PARIS Professional cycling has long been crippled by doping and the sport will only begin to heal when its omerta, or 'Code of Silence', has been broken by those still in denial, according to Tyler Hamilton.
American rider Hamilton is one of 11 former Lance Armstrong team mates who agreed to testify against the seven-times Tour de France winner, who was stripped of those titles and banned for life by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) in August.
Hamilton retired in 2009 when he was handed an eight-year ban following a third positive test, marking the end of his "dual life" as a professional cyclist.
"Don't feel bad for me," he warned at the beginning of a telephone interview with Reuters on Tuesday.
Hamilton deplores the fact that some of his fellow riders still look the other way when it comes to doping.
"I do see a lot of professionals who I raced against back then, they're just completely denying doping themselves or (denying) seeing or hearing anything about doping," the 41-year-old Hamilton said.
"If they said they didn't dope, ok, as far as I know they didn't dope but saying they didn't see or hear anything, come on...
"It's part of the problem, the omerta still exists."
Whatever other cyclists say, doping was endemic in the early 2000s and there is no way that can be denied, claims Hamilton, who gave back his 2004 Olympic gold medal after confessing to doping throughout his career.
"They have to bury their heads in the sand, literally -- which is impossible," he said.
Hamilton firmly believes the best solution for those in denial, and for the sport as a whole, is a complete confession, including Armstrong who has denied doping allegations for years.
"I'd be surprised if he didn't confess in some way some day because to continue with the denial, it's a heavy, heavy weight," he said.
Hamilton himself tried to forget about his own drug cheating by just moving on with his life, but that was not enough.
"I just kind of buried it deep inside me," he said. "I really tried, I thought that with time it was going to get easier. But year after year, the improvements were so minute.
"What I went through totally destroyed me. There's a part of me that thought I'd never recover."
When Hamilton was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury as part as a federal investigation into Armstrong in 2010, he finally ended the lie.
'A BROKEN MAN'
"It's sad to say but it finally took a subpoena... I was dreading that day (...) but I'm so grateful it happened, in a selfish way. I was a broken man," said Hamilton.
The American rode with Armstrong on the U.S. Postal Service team from 1998-2001, a period when he says cycling was riddled with doping.
"The sport was so dirty at that time," Hamilton said. "Most of the things we did were kind of the norm in cycling. He (Armstrong) made the decision to dope but he's not 100 percent at fault. There were a lot of other people involved in this."
Hamilton is therefore urging everyone involved in cycling in the early 2000s and before to come clean -- not just the riders but also the sports directors, team managers, physiotherapists and mechanics.
"We need more people to come out and talk about what happened in the past," he said.
"What sickens me is the denial -- those who say they didn't know anything -- the team managers, team directors, soigneurs, mechanics and riders who are still competing today or who raced back then."
Hamilton feels those in denial can still play a role in professional cycling but only if they come clean.
"The guys who are 35 and older, whether they still ride today or are sports directors, they need to answer some questions," he explained. "They are still part of the problem."
Among them is Kazakhstan's 2012 Olympic road race champion Alexandre Vinokourov, a former doper who is taking over as the new Astana team manager next season.
"I'm not saying they should leave (cycling) but if they don't open up and be honest about what happened in the past then there is no room for them in the sport," said Hamilton.
Hamilton, who now runs a coaching company for amateur cyclists, says he bears no grudges.
"I would not wish what I went through on my worst enemy, I would not wish what I went through on Lance Armstrong," he said.
"If he (Armstrong) tells the truth there will be consequences but in the long term, he's gonna be better off. People will forgive. People don't wanna hold grudges forever. People will forgive the guy."
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)