Tyler Hamilton, the Olympic cycling champion could be found in central Madrid last Sunday for the last stage of the Tour of Spain as a Spanish team-mate, Santiago Perez, soaked up the applause for finishing second overall. From now on, that may be as close to a bike race as the American gets.
Two positive 'A' tests for doping - one confirmed, the other shelved because of defects in procedure - could put a permanent brake on his career. So far so normal, given that he is hardly the first top cyclist to have returned positive tests in recent years. But Hamilton's case is different, because the first of the two tests, taken after his Olympic time-trial victory, risks blemishing the squeaky-clean record of the United States for doping in Athens. Moreover, Hamilton gave the first positive test for blood transfusion, thanks to a new test introduced in July.
Authorities like the World Anti-Doping Association all slapped themselves on the back when Hamilton fell foul of the test, but the 33-year-old American has told The Independent: "The fight isn't over yet. I've never been dishonest, never, it's something my parents brought me up not to be. This is a charge I'm wrongly accused of. You'll see. They're wrong."
After the Olympic Games test it emerged that somebody had decided to deep-freeze Hamilton's blood cells, irreversibly damaging too much of the sample for a second test - standard anti-doping procedure when an athlete tests positive - to be carried out. But then Hamilton's second sample test, from a stage win in the Tour of Spain, came out positive as well. Hamilton quit the race before the news broke.
So he is still the Olympic champion but faces a two-year ban from the UCI, cycling's governing body, for his Tour of Spain positive. His career would be effectively over and, as for the Olympic medal, "people have already said I should put the medal away, hide it in a cupboard. But I'm not doing that."
Phonak, Hamilton's team, have set up a medical board to investigate the tests, which he describes as "inaccurate, unclear". But at the moment Hamilton cannot say why those tests are inaccurate; all of those questions, he says, are in the hands of the lawyers. "I will spend every last euro I have to get my name cleared." he insists. "My money doesn't matter under these circumstances. This is my reputation and my life."
He intends to get on with his life as normal, starting with a shoot in the Pyrenees for a film, BrainPower, re-enacting stage 15 of the 2003 Tour de France, which Hamilton won. "To people who don't believe me, I would say: 'Be patient, I'm going to be proved right'."
Hamilton's capacity for suffering is legendary: he ground away the caps of 11 teeth when taking second in the 2002 Giro and rode the entire Tour 2003 with a broken collarbone. However, unless he can prove the tests are radically wrong Hamilton may find this latest challenge is more akin to banging his head against a brick wall - more pleasant when he stops.
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling WeeklyReuse content