Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle

I'm sorry I haven't been posting much lately, but I've really been in a reading funk.  I'm having trouble finding things I'm in the mood to read, and not enjoying a lot of what I am reading.  So at the moment I'm spending a lot of my time knitting and re-reading familiar stuff I know I will like.

Those who know me are aware that I used to be a pretty avid cyclist and a fan of bike racing.  I don't follow the sport as closely as I used to, but for several years I was a serious fan.  Tyler Hamilton was a rider I used to watch, and when he got caught doping I really wanted to believe him that it was a mistake, that he really wasn't guilty.  I also really wanted to believe Floyd Landis after he got caught at it.  But as time went by and more and more of the riders at the top of the sport were revealed to be doping, I realized that I shouldn't believe them when they were protesting their innocence.  The only rider I am pretty sure rode clean was David Moncoutie.  Other than that all bets are off, and there were many riders I knew had to be doping simply because of the things they were doing, or the teams they were riding for.

In The Secret Race Tyler talks very freely about his cycling career and what riders do to themselves to have a career at the top level of the sport.  He particularly focuses on the early years, when he realized that there was no way he could keep up riding without chemical assistance, and his wonder at how well the doping worked when he did get on the program.  That doesn't mean that it wasn't incredibly hard work -- even with the drugs, bike racing is an incredibly difficult sport.  But with a little testosterone to help him recover from a hard workout, a little EPO to increase the oxygen-carrying capacity of his blood, it was possible to achieve far more than without them.  And if you don't do these things, you will not have a career in the pro peloton, period.  Take it and race, or go home and find something else to do.  That was the choice that he faced, and that all the others did, too.  He decided he wanted to be a bike racer.  He took the drugs.  And later, the blood transfusions.

The whole book is infused with Lance Armstrong.  This isn't surprising in the early part of Hamilton's career.  They rode on the same team, trained together, lived in the same building, and were friends, for a while.  Lance Armstrong was a really dominant force in cycling at the time Hamilton was riding, a huge personality, head of a well-oiled machine of dozens of people whose sole job was to make sure that Lance won, always.  Tyler was part of that machine, was right near the center of it.  And Lance and the team management he worked with, and the doctor he hired, were instrumental in Hamilton's education in doping.

I was a little surprised how the book, in many ways, continued to be about Lance, and Tyler's relationship with him, even after he'd left and gone on to ride for other teams and find success on his own.  Really interesting and important moments in Hamilton's career were breezed over in a paragraph or two, and that was somewhat disappointing.  I suppose an account of the 2002 Giro d'Italia, in which he finished a major three-week tour in second place while riding with a broken shoulder blade, wasn't really that relevant in an account of his doping.  But it's interesting, and I wish there would have been more detail of his years at CSC and Phonak.

All in all, this was a really interesting read.  Hamilton says a lot of things I already knew.  He confirms things that I suspected but didn't know for sure.  And there's lots of good stuff in there that I hadn't known.  He dishes dirt on himself, on Lance, and on the way things were done when he was riding.  And it seems that US Postal was not only the best team at winning the Tour de France for years, they were also the best at doping.  There is a wonderful quote from Jonathan Vaughters in the book, about the dangers of dealing with the kind of doctors who would provide athletes with illegal drugs:

The thing to realize about Fuentes and all these guys is that they're doping doctors for a reason.  They're the ones who didn't make it on the conventional path, so they're not the most organized people  So when they leave a bag of blood out in the sun because they're having another glass of wine at the cafe, it's predictable.  The deadly mistake that Tyler, Floyd, Roberto, and the rest of them made when they left Postal was to assume that they'd find other doctors who were as professional.  But then they got other there, they found -- whoops! -- there weren't any others. 
I really enjoyed this book, though I don't know how interesting it would be to someone who wasn't a fan, and already aware of most of the people and events discussed.