draw back the plunger to get a little bit of blood so you know you're in.
In this, as in other things, Lance was blessed: he had veins like water mains. Mine were small, which was a recurring headache. If you miss the vein you can see the EPO forming a small bubble beneath the skin. I've seen that start to happen a few times; fortunately for me, I stopped it in time, and was lucky not to be tested the following day. A few millimetres one way or the other can end a career. Sometimes, when riders unexpectedly test positive, I wonder if that's the reason.
Documents: USADA investigation
Of course, EPO wasn't the only thing that could be microdosed: testosterone worked that way, too. Around 2001, the red eggs were used less than testosterone patches, which were more convenient. They were like big Band-Aids with a clear gel in the centre; you could leave one on for a couple of hours, get a boost of testosterone, and by morning be clean as a newborn baby.
Still, we had to be careful. One of my closer calls happened while I was living in Girona. We had some houseguests visiting, an old high school friend and his wife, and perhaps because I was distracted, I left my testosterone patch on for too long - for six hours instead of two hours. When I realised it when I felt the crinkle of the patch on my stomach - I had a sinking feeling. Now I was glowing, and would be for about a day.
How Armstrong beat the testers
I went for a ride early the following morning, and as luck would have it, the testers showed up while I was out. (Wife) Haven called me, and so instead of going home, I rode to a hotel and spent the night - which made for some awkwardness around our houseguests, but ended up being the right thing to do.
Taking a strike wasn't a big deal. Getting caught, testing positive, would have been a catastrophe: I'd lose my job, my sponsors, my team, and my good reputation.
I'd jeopardise Postal, and the jobs of my friends. Due to the French investigation, our 2001 Postal contracts contained a clause that allowed Postal to terminate the contract of any rider who violated anti-doping rules. Like Lance and everybody else, I lived my life one slip-up, one glowing molecule, away from ruin and shame.
Compared to the cluelessness of the testers, Lance's senses were dialled in tight, particularly when it came to doping. He watched everyone; he looked for strange leaps in performance; he paid attention to who was working with which doctor.
He wanted to sort out who was doping more, being aggressive, ambitious, innovative in short, who needed to be watched.
Leading up to the 2001 Tour, Lance's radar was working overtime. He knew that (German champion Jan) Ullrich was training in South Africa and was it a coincidence that a blood substitute called Hemopure had just been approved over there. He knew that a lot of the up-and-coming Spanish riders were working with a Madrid doctor named Eufemiano Fuentes.
He knew that (Italian Marco) Pantani was falling off the deep end, getting into cocaine and other recreational drugs.
Above all, he knew that the new EPO test was going to be introduced in the spring, and that there were new, undetectable forms of EPO being developed.
The game was constantly changing.
To stay ahead, Lance would use races for gathering information, digging for gossip, getting some inside knowledge.
Lance would pull alongside someone, often the Italians or the Spanish, who were known for being chatty and simply ask them, in that straightforward, irresistible Lance way, What was going on, what was new? Who was flying? How did Ullrich look? How was Pantani climbing? What doctor were they working with? Riders were eager to get on Lance's good side; they knew he had the power to help or hurt them.
Teammates: Lance a liar, cheat, bully.
Lance had information on me, too. One day while we were riding in the hills above Nice, he mentioned that Postal's budget was being stretched because of the expensive new signings of (Roberto) Heras and the Armada.
Then he mentioned something he should not have known: the $100,000 contractual bonus I'd just earned for being part of the Tour-winning team.
I was unnerved - my personal contract with Postal was nobody's business, especially not Lance's. Then I was more unnerved, because Lance asked if I would forgo my $25,000 Tour bonus from him and give it to the team, to ease the budget strain.
To stay ahead, Lance would use races for gathering information, digging for gossip, getting some inside knowledge...Riders were eager to get on Lance's good side; they knew he had the power to help or hurt them.
He floated it like it was a cool, innovative idea; and with the implication that, if I was a team player, I'd agree.
In retrospect, his idea looks wrong on a bunch of levels - a violation of my privacy, not to mention of common sense: Lance could easily afford to pay me the money I was due; he earned four times that for a one-hour speech.
But at the time, I didn't see much choice other than to say: "Yes, sure, boss, I'll chip in." I'd seen what happened with Kevin (Livingston) and Frankie (Andreu). I knew fighting with Lance was a no-win proposition.
In early 2001, a few of us on the A team held an early season training camp in Tenerife, in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. It was one of Lance's MacGyver deals, a phone call, a private-jet ride, a sense of secrecy, even from the rest of the team. It was just going to be Lance, myself, the three new Spanish guys, (team manager) Johan (Bruyneel), Ferrari, and a couple of soigneurs.
To call Tenerife remote is putting it nicely. The islands are dusty red rocks, the place they used to film movies like Journey to the Centre of the Earth. We stayed in a big empty hotel on the top of a volcano; I roomed with Roberto Heras, and for almost two weeks we did nothing but ride, sleep, and eat. Ferrari brought his daughter along, a skinny, dark-haired teenager who looked like a mini Michele.
I remember sitting at the dinner table, with two Ferraris eyeballing us, watching everything we ate.
Lance was watching, too. He tended to treat us like we were extensions of his body, especially when it came to eating. Guys on the team still told the story about the time a couple of years earlier in Belgium when Lance had indulged himself by eating a piece of chocolate cake during a training camp.
