How is life in exile? "It could be worse," Tyler Hamilton told me last week. For the longest time the only problem with his gorgeous home high in the mountains outside Boulder, Colo., was that he was so seldom in it. "It's kind of nice," says Hamilton, 34, "staying in one place for six months"-a luxury denied him during his 15-year career.
That career is now on hold. Last September at the Vuelta a Espa√±a, Hamilton tested positive for a homologous transfusion: injecting another person's blood. On April 17 two of the three North American arbitrators deciding his case-U.S. Anti-Doping Agency v. Tyler Hamilton--concluded that he was guilty. He began a two-year suspension that day.
"Well, Ty," I asked him, "did you do it?"
"Absolutely not," he said.
He is either a splendid actor or a victim of justice gone awry. Those familiar with him reacted to the news of his positive test with disbelief. Hamilton had no history of cheating and had everything to lose. He was in the homestretch of a career that, though overshadowed by Lance Armstrong's, had brought him fortune and fame.
His epic falls and feats of courage can be ticked off by mechanics in bike shops throughout the republic: In 2003, Hamilton rode virtually the entire Tour de France with a fractured collarbone. The year before, he broke his shoulder in a crash at the Giro d'Italia, and over the balance of that race he ground the enamel off his molars to cope with the pain.
"One reason he has such a following," says his wife, Haven, "is that he's so human. He crashes, he gets hurt, sometimes he wins, sometimes he loses. But he's never been afraid to fail."
The test that has transformed his life into a waking nightmare is based on something called flow cytometry. It can identify mixed populations of red blood cells-i.e., someone else's blood in yours.
Hamilton lost his hearing but was supported by one of the three arbitrators. In a stinging dissent, Chris Campbell attacked the test for various flaws, including its failure "to calculate the rate of false positives." He cited the testimony of David Housman, an MIT professor who teaches validation of testing methods. Housman said the test failed to meet the prevailing standards of the scientific community. He was more blunt when I spoke with him on Sunday: "This test is not ready for prime time."
Hamilton never disputed the presence of a second population of red blood cells in his body. He disputed his accusers' conclusions about how it got there.
That's right: Hamilton went with the Vanishing Twin defense. Go ahead. Laugh. He expects you to. He knows it sounds like something lifted from a CSI script. What's more amazing is that it could be true. Hamilton's team pointed out the existence of chimeras: people born with two types of blood in their bodies. Chimerism is often the result of having had a vanishing twin.
"The vanished twin is a well- known medical phenomenon," says Housman. In a recent article, New York Times science writer Gina Kolata cited an expert who'd found that "20 to 30 percent of pregnancies that start out as twins end up as single babies, with one twin being absorbed by the mother in the first trimester." (Before the twin is absorbed, some of its cells--including bone-marrow stem cells, the progenitors of blood cells--can enter the body of the other fetus and remain there for life.) Another expert told Kolata that "50 to 70 percent" of healthy people are chimeras, including many who were not twins but received cells from their mothers.
But if Hamilton is really a chimera, why was he negative when he retook the test a few months after his positive in Spain? Housman says that an ebb and flow in the chimeric cell population is "perfectly consistent" with what researchers have found. And Kolata quotes a researcher who says, of flow cytometry, "the test can be quite finicky from experiment to experiment."
This does not, however, explain why Hamilton has not had numerous false positives, or why another rider on his team, Santiago Perez, also tested positive. (He did not show up for his hearing and was pronounced guilty in absentia.) Ross Brown, a scientist in agreement with the USADA's conclusions, says, "It seems inconceivable to me that there would be two people who were rare chimeras on the same cycling team." The USADA, for its part, stands by the reliability of the flow-cytometry test and says it offered to pay for Hamilton to take a separate test that can eliminate the possibility of chimerism, but Hamilton refused.
Hamilton is hopeful as he appeals his suspension. His case will be heard, probably in late June, by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland. Though he is out of this year's Tour de France, he hopes to race in August.
In the meantime he is training hard--I caught him on the eve of a six-hour ride-and plotting various reforms in the cycling world. Hamilton wants to organize the riders to make them better able to defend themselves when falsely accused. If things aren't changed, he warns, "this will happen to other innocent athletes. Just talking about it, I start to get angry."
The anger is not limited to his waking moments. Lately, Haven reports, Tyler has been grinding his teeth in his sleep.
What's more amazing than his use of the VANISHING TWINS defense is that it could be true.
JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Wearing stars and stripes, Hamilton won the 2004 Olympic time trial.