- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2003

BAYONNE, France — Riding with the pain of a double-fractured collarbone, it could be argued that Tyler Hamilton shouldn’t even be in the Tour de France. Try telling him that.

Grimacing in discomfort, the boyish-looking 32-year-old, who long played second-fiddle to superstar Lance Armstrong, won his first ever stage in cycling’s premier race yesterday — sweet compensation for being too injured to challenge his former leader as he pursues a record-tying fifth title.

Fittingly for a racer who’s made a career of overcoming pain, Hamilton won the hard way: breaking ahead in a brave solo effort to ride most of the last half of the stage alone.

Four-time champion Armstrong, who finished 1 minute, 55 seconds behind to retain his overall lead, was among the first to congratulate his former teammate with a hug.

“I think this is the biggest day of the Tour,” Armstrong said. “Incredible.”

Hamilton agreed. “To win a stage of the Tour de France is fantastic,” he said. “It’s beyond my wildest dreams. After today, I’ll forget about the disappointment.”

Just 17 days earlier, on the second day of the three-week slog around France, Hamilton thought his Tour was over. Caught in a crash involving about 35 riders, he cracked his right collarbone in two places — an injury he and others thought would make it impossible for him to cope with the 2,016 miles of bumpy roads and grueling mountain climbs to come.

But this man ain’t for quitting. Walking gingerly in pain, his shoulder heavily bandaged and his bike specially adjusted to spare him from jolts on the road, he emerged from his team bus the next morning saying he was soldiering on.

“I had to prove to myself that I couldn’t ride,” he wrote in the electronic journal he keeps online.

With just four days of racing to go, Hamilton’s still here — and challenging for a top-five finish thanks to his win in the 122.5-mile mountainous 16th stage from Pau in the Pyrenees to Bayonne on the Atlantic coast.

“This is my seventh Tour … It’s been my hardest,” said Hamilton, who was 15th last year. “The first week was just brutal, both on and off the bike. I was suffering a lot. I wasn’t sleeping well. I just took it day to day.”

While the shoulder’s improved, “it’s still not 100 percent. It’s sore. I have to sleep flat on my back every night. I can’t sleep on my side. I’m kinda getting sick of it,” he said.

Hamilton had doubters who believed he must be faking the injury because it seemed unimaginable that he could continue in such pain. His team silenced them by going on French television with his X-rays, which showed two fractures forming a V.

Others — including 1987 Tour winner Stephen Roche — complained that letting Hamilton continue tarnished cycling’s image and could lead to a terrible injury if he fell again.

“It turns my stomach,” Roche told the AP.

Hamilton, however, felt he could still help his Danish CSC team by continuing.

“I don’t think I’m a hero. I’m just doing my job,” he said after his win.

His job has left him severely battered. He fractured a shoulder in the Giro d’Italia last year, but still finished second. That August, he fractured a collarbone — the right one, again — colliding with a car while training. In 1992, while on the University of Colorado ski team, he broke his back while training.

Asked whether any rider is capable of enduring more suffering than Hamilton, his sporting director, 1996 Tour winner Bjarne Riis, said: “I haven’t seen any.”

Seventh overall going into yesterday’s stage, 9 minutes and 2 seconds behind Armstrong, Hamilton jumped to sixth, nudging closer to fifth-place Iban Mayo of Spain, at 5:25, and fourth-place Haimar Zubeldia, also from Spain, at 5:16.

Hamilton rode for Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team from 1995 to 2001. They remain neighbors and Armstrong congratulated Hamilton by phone message and e-mail when he won the Liege-Bastogne-Liege World Cup classic in Belgium in April and Switzerland’s Tour of Romandie in May.

“We’re good friends,” said Hamilton, the sixth American to win a Tour stage. “A lot of my success today has to do with my experience with Lance, and he’s been a big mentor for me.”

Armstrong placed 24th, finishing with the same time as archrival Jan Ullrich, leaving their gripping head-to-head rivalry on ice for another day.

Ullrich, the 1997 winner who finished 17th, is still gunning to win, despite trailing Armstrong by 67 seconds overall.

“From the first to the last meter, I’ll give everything,” the 29-year-old German said. “I hope I can beat Lance. At least I still have a chance.”

Hamilton surged ahead ascending the Col Bagarguy pass, a steep 5.5-mile climb to 4,379 feet. From there, he raced 54.3 miles to the finish, alone. Cycling fans revere such breakaways, called “echappees” in French, as proof of a rider’s bravery and determination.

“It’s impressive what he did,” Ullrich said.

The Armstrong-Ullrich battle for the Tour title likely will be decided in a time trial Saturday, the day before the finish on the Champs-Elysees.

The other remaining three stages are relatively flat and favor specialist sprinters — which Ullrich and Armstrong are not. Because it’s easier for riders to stay together on the flat stretches, such stages do not offer either Armstrong or Ullrich easy chances to make up huge chunks of time on each other.

But Ullrich demolished Armstrong in the last time trial, taking 96 seconds out of the 31-year-old Texan’s overall lead. If he does so again Saturday, he has a good chance of winning overall.

Armstrong, however was dehydrated during that event last Friday and far from his best. If he holds Ullrich off in Saturday’s race against the clock, his slim lead should be sufficient to give him his fifth successive Tour win, equaling the record of Spanish racer Miguel Indurain.

“My goal is to win the stage,” Armstrong said. “I’ve never lost the final time trial in a Tour de France and I don’t plan on starting this year.”

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