I know the pain you’re feeling right now. I know the disappointment. I know the overwhelming conviction that she’s suffering a complete miscarriage of justice. I know how you feel like the ground beneath your feet is crumbling and that a good person, a soul you believe in is suffering the psychic equivalent to murder. I’m also familiar with that urge to fly to Aigle and put some heads on pikes.
I’ve been there.
That said, I’m going to get out in front of this next thing by warning you, you aren’t going to like what I’m about to say.
No matter what you think of her character, no matter how much time you’ve spent with her, no matter how closely you’ve followed her career, no matter how clearly you believe you’ve looked into her soul and seen the integrity that runs clear to the moon, I hate to say it, but you don’t really know what she has done.
None of us do, except, probably, her husband. We simply don’t know if she doped or not.
Before you close this window or start shouting your rebuttal, stick with me for a minute, or at least for the next two words.
I know Tyler. I knew him before he ever raced a grand tour. I was at races where he, as an unknown amateur, duked with some of the top pros in the region. I recall him winning Collegiate Nationals and how my friend Richard Fries gave the cycling world the nyah of all nyahs and printed the headline “We Told You So.” Put another way, we saw Tyler coming. He was going to be the next Greg LeMond: fast as hell, nice, thoughtful, and decent in a way that would cause fathers to mail their daughters to him for marriage.
I was at a crit in New England shortly after his Tour de France debut when he destroyed the Pro/I/II field, then lapped them by himself. I was there at Mount Washington when he shattered the record set by Dale Stetina. We all nodded our heads and said to ourselves and our friends, “See, talent times hard work equals badass.”
We were certain he was clean. I knew he was clean the way I knew my mother loves me. Only he wasn’t. Now we know he was on EPO—and more—so what we watched was talent times hard work times oxygen-vector doping.
When he rode to second place in the 2002 Giro d’Italia with a broken shoulder and ground his molars down to the nerves due to the pain, we saw a Tour win as nearly inevitable. Then he won Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2003 and we saw that as confirmation of more to come. Then he rode practically the whole of the 2003 Tour de France with a broken collarbone. I was there and I can tell you I’ve not seen a more inspiring performance in cycling in my life.
Then Tyler tested positive, his twin vanished and his name appeared in records of Operacion Puerto. The long, the short, the in-between was: he doped. But he said he was clean and he mounted a rousing defense that saw many of us put our own reputations on the line for him. But we weren’t in the bathroom or the hotel rooms or the team bus with him. We didn’t watch his then-wife Haven make the funds transfers.
He said no, swore no, swore on the soul of his deceased dog, Tugboat.
Then came the pointy end of a grand jury and he spilled his beans, carrots, kale and anything else at hand. It was no less stunning a performance than the 2003 Tour. Like all cyclists who headed to Europe at that time, he had been confronted with a choice: Start doping and find out just how far he could go, or shrink home in ignominy. Turns out the ignominy got him anyway.
I’ll tell you what I believe: I believe Tyler told what court asks of us: the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The crazy thing is that, to me, showed the kind of character I’d always believed him to have. If you haven’t read, “The Secret Race,” written with Daniel Coyle, do yourself a favor. It’s the single most important book written on the Armstrong era. If nothing else, it proved to me that Hamilton is still the decent person I always believed him to be. Doping doesn’t make you the antichrist. Who among us isn’t flawed?
You may argue that Hamilton stood to make a great deal of money, more money than Compton would ever see even if she won everything she entered. And you’d be right. But when hasn’t a stars and stripes jersey been a sufficiently powerful motivator for doping?
Let’s consider what has taken place: Compton returned a sample that didn’t fit with her biological passport. Forget that she returned a sample that tested negative. She returned a “one of these things is not like the other.” That’s what the biological passport is meant to catch. So because it didn’t fit with the others it was tested more carefully and—lo!—up turned an anabolic agent. She tested positive. Spin this any way you want, she tested positive.
I have written about doping so much—from Tyler, to Floyd to Lance and others—that in 2011 readers actually requested that I stop writing about doping.
I’ve seen so many riders test positive that I stopped writing about pro cycling for the simple reason that the moment someone won a race, I wondered what they might be on. You tell me someone won the National Championships 15 times running and my brain can’t not wonder about doping. Occam’s Razor, you know? In my world, where pro cycling goes, there’s always another shoe and it’s going to hit the ground sooner or later.
Tyler Hamilton taught me that we don’t know, we can’t know and we won’t know until the rider in question decides to come, uh, clean.
So, like I said, I feel your shock, your disappointment, your certainty that there’s been a miscarriage of justice, but history tells us rather than holding that breath, we’d do well to exhale through the pain, to accept the worst possible scenario, and no matter where this story goes, retain your belief in Katie’s core humanity.
Image: USA Cycling