Eric Chouinard reviews the book of the moment, Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle's The Secret Race.
Title: The Secret Race - Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups and Winning at All Costs
Author: Tyler Hamilton & Daniel Coyle
Publisher: Bantam Press
Order: Random House
What it is: The rise and fall of Tyler Hamilton: cyclist, doper, reluctant whistle-blower.
Strengths: An entertaining ride through the dark side of professional cycling with the added bonus view of some interesting racing stories and a window into the life of a professional racer during the mid-90s to 2000s. A guilty pleasure that reads like a good gossip magazine story.
Weaknesses: Hamilton may not be the most reliable narrator/witness and the endless descriptions of injections and blood bag use gets tiresome. Some facts and stories that don't necessarily belong to Hamilton are used to bolster Hamilton's assertions.
Review by: Eric Chouinard
Tyler Hamilton is a liar and a cheater.
Unfortunately, according to his new book, The Secret Race - Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups and Winning at All Costs, so is everyone else in the cycling world, even cycling legend Lance Armstrong. If you wear a Livestrong bracelet on your wrist, will this book force you to rethink your opinion of Armstrong and his accomplishments? Probably.
Overall, this is a great read in the vein of a gossipy tell-all. It's a well-written and well-researched autobiography / confessional. Whether you believe everything Hamilton says about his teammates and the system is another matter. Over and over Hamilton explains that he is unburdening himself by telling the whole truth and not holding anything back. The problem is, his admissions of truth are the result of a grand jury subpoena, where he spent six hours detailing his involvement in performance enhancing drugs after spending the latter years of his career refuting positive drug tests until a second positive forced him to retire for good.
Throughout The Secret, Hamilton describes the lengths he took to replenish red blood cells through blood doping, use EPO, measure his hematocrit levels and helpfully explains the entire complex operation of deliveries and drop offs. In the process, Hamilton talks about a system that involved complicit team coaches, teammates, UCI officials, accomplices, wives, shady doctors and money, lots and lots of money. At the center of this drug ring, or at least one of the best players/users, is his former team captain and friend: Lance Armstrong.
Anyone who knows cycling knows the cycling phenomenon named Lance Armstrong. Since his miraculous Tour de France win in 1999, after coming back from cancer, he went on to win an additional six tour titles in a row and created the Livestrong cancer foundation which generates cancer awareness and is responsible for the yellow bracelet that adorns many hundreds of millions of wrists around the world.
With the recent developments in the USADA case against Armstrong this September, the timing of this book comes at a time when Armstrong has been stripped of all seven of his tour victories and goes a long way to explaining some of the evidence that USADA was going to use against him during arbitration. While I don't pretend to even begin to grasp the full extent of the political pressures, USADA rules and policies and legal issues surrounding these investigations, it was still a shock to hear that USADA was stripping Armstrong of all seven of his titles earlier this month.
It's a sad day for cycling if all the allegations in Hamilton's book are 100% true because it means that some of the greatest sporting accomplishments in cycling were due to medical science and performance enhancing drugs rather than the strength and courage of the riders as epitomized in every Tour de France and cycling video I've ever seen. The Secret may result in the disillusionment of some cycling fans and a loss to the TdF's mythos.
It feels almost surreal that such a vast and organized ‘open secret' could go on for so long, but then again, there is a tremendous amount of money involved in this sport. During a necessary introduction, we are treated to some early glimpses of the extent to how prevalent drug use is in the sport of cycling:
"I asked how he avoided testing positive for all those years, and Hamilton gave a dry laugh.
"The tests are easy to beat," he said. "We're way, way ahead of the tests. They've got their doctors, and we've got ours, and ours are better. Better paid, for sure. Besides, the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale, the sport's governing body) doesn't want to catch certain guys anyway. Why would they? It'd cost them money."'
After the introduction, the first half is the lighter half of the book: the fun part, if you will. Hamilton was primarily interested in skiing until an injury in his teens sidelined him from the sport and he took up cycling and became somewhat successful. In the beginning, the book rolls along quite nicely with Hamilton's fond and easy going descriptions of what it was like to win races (and sometimes to simply finish), slowly building a name for himself. These are the years that Hamilton was riding clean, or as the Spanish call it "Pan y agua" (on bread and water), a term that is often used as a device in the book to signal lost innocence or purity, similar to "Rosebud" in Citizen Kane. As Hamilton progresses and desires success, he realizes that he must go over to the dark side of the sport because, he reasons, there is no other way to reach the level of his competitors who are doping.
