An admitted blood doper who competed alongside Lance Armstrong at the Tour de France and ultimately gave back an Olympic Gold medal, Missoula resident and former professional cyclist Tyler Hamilton described his descent into performance enhancing drug use and his eventual admission of guilt to a crowd of more than 50 people Thursday night at Montana State University Billings.
The talk, called “Truth and Transformation with Tyler Hamilton,” was organized by the MSUB Accounting Club and students could earn ethics continuing education credits for attending.
When he first entered the competitive circuit, Hamilton said he would hear people describing in Spanish “bread and water” riders, meaning riders who were clean.
Meanwhile, he saw some team doctors providing some of the top cyclists with white lunch bags he said were filled with performance-enhancing drugs.
Exhausted and lying in bed after a tough day cycling in southern Spain, Hamilton said he was approached by a team doctor who offered him “a little red egg” of testosterone for his health.
At a crossroads, Hamilton said he swallowed the egg and joined a secretive “brotherhood” of elite cyclists using drugs and other means to gain a competitive edge over other racers.
“I justified it. I told myself everybody was doing it and it was a necessary part of competing at the top level,” Hamilton said.
From testosterone, Hamilton began injecting himself with a drug called Erythropoietin, EPO for short and called Edgar Allen Poe by other cyclists, he said. The drug would boost red blood cells, but could be fatal if used improperly. Hamilton said his drug use began in the late 1990s, but that he had heard stories of cyclists in the 1980s dying in their sleep from taking too much EPO.
For a long time drug tests were easy to fool, but the discovery of doping products after a police raid on a French team’s car at the 1998 Tour de France turned up “a massive amount of doping products,” Hamilton said.
Scrutiny grew, forcing Hamilton and his teammates on the U.S. Postal Service cycling team to devise a system for smuggling in EPO shots and disposing of them in crushed up Coke cans.
Eventually Hamilton was having doctors extract and store bags of his blood so that he could have them secretly inject it back into his body, increasing his red blood cell count and allowing him to achieve feats of endurance previously unattainable.
Though he was told it was natural and safe, Hamilton said that wasn’t the truth.
“In reality it was a serious, very dangerous procedure with massive consequences if done improperly.”
Trying to catch a cab in Madrid after a blood extraction, Hamilton said he felt a dripping on his other arm and turned to see his sleeve soaked in blood. “The hole from the extraction needle hadn’t closed,” he said.
“That point in time characterized exactly what my life had become. There I was on a busy street corner in Madrid hiding behind dark glasses and a baseball cap, paranoid about being seen. In one hand I’m holding a secret cell phone filled with code names and numbers and the other hand is dripping with blood.”
Hamilton later failed a drug test but kept his silence, taking a two year suspension before returning to cycling. Years of pressure weighed heavily on him, until he said a 2010 subpoena related to a doping investigation into Lance Armstrong gave him a chance to unburden himself.
The testimony was sealed, and Hamilton didn't tell his family until the night before he was featured in a 2011 episode of "60 Minutes."
Now he works a “hodgepodge” of jobs, including coaching and giving occasional talks about his past.
The cheating left him dealing with depression, alcohol abuse and suicidal thoughts he said. Telling the truth helped ease the pressure and improve his life, he said.
“Being forced to testify gave me the clarity and the courage to take back my life,” Hamilton said. “For 14 years I thought the truth would ruin me. In the end the truth saved me.”