It must've been pretty good cake, because then Lance ate another piece. Then, unthinkably, he ate a third. The other Postal riders watched him eat with a sinking feeling: they knew what was going to happen.
The next day in training was supposed to be an easy day. But the cake changed that. Instead, Lance had the team do a brutal five-hour ride, to burn off the cake only he had eaten. When he sinned, the whole team had to pay the price.
The Armada turned out to be nice guys: Chechu Rubiera was a true gentleman and a former law student; Victor Hugo Pena was a strapping Colombian with a shark tattoo on his left shoulder and an iron work ethic; Roberto Heras was a quiet, boyish guy who barely said three words. One night on Tenerife, Roberto finally spoke a complete sentence.
He asked: "How does a cyclist put sugar in his coffee?" We shook our heads. Roberto picked up the sugar packet and flicked it with his finger, like he was flicking a syringe. Everybody cracked up.
We rode for five to seven hours each day through this red moonscape. Each night we returned to the empty hotel (it was the tourist off-season). It felt like being in The Shining. We ate in the empty dining room. We wandered the halls. Roberto would try to say: "I am so f---ing bored." But since his English wasn't great, he would say: "I am so f---ing boring." That became our motto for the trip. I am so f---ing boring.
But it wasn't all boring. Michele was giving microdoses of EPO every couple of days, usually in the evenings. This meant we had to be on our toes, in case a tester decided to show up (we knew this was highly unlikely, given the distance and expense, but still).
One afternoon, Lance spotted an unfamiliar man in the hotel lobby and the guy didn't look like a tourist. He was asking questions, looking around. Lance sprinted for the hotel's back door.
It turned that out the man was a reporter from a Tenerife newspaper who'd heard we were staying there and was merely hoping to secure an interview.
We returned from Tenerife exhausted but ready for the season. My spring races went well. Then, in April, I had a small disaster: I crashed at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and broke my elbow.
I wish it had been something dramatic, but it was a typical stupid crash: the guy in front of me went down, and I plowed into him.
One second, I was on track for a good spring; the next, I was in a splint. I decided to return to Marblehead for a few weeks to recuperate; the plan was, I'd return in mid-May for Tour training camps and for my big opportunity of the season, the Tour of Switzerland.
I was psyched for Switzerland, because Johan had told me that I would be the team leader for that race - a huge opportunity, and a big responsibility.
I brought a few vials of Edgar in my luggage. In Marblehead, I trained as if I were alongside Lance; I ate as if Ferrari were watching me. I used plenty of Edgar (I didn't have a spinner, so I was operating by feel). I saw my mom and dad and brother and sister, but not as often as I would have liked. I concentrated on my training. I was aiming at the Tour of Switzerland like a laser beam, determined not to let this injury set me back.
When I returned to Europe in May, I was in good shape. Very good shape, in fact. I went straight to Dr Ferrari at his home in Ferrara. He did his usual assessments - body fat, hematocrit, weight - and he smiled.
Then we did a fitness test on the Monzuno climb, which was one of Ferrari's favourites: a 4km climb that rises 1250ft at a nine per cent grade through farms and olive trees.
Lots of great riders had tested themselves there; in fact, Lance held the Monzuno record. At least until that day. When I got to the top, Ferrari was smiling like I'd never seen him smile. I'd broken Lance's record. Smashed it, in fact.
That was a good feeling. The feeling multiplied when Ferrari ran my numbers. My watts-per-kilogram for that test was 6.8 higher than I'd ever scored before; higher than Ferrari's magic 6.7 Tour-winning number.
I don't mean to imply that it meant I could win the Tour (it was a short test), but it was a good sign. I was in the best shape of my life.
Tests on Monzuno, like the ones on Col de la Madone, were a huge deal in our little world, equivalent to race results, maybe even more important. Some people liked to brag about their test climbs, but I told Haven and no one else.
Unfortunately, Ferrari wasn't quite as discreet. When I greeted Lance at the team training camp a few days later, he responded by giving me a funny look.
"Monzuno, huh? Guess you're the big man now, Tyler."
It got worse the next morning. We'd had our blood drawn and spun to test hematocrit. Mine had come back at 49.7.
Normally, that number is kept private, between the rider and the doctor. Not in this case.
"Well, if it isn't Mister Forty-F---ing-Nine-Point-Seven," Lance said. "I think you'll be pulling all day today."
Meaning I would ride at the front of the group, the toughest spot, to exhaust me and push my hematocrit down.
That evening, Johan gave me a short, condescending lecture about being careful. I should not be so close to 50. It became the theme of camp. Lance's wife, Kristin, even made a comment in passing: I hear you've got some big numbers there, Tyler.
I was dumbstruck. I knew I'd played by the rules. Yes, my hematocrit was a bit high, but no higher than Lance's often was and now I was getting scolded by Johan, by Kristin?
My Monzuno test wasn't some fluke. It was improvement, hard work, being professional. I'd earned it. And I wasn't being reckless: if a tester had shown up, I would not have tested positive; I wasn't a loose cannon. But I knew deep down that this wasn't really about the hematocrit or the record. It was about Lance feeling threatened.
My breaking Lance's record on the Monzuno not normal. He would say it with absolute certainty, but he was ignoring the biggest fact of all: that Lance's performance in the Tour was never normal.
It's not normal to ride away from people and not even realise it, as he did on Sestri Agere in the 1999 Tour. It's not normal to crush Pantani on Ventoux in the 2000 Tour. Nothing was normal in our world.
But in Lance's mind, normal meant himself winning.