In the early spring, I spent a day listening to the man who used to be leader of the Phonak cycling team discuss his drug case. At the time, Tyler Hamilton was 36 years old and a cycling footnote; he'd been found guilty of blood doping two years earlier. I visited him because he was in the middle of an appeal he hoped would allow him to come back and ride in this year's Tour de France.
"You have to believe me," he said. "I didn't do it."
I'd heard Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones say exactly the same thing, and with exactly the same passion, during the BALCO scandals. The sprinters kept flogging the fact that they'd never flunked a drug test. Montgomery wound up getting banned by the IAAF, and a cloud of suspicion still hovers over Jones.
Somehow, Hamilton's argument seemed more persuasive.
Maybe it was the exquisite furnishings of his home in the mountains outside Boulder, Colo., as if such good taste in furniture somehow didn't correlate with the sensibility of a cheater. Maybe it was his smokingly beautiful wife, Haven, who nodded every time he reached for another conspiracy theory. Maybe, after all the heavy-handed methods used by the feds in the BALCO case, I wanted to believe an athlete who claimed he was being railroaded.
Whatever the reason, when Hamilton said the corruption was in the system, not in him, I bit.
Then he lost his appeal. The three judges who heard his case at the Court of Arbitration for Sport decided it wasn't a close call. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Even then, he maintained his innocence.
"People keep asking me why I'm not more angry," he wrote on his Web site. "And my only response is that there is peace in knowing the truth."
A small part of me said, Well, maybe
Then came the recent Spanish police investigation into a Madrid doping lab and the final nail in the coffin: a document that purports to show that Hamilton's wife ordered a long list of drugs, including the blood booster EPO. The Hamiltons claim not to know anything about it. Through a lawyer and on their Web site, they say they don't know the doctor and never received the drugs.
Sorry, Tyler. It's just one piece of evidence too many for me.
In a backhanded sort of way, Floyd Landis owes Hamilton's transgressions for his job. Hamilton's suspension opened the door for Landis to be hired away from the U.S. Postal Service team and take over as Phonak's leader. But he can thank Hamilton for something else, too: the rampant cynicism that's following him now in the wake of his own claims that he didn't take testosterone to help him win this year's Tour de France.
If one Phonak rider already has looked us in the eyes and lied, why shouldn't we suspect that Landis is capable of it, too?
That's the really insidious thing about Hamilton's attempt to rescue what's left of his "good guy" image. Unless the Madrid document leads to further charges, his blood-doping suspension will be over in September. He has announced that he expects to return to competition Sept. 24, at the UCI Road World Championships.
The last thing the Tour needs is a cheat who won't stay away. Hamilton did more than sabotage his own career. He has made it more difficult for truly innocent riders to say the same thing he kept saying: I didn't do it.
I want to believe Landis. But how many lies can you hear before your belief shuts down? I know it's the American way to deny. But you have to draw the line somewhere. I believed Tyler Hamilton. Now, for the good of his sport, I'd like to see him be the first in line to come clean about what he did.
And I hope Floyd Landis won't have to be the second.
Shaun Assael is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.