Tyler Hamilton rode for Lance Armstrong during three of the seven Tour de France victories the Texan won while doping.
Hamilton was stripped of the 2004 Olympic road time trial gold medal after failing a drug test and in 2011 declared his and the team's doping in grand jury testimony, interviews and a book.
Here to speak at a Sports New Zealand conference, Hamilton sat down with Phil Taylor. He tells of lying to his parents, that winning Olympic gold didn't mean what it should, of the day of reckoning when a Grand Jury subpoena arrived, and life after his decision to tell the whole truth.
Do you feel an obligation to cycling?
I feel a massive obligation to cycling and also to sport. A small decision can lead into a much much bigger problem. You need to listen to your gut, to your true self. I deviated a lot from my true self. I was a whole different person for a long time.
I knew it was cheating from that first day when that little red testosterone pill was offered to me. I rationalised it a couple of different ways. One, I was in the B team in my team, I was being invited into the A team, into that fraternity and I knew a lot of guys on my team were participating [doping]. In a way it was a little bit exciting. They wanted me, they trusted me.
Eventually, I talked myself into it [by thinking] everyone is doing it, it's not cheating. The first guy to offer this to me was the team doctor, US Postal Service, 1997, Pedro Celeya, a Spanish guy, and he told me this was for my health, it was not doping. We were a few months away from possibly competing in our first Tour de France, we were selected as a wildcard. When this was offered to me I felt like if I said no there was no Tour de France for me.
What are you proudest of?
Being honest, telling the truth, finally. It took a long time. I'd lied and cheated for a long time and finally coming to terms with that and realising this was what I needed to do and not only to tell part of the truth.
There are plenty of ways I could have given little tidbits here and there. I think everyone would have been happy and I could have walked away but I decided if I was going to tell the truth I was going to tell the whole truth. I'm not proud of what I did but I'm proud of finally doing the right thing. I can't go back and change things but I can look at myself in the mirror.
What was it like living the lie?
I hated it. Sure from the outside it looked like it was glamorous. Standing on the podium, that was nice but you are really living a double life filled with secrets and lies. I was a mess inside.
I worried more about getting caught than I thought about winning, which is messed up. No body knew - my wife at the time, Haven, she's the only one. I lied straight in the face of my parents. My mum never asked me directly but my dad did. Lied directly to him. Yeah.
What did you learn growing up from your parents?
My parents, they're awesome parents. They were pretty flexible with myself and my older brother and older sister but the one thing that they didn't tolerate was lying. Yeah, still to this day.
What did professional road cycling teach you?
To work my tail off, never give up. Those were two things I did and that helped me succeed in the sport of cycling. I don't think I had all the natural gifts that some riders have but I did have the never-give-up attitude. And cycling is all about suffering, how much you could suffer. I could suffer with the best of them.
What did you learn from the messed-up state of cycling you found?
That every decision is important and to listen to your true self. I knew it was cheating. I did try to push that in the back of my mind but it would creep up, usually at night. The culture of the sport was ridiculous, it [doping] was truly ingrained in the sport for a long time. It didn't start with me, it didn't start with Lance Armstrong.
It's a pity the report [this year by the UCI-sanctioned truth commission, the Cycling Independent Reform Commission] didn't delve back. Obviously they aren't going to get much information from the 80s and 70s and 60s, but maybe little tidbits to show that unlike what a lot of people think, it didn't start with Lance Armstrong.
It's been said that synthetic blood doping drugs made cycling a race of two speeds - those on it and those not. Do you agree?
Drugs are constantly changing. EPO was a game changer. It's what they call oxygen vector [drugs]. At the top level it was hard, almost impossible to compete [without them]. You'd be back there, just a number in the peloton.
The vanishing twin explanation after two distinct blood types were detected in your sample - is that embarrassing now?
What do you think?
Desperate times, desperate measures?
Absolutely. I was with my lawyer who came up with this idea. It's a way you can have a second blood type in your blood naturally. I did blood dope but I didn't [knowingly] take someone else's blood. That's what I was fighting. I was robbing banks but I didn't rob that bank. I was grasping for anything at that time.
Yes [two different blood populations were also detected in the sample of a teammate], Santiago Perez. It's a possibility I could have had a blood bag that was tampered with. I don't know.
When did you know the game was up?
When I got the [Grand Jury] subpoena. First Jeff Novitzsky [Food and Drug Administration special agent who investigations exposed baseballer Barry Bonds and track star Marion Jones] sent me a message. He wanted me to come in under my own steam, called a proffer [where you make a statement but not in front of a Grand Jury].
I was still very hard-headed and said that if it's not mandatory then I'll say no. It's one thing to tell the truth about myself but to tell the truth about others, about the whole circus was, wow, you know, it was the omerta, the code of silence, and I was proud of being part of the omerta. I got caught, yes, but I wasn't going to rat out my teammates. If I did tell the truth there were going to be major major consequences.
