What Happened to Tyler Hamilton?

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Stage 13 proved to be a very hard day in the saddle, and several riders found it too difficult to finish. Denis Menchov, winner of the Best Young Rider competition last year, withdrew from the race with knee pain. Haimar Zubeldia, half of the Spanish duo that caused Armstrong so much trouble last year, abandoned just 19 kilometers into the stage. Most unfortunate and surprising, though, was the withdrawal of Phonak leader Tyler Hamilton.

During the massive pileup at the end of Stage 6, Hamilton flew over the handlebars and landed heavily on his back. On the flat stages that followed, he was able to maintain the pace and finish with the lead group, but the pain intensified in the mountains. The lower back plays a huge role in cycling by providing a stable platform for the legs to push against. When the strength and stability of this platform is compromised, it’s nearly impossible to produce the kind of power a rider needs to climb mountain passes with the leaders of the Tour de France.

Though Hamilton is no stranger to pain, his injuries this year had more of a direct impact on his riding performance. Though riding with a broken collarbone was extremely painful, the injury did not affect his ability to produce power last year. He came to the Tour de France to challenge for the yellow jersey and stand on the podium in Paris, and with the pain hindering his ability to accomplish those goals, there was no reason to soldier on.

Though he may not have ended the day with the yellow jersey on his shoulders, Lance Armstrong increased his lead over Jan Ullrich and saw several other potential challengers fade way out of contention. Iban Mayo nearly abandoned and is 45 minutes behind. Roberto Heras is 27 minutes back. The new threats have emerged from the likes of Ivan Basso, Andreas Klöden, and Francisco Mancebo. Of them, Basso stands the greatest chance of mounting a serious challenge for the yellow jersey. He is a very strong climber and has worked extensively on improving his abilities in time trials.

Meanwhile, Thomas Voeckler officially earned hero status today. Dropped on every climb, he repeatedly clawed his way back to the lead group. On the final climb of the day, everyone expected him to lose the yellow jersey, but the young Frenchman somehow found the power to retain his lead by just 22 seconds. Lance Armstrong intended on taking the yellow jersey this afternoon, but Voeckler’s tremendous ride means he’ll have to wait a few more days. For now, the yellow jersey is safely on Voeckler’s back. Stage 14 is flat, and although it may be windy, the Brioches La Boulangere team will likely be able to hang on to the lead. Armstrong and Basso will have to wait until after the Tour’s second rest day on Monday for their next chance to take it from the France’s newest hero.

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