Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Review: The Secret Race (2013)

By Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle

Once upon a time, it was easy to love cycling in general and the Tour de France in particular.

It's difficult to imagine a more difficult sporting event, with its climbs up mountains and its sprints on level terrain - day after day, until three weeks go by. Then a few Americans started popping up near the top, giving people on this side of the Atlantic a rooting interest. And then a few Americans won, including Lance Armstrong - who kept winning and winning and winning (repeat word seven times in all).

But, there was a catch - a big one. It turned out that practically every single one of the contenders was using special drugs and other means to get faster. It was their idea of making it a level playing field. Eventually, even Armstrong was implicated and confessed.

That made it easy to hating cycling in general, at least on the competitive level, and the Tour de France in particular.

How did the drug era take place in cycling? Tyler Hamilton wrote his account of the story a few years ago, "The Secret Race." It's still quite fascinating, even if we know how it turns out.

Hamilton was a very good bike rider at a relatively early point in his career. He moved over to Europe in order to face the world's best and see how he measured up. Hamilton eventually joined the U.S. Postal Service team, which had Armstrong as its star and leader. Hamilton was an opening act on the team, to put it in show business terms, and had to prove that he had a chance of competing with big dogs.

Hamilton did that eventually, which earned him some fringe benefits - such as the chance to have EPO injected and receive blood transfusions. As the cyclist put it, it was either take dope or go home. Thus the elaborate schemes began, where he would have doctors meet him in secret places so that injections and transfusions could take place. As for conversations on the subject, remember the line from the movie "Fight Club": The first rule of Fight Club is that you do not talk about Fight Club.

Eventually, Hamilton got caught. They all did in one way or another, even though by the sound of it the testing by the sport's authorities was relatively simple to pass. It just takes a little slip-up to test positive. Hamilton still isn't sure what happened the first time around, and denied the charges at first since he wasn't technically guilty of using someone else's blood. But he was guilty of plenty of other things, and eventually decided to tell his story in court and in this book. 

It's certainly interesting to read how the nuts and bolts of the operation worked during the doping era. Still, the attraction of this book is a reasonably close look at Armstrong. He was an American icon for a while when he was winning tour titles. Armstrong had given up cycling while undergoing cancer treatments, and his return better than ever was embraced by all. He set up Livestrong, a cancer foundation that raised millions and millions.

It was, of course, too good to be true. The Armstrong shown here is not a pretty picture. He's consumed with himself and his image, treating people horribly along the way. Hamilton eventually fell into that class. A description of a confrontation between the two in a Colorado restaurant is pretty shocking. Even Hamilton calls him a bully a few times, and that seems to fit. We wanted really hard to believe in the myth, and it's still evident in the reaction that lingers to today. Armstrong set new records for defiance before finally confessing (to Oprah, no less) in public.

After reading "The Secret Race" and going through the news reports about the episodes, it will be tough for anyone to feel the same way about cycling for a long time. But, a purging probably was necessary, and Hamilton helped supply it. "Thank you" might not be the right words, but in the end Hamilton probably did the right thing.

Five stars

Learn more about this book.

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