Tyler Hamilton is looking at the glass half full.
After the Rock Racing team captain was prohibited from racing at the Amgen Tour of California and his team was not invited to this month’s Tour de Georgia, it would be understandable for Hamilton to be discouraged following Rock’s devastating loss of the race lead by one second in the final stage criterium of the San Dimas Stage Race on Sunday.
Not the case, Hamilton said Wednesday evening as he rode in a team car towards the Redlands Classic.
“I had a blast at San Dimas,” Hamilton said. “It was just fun pedaling out. I had a great time, especially during the road race on Saturday. It was hard as hell, those teams made it hard on us, but more than anything I was just happy to be racing. It was nice being back in the action.”
Sevilla took the leader’s jersey on the opening uphill time trial, and Rock defended the lead on an aggressive stage 2 road race that saw Rock on point from the start and resulted in three of its riders — Peter Dawson, Rahsaan Bahati and Adam Switters — riding the front until exhaustion, finishing below the time cut (5 percent of Colavita Olive Oil-Sutter Home rider Alejandro Borrajo’s stage-winning time.)
“We tried to control it from the start,” Hamilton said. “I think we did a good job. We were basically rotating from kilometer two. We brought Sevilla to the line, and protected him well. There are quite a few young guys on the team who had never done that before, and I was happy with the way they rode. A few of them maybe did a little bit too much, and couldn’t make time cut, but hats off to them, they gave it their all.”
Sevilla came into the six-corner, 90-minute criterium with an eight-second cushion over Stetina and 19 seconds over Ben Day (Toyota-United) but only a tired five-man squad to protect his lead. Rock Racing, Hamilton said, encouraged a break to go up the road, both to take away bonuses and to settle down the field. Following the first time-bonus sprint, where Day took 10 seconds and Sevilla took three, Symmetrics rider Cameron Evans launched an attack that drew out Colavita Olive Oil-Sutter Home’s Luis Amaran and Team Type I’s Chris Jones.
Turns for the worse
From there, things didn’t go as planned for Rock. The mistake, Hamilton said, was underestimating Evans and Amaran, who rode Jones off their wheel and held the field at bay. Amaran took the stage win, while Evans crossed the line 21 seconds ahead of Sevilla, with enough accumulated time bonuses to take the race lead by one tick of the clock.
“I was impressed,” Hamilton said. “At the end we were chasing hard and couldn’t pull it back. I will take responsibility for that, I was the captain on the road and I probably gave them too much freedom. But they earned most of that freedom.
“We were confident we could bring it down when we had to,” he continued. “Sure, we had a reduced team from our efforts from the day before, and yeah, I am still getting my feet wet, I haven’t raced in a long time. But the number one thing is that those guys up the road were really strong. People are looking at the negative, that we messed up, and sure, we did. But the guys in front deserve a lot of credit — a lot of credit. They were really strong. We really underestimated how strong they were. That guy Cameron Evans is a big, big young talent. After the fact I hear that those two are both not huge names yet, but super strong. I think you’ll hear a lot more about both of them.”
Hamilton said after the race the team was disappointed, but made a point to congratulate Evans on his race-winning ride — an example of leadership by a rider many labeled the “nicest guy in the peloton” during Hamilton’s racing career, which ground to a halt after a homologous blood-doping positive at the 2004 Vuelta España.
Still some things to show
After serving a two-year suspension Hamilton returned to racing last year with the Russian-Italian Tinkoff Credit Systems, but a tooth infection derailed him at the Tour de Georgia, and he was dropped from Tinkoff’s Giro d’Italia squad after he was linked to the Operación Puerto blood doping scandal. Subsequent contractual disagreements with Tinkoff saw Hamilton sidelined for much of the 2007 season. After a sixth place at the USA Cycling national time trial championship and no solid job offers, he entertained thoughts of retirement.
Asked earlier this year what he had left to achieve in his career, Hamilton said, as much as anything, he wanted to leave on a positive note.
“The last four years have been really an awful experience for me,” he said. “And I basically retired after nationals last September. I pretty much took the fall off, and then I got a call from [Rock team owner] Michael Ball in December, and had a great conversation with him. I thought about it for a few weeks and thought, why not? I want to end my cycling career on a better note. I think it deserves it. It’s a great squad. I just want to enjoy bike racing. It’s a beautiful sport. I still have some things to show.”
San Dimas wasn’t Hamilton’s first race of 2008 — the Boulder, Colorado, resident finished second in a local Denver criterium in early March, and later worked for sprinter Rahsaan Bahati at a circuit race near LAX.
“I’ve been more or less working for the team, doing what I’m asked to do,” Hamilton said. “It’s the best way to get back into shape. I’ll work a lot now, and hopefully it will pay off later.”
Hamilton admitted to feeling “really awful” during the uphill time trial at San Dimas, but added that he has historically started slow and come into form as the season develops. “I look back from years ago, and I never was strong in the first races in February and March,” he said. “It’s normal for me.”
The Redlands Classic, starting Thursday, will be the first time the domestic peloton will see the full, revamped Rock Racing squad, including former ProTour stars Hamilton, Sevilla, Santiago Botero and Victor Hugo Peña —riders who have either worn the leaders’ jersey or won stages at one of the sport’s three grand tours.
“I am excited,” Hamilton said. “Obviously we were hoping to show those guys at the Tour of California, but that didn’t work out. Botero flew in [from Colombia] two days ago, Peña flew in yesterday, Sevilla had been here since San Dimas. We’re excited for Redlands. Our goal is to win.”
Rock’s team for Redlands is Hamilton, Sevilla, Botero, Peña, Mike Creed, Kayle Leogrande and David Clinger. Given the team’s stage-race depth and experience, it’s a fair question to ask which domestic teams, if any, will be able to mount a challenge.
“There are a lot of strong teams,” Hamilton said. “I was impressed with the field in San Dimas. We will need to ride smart and keep our heads up. The domestic peloton is so much stronger now then when I raced here in the 90s. There are more and more teams and more guys getting opportunities. You can see it, there are a lot of young guys with the potential to make it to Europe. Hopefully they get that opportunity. It’s great for the sport. Sevilla had never raced in the States, and he was really impressed. I’m sure Botero will see it here at Redlands.
Still learning the names
Hamilton admitted that his lack of familiarity with the domestic field is, at this point, a disadvantage.
“I am still getting to know the peloton,” he said. “I know most the Boulder guys, but that’s it. But I am learning really quickly after what happened on Sunday. Now I know the three guys from the breakaway — they can’t be given too long of a leash. You’ve definitely got to keep your eyes open.”
While acknowledging that it was a blow for Rock Racing to be overlooked for an invitation to the Tour de Georgia, Hamilton said the team is already looking forward to other international stage races, including the May 10-25 Tour of Colombia, where Botero will return as defending champion.
“That ends eight days before Philly week, so that should set us up well,” Hamilton said. “I will be riding for Botero, he’s our go-to guy. Hopefully my race legs will be under me by then. I’m excited, I’ve never raced in Colombia.”
Other events the team has accepted invitations to include the Tour of Qinghai Lake, in July, and September’s Tour of Britain. Asked if there are any races he’s specifically targeting, Hamilton said Qinghai might have the right parcours.
“Qinghai Lake is at altitude, and I live at altitude, so when there is a ton of climbing it’s good for me,” Hamilton said. “Philly Week are not races that suit me perfectly, but races I can be competitive in. Colombia will be all for Botero. Which is fine. I’m happy. I’m having fun racing. Whether I can help the team as a domestique or by leading in GC, whatever they want or however it turns out, I’m happy to do it.”