When we first meet Amstrong, he actually seems like a great guy who's ready to laugh at himself and tries to bring out the best in his teammates by calling himself "Cancer boy" and urging his teammates to match his speed. This is still within the "fun" part of the book where, we also meet the rest of the Eurodogs. Hamilton describes their friendship fondly and in the early days it seems like they actually enjoyed each other's company and had fun. Hamilton and Armstrong build a friendship but then come the secrets, the doping, the wins and people start to change, more specifically, Armstrong starts to change. It's not until we begin to see glimpses of a darker side to Armstrong that we realize how their relationship will soon deteriorate.
Armstrong figures hugely throughout The Secret and he comes across as an over-bearing, egotistical and malevolent man who can't stand not being the best. Armstrong appears to have such a huge ego that one would think, from The Secret, that he's like a schoolyard bully with too much power. I'm not familiar with this side of Lance Armstrong as I'm used to the competitive and affable public persona that I've seen in interviews and talk shows.
To make matters worse for Armstrong, there is rarely a quote that doesn't feature him punctuating every sentence with the F-Word. Pretty much every quote from him ends up with an F-word to make him seem like a garish lout:
"Everything interested him [Armstrong]; one day it would be tech stocks that were the best fucking buy on the market; the next it would be some bakery in Normandy that had the best fucking bread you've ever tasted; the next it would be about some band that was the best fucking band you've ever heard. The thing is, he usually was right."
With many more quotes peppered throughout the book it seems like Armstrong can't help himself when quoted by Hamilton, whether the Texan is throwing an insult, mounting a challenge or even giving a compliment there's always an F-word ("‘Well if it isn't Mister Forty-Fucking-Nine-Point-Seven [referring to Hamilton's hematocrit level],' Lance said.").
While Armstrong comes across as a control-freak with Tourette's syndrome, Hamilton comes across like a laid-back surfer-dude. Take this description of a meeting with his new director Bjarne Riis of Team CSC-Tiscali:
"I felt like I was on a movie set, a postcard come to life. I was sitting in a lawn chair looking over the hills of Tuscany. Olive trees, golden light, full-on Michelangelo stuff."
If Armstrong is the big bad wolf of this story, Hamilton paints himself as little red riding hood. Unfortunately neither character was very empathetic in my view. They both (if this account is all factual) made millions from cheating the system and then lied and lied and lied some more.
Despite his threshold for pain, Hamilton appears somewhat weak, easily manipulated and powerless next to Armstrong's Alpha male personality. There's one incident Armstrong asks Hamilton to take a pay cut for the team. Hamilton tells the reader that it was an incredibly selfish request from Armstrong but he then goes on to explain how he went along with it without voicing any objection! That seems like someone who doesn't really want to make waves. Hamilton also pays off Dr. Ferrari who just happens to stop by one day and asks him for $15,000 for an unpaid bill that may or may not exist. Hamilton - after haggling Ferrari down to $10,000 - just pays him off without any reproach; that's rather kind of him, I guess the doctor could have extorted him for much more.
Many times, Hamilton appears to be apologetic in social situations (when Armstrong confronts him at a restaurant later in the book for example) even when he absolutely has nothing to apologize about beyond being in the wrong place at the wrong time. All these incidents really made me stop and wonder if Hamilton was being honest about how he's acted in any of the situations that he presented. He's always the victim or the apologist, never the instigator. Virtually every story comes off as Armstrong being a bull in a china shop and Hamilton playing the part of the sweet saint just moving out of the way.
What surprised me about the whole story, besides how easy it appears to be to fool the doping tests, was just how open the cyclists were with their wives (well, most of them anyway) about their doping and how many of the wives were complicit in the deceit of racing officials. Hamilton's ex-wife, Haven Parchinski, comes off as quite the co-conspirator through the entire thing. I wonder how she feels about her ex-husband releasing all the details of the aid she provided to him in duping the UCI.