I backed up to the edge of that cliff and when I said no to the proffer they came at me with a subpoena which means you tell the truth or you go to jail. I backed up to that cliff and it was either jump off or tell the truth.
[The omerta] still exists, for sure, a thousand percent. We have [only so much] of the truth. We'll never know everything.
I'm persona non grata more or less in cycling and that's OK, I'm much happier where I am today than where I was five years ago.
Were there top cyclists you knew who chose not to dope and therefore didn't get due reward?
In the book that I wrote [The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs] I talk about Scott Mercier and Dan Baker.
They had two things going for them I think helped them pull away from the doping scene. One was they were a little bit older, a little bit wiser, they had college degrees to fall back on. It was cool for them to be racing in Europe and maybe do the Tour de France, maybe not, but they had plans outside of cycling.
You could tell from the beginning they had other aspirations, they weren't going to be known just as a cyclist. That's super important. I'd love to see cycling someday have mandatory [minimum education], maybe you have to have a college degree before you can enter the pro-ranks, because if you only have one option that's when you make mistakes.
Lance Armstrong was reported recently saying he'd dope again faced with the same circumstances. Would you?
I would give it a go pana agua [on water]. Eventually I think I would realise I wasn't going to be competitive and go home. I missed out on a lot of things being a professional cyclist so I think I would have explored my other opportunities. I never finished college because of cycling. I studied economics for three and a half years but didn't finish my degree.
Any insight into why the Grand Jury investigation into doping in the US Postal Service Team was shut down by the attorney-general?
I have my suspicions. It was odd. Jeff Novitzsky who worked on the investigation for over two years was told 5 minutes before the press release was going out [that it was being closed]. That was a bit frustrating for me. Deep down I had a feeling that was going to happen. Everything I said at the Grand Jury will remain sealed. That's why I went on to write a book, I thought it was the only way to tell the whole truth from the beginning to the end.
What do you say of the view that you made money out of doping and then made more money out of a tell-all book?
I understand. I understand. But I did spend two and half years writing the book, looking in the mirror, digging deep. These were experiences that I had. I had a right to share them and I thought it was necessary.
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What has been the response from the US public to your admission of doping?
People are good, yes. It's surprising. It's amazing what something as simple as telling the truth can do. Nice? I don't know, I had a hard time with it for a while. I was the devil for so long and then the pendulum swung almost so far the other way. It sounds weird to even say it but it was a strange feeling. I'd been persona non-grata for a long time, then to get a lot of attention. This has humbled me and put my feet on the ground.
How is Lance Armstrong regarded by the US public?
His name and image has taken a big hit. I think people wanted to hear the truth and they got the major truth, that he doped during his seven Tour victories. They appreciated that but they want more, they want more of the truth.
He held back a little bit for various reasons. He's got a big law suit going on right now [the false claims suit initiated by another former teammate Floyd Landis and joined by the US Government which potentially could result in damages of about US$100 million for defrauding the government by the team breaching its sponsorship contract with the US Postal Service by doping and its attempted cover up].
I guess because of that he can only tell so much. For him, for the sport of cycling, for all sport, I think we do need to hear the whole truth. Whether or not we'll hear that, we'll see.
Have you had any contact with Armstrong since the restaurant incident [the unexpected meeting in 2011 that gave rise to an inquiry into whether it represented attempted witness tampering by Armstrong. It occurred in 2011 a few weeks after Hamilton gave CBS programme 60 Minutes an account of doping on the team including that he saw Armstrong inject EPO and try to cover up a failed dope test].
I saw him last week actually, at my deposition [for the false claims suit] in Missoula, Montana. It was strange, strange. That's the first time I'd seen him since. We spoke. Small talk. He laughed at my hair, I laughed at his beard, like all mates would do.
There were a lot of lawyers around and officials, but yeah, we shook hands a couple of times.
It was not easy for me to answer direct questions about him, what we went through. Going into that deposition, there's a lot at stake. I've read in the papers that it could be up to US$120 million. I don't know what he thinks but I know what I need to do. You answer questions that could effect that and that is mindblowing but I went in there and told the truth.
But it sucked, there were some questions about his character, with him sitting right there, some of the bullying and stuff.
How did you become a cyclist?
I got into the sport because I was a ski racer at college, the University of Colorado, and I had an injury. I broke my back. And when I got out of [hospital] the doctors said I could ride a road bike. I had a bit of experience because we used cycling as a cross-training activity.
I joined the university cycling team and next thing I won the national championship. It just took off. Every year was a step up. I loved being the underdog. My best moments in my career were when nothing was expected of me and I surprised people.
I never knew where my career was going. In 1997 [with the US Postal Service Team] I was hopeful that the team would be selected for the Tour and if it was that I would be among the nine [of the 22 or so in the squad] selected to ride.
