The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle is the kind of book you hate and yet can’t put down. Instead of being an entertaining and relaxing read about a sport I love by an athlete I once admired, it is a depressing book by someone whose character and motives, after reading the book, I question.
First, the book is well-written. Coyle has done an excellent job of taking his numerous and lengthy interviews with Tyler and crafting them into an excellent first person narrative of how Hamilton became caught up in doping and blood boosting, and about this “secret” race to see who could do it best. I liked how the chapters were broken up and titled, with clearly delineated breaks in each chapter when there was a shift in the narrative. The book is evenly paced, never moving too quickly nor getting bogged down. In terms of the reading experience, it is captivating. Only the content is depressing.
The subtitle on the dust jacket describes the book perfectly: “Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs”. I have avidly followed the Tour and professional European bike racing for years. I knew doping was part of the sport. That was apparent. And as time passed, I came to understand it was more widespread than anyone let on. Yet Hamilton’s book showed me a shocking world in which doping was epidemic and necessary to perform and win at the highest levels.
Hamilton’s narrative takes the reader on a ride through his professional racing career. In it, he details his innocence as a neo-pro in Europe, his introduction to doping, his rationalizations, getting “popped” and finding his career crashing down, his decision to write this book in conjunction with and at the suggestion of Coyle, and his involvement with the grand jury, and subsequent USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency) investigation of Lance Armstrong. He relates the role Armstrong played in organizing the doping practices in the US Postal team. He describes well the doping culture that existed within the sport throughout his career. He is frank about how he and others reacted to this culture and the decisions they made.
I read this book during the recent time period in which USADA’s report detailing this dark and corrupt component of professional cycling and Lance Armstrong’s role in it, and the many simultaneous public confessions it spurred, came out. The book gave substantive and substantial background, context and (dare I say it?) understanding to USADA’s report and the confessions of the many American riders I had followed over the years.
In a sense, I was grateful for that. I know Levi Leipheimer and spoke with him on several occasions when he raced here in Utah. I also know David Zabriskie quite well and have interviewed him on a couple of occasions. I like them both, and believe them, despite their confessions, to be good, honest and upright people. Tyler’s book showed the culture aspiring professional riders faced, the nearly superhuman demands of the sport, and the intensity of the dreams these riders had to surrender if they walked away from professionally cycling. It gave understanding to why people, good people such as Zabriskie and Leipheimer, chose to cheat.
I said at the outset that I question Hamilton’s character are motives. I don’t doubt that he considers himself sincere and acting in professional cycling’s best interests this book. However, there are several telling moments in the book. First, Hamilton quite easily accepted and slipped into the world of doping. There is little indication that he was seriously conflicted when faced with the decision to dope. Of his first time doping, Hamilton relates how Dr. Pedro Celaya, the team doctor, came to him after the 1997 Tour of Valencia and offered him , “A tiny red egg [testosterone]. ‘This is not doping,’ he said. ‘This is for your health.’ . . . I put out my hand, and he tipped the capsule into my palm.”
Later, Hamilton states, “Still, I didn’t do anything. Pedro gave me an occasional red egg at races, but that was it. I would not have dreamed of asking [Adriano] Baffi or another teammate for EPO. It felt like something that was above my station, that had to be earned.” Both before and after these instances, Hamilton also relates how team doctors gave the preferred riders on the team a little white sack, which he knew contained drugs, and tells of the “sinking feeling” and “sinking sensation” of not being one of the riders deserving of that.
He also relates how easy it was to lie to his father, a defiantly honest man, about his doping. “One afternoon my father came to me with that question. He sat me down. He brought up Festina [the entire Festina team was busted in 1998 and kicked out of the Tour when Willie Voet, a team soigneur, was caught with a trunk full of drugs while crossing the French border]. . . I didn’t hesitate. ‘Dad, if I ever have to take that stuff to compete, I’ll retire.’ I’d thought it would be hard to lie to my dad; it turned out it was easy. I looked him right in the eye; the words popped out so effortlessly that I’m ashamed to think of it now.”
Also, it is apparent from the book that Hamilton developed a real competition with, and bitterness toward, Lance Armstrong. Hamilton tells of the preferential treatment that Lance exercised as the team leader of US Postal. He also speaks of the fear of Lance that others had. You didn’t want to cross him or make him mad. To those who paid attention, it become apparent that Lance Armstong was not a particularly nice person. You did not challenge Armstrong. If you did, you quickly found yourself on the outside. That happened with Hamilton, particularly as he approached Armstrong’s level, both as a rider and a doper. He got on Armstrong’s bad side, realized he was being marginalized, and ended up leaving US Postal as a result.
Later, while competing in 2004 on the Phonak team for which he was the undisputed leader, Hamilton took the lessons he learned at US Postal and implemented them at Phonak. As a result, Phonak was leveling the playing field with US Postal, and Hamilton was deemed a serious challenger to Armstrong. During that year’s Criterium du Dauphiné, an important test prior to the Tour, Phonak and Hamilton outperformed US Postal, with Hamilton defeating Armstrong in the time trial up Mont Ventoux. After that race, Hamilton was asked by the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale, the governing body of international professional bike racing) to come to its headquarters after the Dauphiné for a meeting. Upon arriving, he was brought into a meeting with Hein Verbruggen, the president of the UCI, and Dr. Mario Zorzoli, the UCI’s chief medical officer.
While it seemed odd, nothing came of it. Later, though, during an early stage of the Tour, Floyd Landis, who was riding for US Postal at the time, told Hamilton, “Lance called the UCI on you . . . He called Hein, after Ventoux. Said you guys and Mayo were on some new shit, told Hein to get you.” Hamilton was furious. He states, “The bike race seemed to disappear. I felt years of pent-up anger cracking loose inside me. I felt heat, rising up.” He immediately rode up next to Armstrong and let loose with a profanity laced verbal attack.
From these and other instances related in the book, and from the overall tone of the book, it seems obvious that Hamilton was bitter toward Armstrong. That, coupled with a character that seems ready to rationalize morality, leaves me with the feeling that the real motivation behind this book is to justify himself and condemn Armstrong.
However, whatever his character and motivations may be, the book has the feel of truth to it. One senses that Hamilton has bared both the truth and his soul to Coyle through their interviews and interaction. And while one may question his motives and his moral character, it is a book that will hopefully, with its concurrent timing with the USADA report and the resulting “Armstrong affair”, be instrumental in cementing the changes of the last few years of professional cycling and in forcing additional reformation and watchfulness in the years to come.
The Secret Race, while compelling, is a difficult and depressing book. Still, for those of us who love and follow professional bike racing, it is a must read.
THE SECRET RACE:
Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France:
Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs
By Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle
Random House, 2012.