Beyond the doping, the book does offer cycling fans some very cool descriptions about Hamilton's training regime, camaraderie with his teammates and the other riders of the peloton. It was fascinating to hear about how he would overcome his own pain during races. Hamilton was a tough cyclist during his career. In one race he was in so much pain that he ground and clenched his teeth so bad that he needed dental work. The most impressive thing has to be the 2004 Tour de France when Hamilton continued to race, despite breaking his collar bone in an early stage. This suggests a certain amount of drive and an insane threshold for pain (this is featured in the documentary Overcoming (2005)) and maybe a slightly crazy need to win.
That said, for every great biking story an in-depth description of the tools and tricks of the doping world are not far behind. It almost appears as though Hamilton spent as much time training on the bike as he did plotting (or taking notes from Armstrong) on the ways to game or out-smart the system. Hamilton describes Armstrong as taking a certain joy in outsmarting the officials of the UCI, but also implicates them as being complicit in the cheating. The level and extent of deciet, the various schemes, the network of doctors and hired accomplices such as Philipe the "Motoman", who would leave supplies for Team Postal at various drop points, are simply mind boggling. But then again, there's a lot of money involved.
There's an enormous amount of detail in The Secret Race about transfusions, hematocrit levels, blood bags and pretty much the same excuse is used to defend the use of transfusions and EPO: everyone else was already doing it. Sometimes it's Hamilton quoting Armstrong saying it, with an additional F-word, and sometimes it's Hamilton justifying it.
I kept imaging that cyclists were like heroin addicts; gaunt and emaciated bodies, always looking for the next fix to let them get higher/faster, with long dark track marks running the length of their thin lanky arms. I'm amazed that with all the blood bags and blood transfusions and needles going around that there wasn't mention of more accidents in relation to blood contamination and communicable diseases.
While Hamilton explains what he witnessed, there's a hefty amount of additional details that are gleaned from secondhand knowledge and other sources that are used to bolster Hamilton's claims making this feel like less of an autobiography and more of an exposé. While many of the facts and incidents discussed have appeared elsewhere (a widely read Sport Illustrated story from a few years back, for example) and trickled out over the years, there's enough in this book to add more fuel to the fire.
When Hamilton is informed that the Federal case against Armstrong is being dropped, he's so angry that I thought Hamilton was almost saying if I'm going down, he's going down too! I almost felt like Hamilton was upset that Armstrong had gotten away with it and that he hadn't.
I also didn't really feel like Hamilton regretted cheating the system for as long as he did and I thought that he'd probably still be racing if he hadn't been caught because it afforded him, what some would consider, a great life for a long time. For all of Hamilton's talk of finding redemption and relieving himself of his burden, the last grand standing line of the book: "The truth really will set you free" screams of hypocrisy due to the fact that it must be a lot easier when you've been publicly caught not once but twice.
Near the end of the book, Hamilton describes a recent story where a bike rider with a ‘dopers suck' t-shirt stares at him while riding past him at a stop. So, Hamilton chases down the bike rider and basically introduces himself by saying:
"Hey, I'm an ex-doper," I said, "but I don't suck. Have a good ride guys."'
For all of Hamilton's hubris, he never even seems to consider that the rider didn't recognize him or that the incident was pure coincidence. This weak Walt Disney moment, that harked back to an earlier Armstrong story albeit with a much darker ending, highlights one of my major problems with the book: it's a nice story, but it's a lot of Hamilton's facts mixed with his own theories based on what he thinks also happened.
Due to my lack of background and cursory knowledge of Hamilton prior to reading the book, I was surprised that it was as easy to follow and entertaining as it was. Daniel Coyle has done a great job crafting Hamilton's autobiography into an intriguing exposé into the corruption of cycling. Some gossipy parts are hard to resist reading and the racing scenes are really great, but the riding exploits Hamilton describes now seem rather tainted and hollow.
This was a guilty pleasure. It's a well-written book that I couldn't put down but couldn't totally trust. This book is well worth the read, but as with all autobiographies/confessionals you'll have to make your own conclusions on what you believe or want to believe.