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Hamilton trying to bounce back from scandal

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    TYBEE ISLAND — One by one, the competitors in this week’s Tour de Georgia were announced at the race’s kickoff gala, all to a smattering of applause, some ovations longer than others.
    No one drew a warmer response than Tyler Hamilton.
    Even after a two-year suspension, an ultimately futile legal battle and the unshakable stigma of being labeled a cheater, these five words — ‘‘Olympic gold medalist Tyler Hamilton’’ — still can elicit a raucous reception, even from people who’ll never really know the full tale of Hamilton, the 2004 Olympic time trial winner.
    Depending on perspective, Hamilton is either a villain or a victim in cycling’s doping scandal.
    But at 37, he doesn’t care about perception. He’s reinventing himself with Rock Racing, one of the top teams that will start the weeklong stage race Monday.
    ‘‘I’ll never forget what happened to me. I’ll never be through it,’’ Hamilton said Sunday in an interview with The Associated Press. ‘‘You can’t forget something like that. It’s behind me. I don’t dwell on it like I used to. I’m done stating my case. I’m done trying to change the doubters. I’m moving forward.’’
    After years of being in the shadows of American cycling — especially Lance Armstrong, a seven-time winner of the Tour de France — Hamilton finally got his moment to shine on a gorgeous, sunny day along the Saronic Gulf a few miles outside Athens.
    Gold medal winner, 2004 Olympic time trial. The kid whose Olympic dreams were hatched while watching the 1980 ‘‘Miracle on Ice’’ hockey team and skiers such as Bill Johnson and the Mahre brothers finally had his moment. He was immortal, never to be forgotten, a champion.
    ‘‘Highlight of my career,’’ Hamilton said.
    The bliss lasted about two weeks.
    Hamilton tested positive for blood doping at the Olympics. But his backup sample deteriorated and couldn’t be tested, meaning he kept the gold medal on what amounted to a technicality. He tested positive again for blood doping in September 2004 at the Spanish Vuelta, and that time, he couldn’t escape a two-year suspension.
    Hamilton swore innocence. Some believed him, some didn’t.
    In the end, he did his time, and returned to stage racing last year at the Tour de Georgia.
    ‘‘We welcomed Tyler back to the tour last year and we welcome him back this year,’’ event director Chris Aronhalt said Sunday. ‘‘Honestly, we’re thrilled to have him at the start line. Tyler is still a very popular rider.’’
    Yet trouble still has a way of finding him.
    He raced last year with a team called Tinkoff, which signed Hamilton with little reservation at the end of his suspension. One problem: Hamilton says the Russian team owner hasn’t paid him what he’s owed, so they’re now battling in an Italian court.
    That fight was going to be Hamilton’s last.
    ‘‘I retired last September,’’ Hamilton said. ‘‘I didn’t announce it. No one knew it, really. But I retired. I was done.’’
    Three months later, the phone rang.
    Michael Ball was on the other end. Ball is best known for his work in the fashion world. He’s also an avid cyclist, a lightning rod in the sport, and was trying to assemble what he called a dream team of sorts.
    Hamilton listened to his sales pitch. Two weeks later, he signed a contract.
    ‘‘To say that Tyler’s career is finished, that’s far from the truth,’’ Ball said. ‘‘I just met with him recently and he is looking amazing. He hasn’t raced since last year, this particular race, and he’s trained extremely hard over the last three months, four months, and he’s going to surprise us.’’
    Hamilton won’t win the Tour de Georgia this week. His role in Rock Racing’s lineup right now is to be a support rider of sorts, which — since he still isn’t exactly race-sharp after his exile — is fine with him.
    ‘‘There’s no ego at all on this team, period,’’ Ball said. ‘‘Everybody’s in there for a team win.’’
    There’s no shortage of teams who’ll challenge for top honors at the Tour de Georgia, which is likely the top stage race in the country.
    Astana — snubbed by the Tour de France — is in the field and led by reigning U.S. champion Levi Leipheimer. Team High Road, led by George Hincapie, likely will be at the front throughout the week. Slipstream Chipotle, led by Christian VandeVelde and Tom Danielson, is another pre-race favorite, as is Team CSC, featuring 2004 Olympic bronze medalist Bobby Julich.
    But plenty of buzz has centered around Rock Racing, especially Hamilton, who made peace long ago with the fact that skeptics will never believe his pleas of innocence.
    ‘‘People ask me today, if you had to do it all over again, would you do the Kangaroo Court all over again? And I say, ’Absolutely,’’’ Hamilton said. ‘‘I know what was right. I had to fight for what’s right. If I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t have any integrity. And I know that I have integrity. This is the best sport in the world, the toughest sport, and I’m glad to still be part of it.’’
    Given the reception he got in Georgia this weekend, there’s clearly some people glad he is as well.

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