When I got selected for the Tour, I told my parents, 'I made it, you better come over and come over early because I don't know whether I'll finish'. I was just happy to be on that start line, happy to be in that number. I thought that was as good as it's going to get.
Later I thought, 'maybe I can finish this damn thing'. Then a couple of years later I was trying to win the whole thing and we did, which was mindboggling.
The experience of the Tour is crazy, incredible, the Superbowl of cycling, for three weeks. A great experience. We talk about the dark stuff [but] there were a lot of good experiences. It's a beautiful sport, incredibly difficult and I think that's what led to the doping in cycling.
But it is a beautiful sport and in terms of its future, I don't know, one day at a time, we can't get too far ahead. But we can't forget what happened. We have to keep the sport heading in the right direction and I think we are heading in the right direction. History does repeat so we need to be careful, we need to remember that and work hard.
Did the doping thing get to Haven?
I think that was probably the biggest thing in terms of ending our marriage. It was just a lot of stress. The positive test in 2004 [Olympics], that was massive. I knew eventually they were going to ask for the [time trial] medal back but I gave it back before they asked.
The pinnancle of cycling is winning the Tour de France. But I remember as a kid watching the 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid, watching Eric Heiden, the speed skater win five gold medals, watching the US hockey team win gold. Ever since watching those Olympics I wanted to win a gold medal. Then when I did win a gold medal it didn't feel remotely like it was supposed to. That was a sign.
[Hamilton returned the medal in 2011, a year before being officially stripped of it] Looking back now I feel so much better about giving it back and kind of ridding myself of that whole ... there was a lot of guilt involved in winning that gold medal. I can look in the mirror today.
One of the hardest parts was looking my parents in the eye and telling them and my brother and sister, the truth. I lied to them on a regular basis for a long time. I did an interview with 60 Minutes [CBS, May, 2011] and about 24 hours before it aired on national television, I told them face to face. Yeah, it was awful.
I made a lot of poor choices but it could have happened to a lot of different people. A lot of people, not just my friends, have come up to me and said they would have done the same thing. I think I am a pretty good person over all and I think there are a lot of good people out there who made the same mistakes.
It's easy to look back and for the media to make fun of the sport but it was tough. A lot of human beings were put in tough situations. I guarantee Lance Armstrong didn't want to dope to be able to compete but he did and it went to some extremes.
In 1997 I took kind of a big step up, from the triple A baseball teams to the Major League if you like. So I was a professional for two years and in my third year is when I stepped up to the Tour de France level. And I remember having questions, hearing rumours that there was a lot of doping going on in Europe, because there wasn't in the States that I saw.
People who knew weren't saying a word. At least today a lot of the truth is out there. I'd much rather be a potential Tour de France cyclist today than back in the 90s.
Do you agree with the recent Cycling Independent Reform Commission report that said that former presidents Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid helped to create a culture that allowed doping
I think it's a pretty fair assessment. I think they were trying to protect the sport but covering things up. On the outside cycling had a certain image but underneath it was a casino. I don't know if they knew the whole truth but they knew a lot of the truth. You can't just point the finger at them though, we all took part in the problem.
But I think it was necessary that they be moved on. You have to start from the top, you have to start fresh, with new ideas. Brian Cookson, the new president of the UCI, has been handed a tough task. He's been in the job about a year and he's done a good job but there is still a lot of work to be done.
It's not going to change overnight. That [commission report] said between 20 and 90 per cent are still doping. That's a big spread but if it's only 20 per cent, that is still a lot of riders.
The commission is a step but I think there are many more steps to be made. They need to encourage more of the truth to come out because I think there is a lot more that we can learn. If we say we are just going to move on, it's going to happen all over again.
They are offering incentives like reduced suspensions and that's important because there are a lot of people who are still either cycling or are directing or managing within the sport that haven't spoken. I can understand that they don't want to talk, they have a job and what they did happened five or ten years ago and they just want to move forward.
But if we don't learn from what happened in the past it will happen again.
We all have ego. We need to look at the bigger picture, do it for the younger generation. Drop that ego, come forward and be truthful.
How prevalent do you think doping is now?
I'm far from the inner circle. I don't really talk to anybody in the sport anymore so don't have any inside knowledge but I do believe it's cleaning up but it is far from clean. They are still catching riders. But the testing is getting better, more frequent. USADA [United States Anti-Doping Agency] didn't start till 2000 and they have told me they didn't get into full swing until 2005, so it's only been a decade. There's been a lot of improvements in that decade. We've come a long ways but we can't just rely on people being ethical.
Science has an important role, the idea that that sample can be retro-tested in 10 years, I think it's super important. You have to scare the athletes, keep them guessing. That's one way. There's plenty of others things, education. But when elite athletes are thinking seriously about cutting a corner you have got to start scaring them, keeping them guessing. Random out-of-competition testing. You test them one day, go back and test them again the next day. Keep them constantly guessing.