Hamilton's chance for a big break

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The Independent Online

About an hour after one American, Lance Armstrong, had delivered his final pre-Tour thoughts in a packed press conference, another took to the same podium with considerably less brouhaha but almost identical ambitions.

Speaking to a group of journalists filling just three or four lines of seats in his typically polished and courteous New England tones the 33-year-old Tyler Hamilton explained in no uncertain terms that he is "here to win. No question about it."

What lends real weight to his words is Hamilton's dramatic ride to a fourth place in Paris last year. He broke his collarbone on the first stage but battled on, swathed in bandages that forced him to maintain a hunched position over the pedals for six or seven hours a day, and taking a spectacular lone stage win on the last day of the Pyrenees. It was a performance which underlined the courage of a rider who once ground away the caps of 12 teeth in an attempt to combat the pain of breaking his collarbone on an 80kph descent in the 2002 Tour of Italy.

At the same time, his ability to fight back from an injury that usually forces a rider to retire from a race raised the inevitable question of how much more successful he would have been had he not had to expend so much energy merely on getting through each stage.

Hamilton himself has no idea, given that 2003 was the first time he concentrated exclusively on the Tour. Up until that point, he had spent five years racing for US Postal as one of Armstrong's favoured domestiques, before moving on to the CSC squad in 2002.

However, while he says that "CSC was an important stepping-stone when it came to leading a team" in the 2003 Tour, he also felt he was left isolated on one key mountain stage. That factor helped convince the American to accept an offer to be the leader of the Swiss team, Phonak, in their Tour debut this year. So far the season could hardly have gone better for Hamilton: in May he repeated his 2003 victory in the Tour of Romandie and then in June in the key dress-rehearsal for the Tour, the Dauphiné Libéré, he finally took second place ahead of Armstrong.

Nor is he at all averse to taking more than one leaf out of Armstrong's notebook when it comes to preparing for the Tour as conscientiously as possible, for example riding over the route of each mountain stage in May and June.

"He writes everything about them down in a little notebook," Phonak Tour team member Oscar Pereiro said. "All the dangerous corners, where there are more exposed sections and so on." In fact, as Hamilton revealed, he had even gone so far as to reconnoitre one critical stage in the Massif Central that Armstrong had skipped going to see. And the strategy he aims to employ on that day? "I can't say," he replied with a grin.

But after 2003's epic performance, Hamilton's Tour plans are something Armstrong himself would happily pay good money to know in advance.