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Tyler Hamilton talks about the “haunting” world of doping

14 Apr 2015

Tyler Hamilton has told New Zealand’s sporting community that there’s still a ‘code of silence’ around doping in cycling and there should be more pressure for the truth to come out.

The former international cyclist, team mate of Lance Armstrong, and self-confessed doper spoke to more than 180 delegates at the annual sports sector conference in Auckland on Tuesday.

The 44-year-old told a captivated audience that “there was still a lot of work to be done” to address the issue of doping in cycling.

“As far as I know there’s no more team doping – it’s more individually based.  And that’s a good sign that we’ve come a long way, but there’s still a lot more work to be done.

“I wish there was more pressure for the truth to come out.  We’ve heard a lot of disappointing things about cycling’s past, but there’s still a lot we haven’t heard.  If we want to truly clean up the sport then we need to hear it all,” Hamilton said.

He pointed to the recent report from the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) which states that between 20 to 90 per cent of the modern peloton are still doping. Hamilton says that’s “not good enough.”

He spoke of his desire to tell his story in order to inform and educate young up-and-coming athletes about the dangers of doping and the “haunting” existence it leads to.

“I was living a lie and it was awful.  It pretty much haunted me the whole time.  It was almost a decade of lying and led to depression, alcohol abuse and suicidal thoughts.  I was completely alone and a prisoner of my decisions,” he said.

Hamilton stressed that athletes need to be aware that one initial decision to take a pill or dope “just this once” can easily snowball into long-term drug use.  

He told of the first time he took a testosterone pill, “a little red egg”, which was given to him by a team doctor when he was riding in Europe in the 1990s.  

“I was collapsed on my bed.  The team doctor knew I was hurting, but he was sympathetic, fatherly even.  He told me I needed to start taking care of my body and make myself healthier and then he gave me a little red capsule and said, ‘this is not doping, this is for your health’.  And that’s how it started.”

Hamilton says he knew he was at a crossroads but didn’t realise then how that one decision to take a pill would snowball into many more decisions to dope.

He detailed the modus operandi used by Lance Armstrong’s US Postal Team in the Tour de France, which included blood doping and EPO injections in the midst of crowds of people.

Hamilton described the first time he ever received a blood transfusion.

“At the time, I couldn’t believe athletes actually did blood transfusions.  It gives you the same red blood cell boost as EPO, but it’s risky.  This is not the same as getting a pill or an injection.  You never forget it and you never get used to it.  And when you’re dealing with doctors with questionable pasts, things can get dangerous.”

They did get dangerous for Hamilton, who described one occasion in Spain when the puncture hole from a blood transfusion did not seal and he was left with blood streaming down his arm.  

Blood doping led to his eventual demise, when he failed a drugs test which revealed another person’s cells were in his blood.  

Even then, he did not come clean about the doping.  “We lived by the “omerta” - we protected each other and the system.  Lying and denying is what we were supposed to do.  If I told the truth I’d have to implicate everyone involved and I would be blackballed from the sport for ever,” he said.

Then in 2010, he was subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury on the use of performance enhancing drugs in cycling.

“The choice was stark – tell the truth or go to jail. When I walked into that courtroom, the truth just came pouring out.  The more I talked the more I realised I’d spent all those years protecting a culture that didn’t deserve protecting.  In that moment I was free ... it was like a huge weight had been lifted.”

Hamilton went on to write a best-selling book about his experiences: The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France, Doping Cover-Ups and Winning at All Costs.

He now no longer cycles and has very little to do with those in the cycling community.  

He’s seen Lance Armstrong only a couple of times since he opened up about doping in cycling and says despite the doping, Armstrong was “the best cyclist I’ve ever ridden with – he was an amazing athlete.”

Hamilton says he now wants “to give back” and says although cycling isn’t clean, he is positive about the future.

“We have a fight on our hands, that’s for sure.  But I try to look at the positives.  We’ve made huge strides in the past decade and I can’t wait to see what we do in the next decade.”