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Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle

THE SECRET RACE

Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs

See also my review of It's Not About the Bike, by Lance Armstrong.
Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
By now the widespread incidence of corruption and illegal use of performance-enhancing drugs in professional cycling is well known. This book provides one of the best accounts of how it came about, from the inside.

Tyler Hamilton was a top-ranking racing cyclist who was famed for his endurance and ability to tolerate pain. He finished fourth in the 2003 Tour de France, in spite of riding with a broken collar bone for most of the race—an injury that made him grind eleven of his teeth down to the roots because of the pain.

During his time with the U.S. Postal team he was a close associate of Lance Armstrong, whom he got to know exceptionally well. His support played a major role in helping Lance to win the first three of his seven victories in the Tour. Tyler won the gold medal in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, but six weeks later his career came to an abrupt end when he failed a doping test. He eventually confessed to having used drugs for years, throughout most of his career; he also made it clear that most professional cyclists of the time, including Lance, had done the same.

The book lists two authors, Tyer Hamilton himself and Daniel Coyle, a journalist who came to know Hamilton well. Coyle fills in some of the background in Chapter 1 and provides footnotes throughout, but the bulk of the text is by Hamilton himself. On this evidence he is a good writer - I didn't get the impression that the book is ghosted. The narrative is compelling and provides a vivid insight into what professional cycling at the top level felt like at this time. At the centre of the story is the doping, of course, but there is also plenty about the cycling itself.

In Chapter 2 Hamilton starts by describing his early life and how he got into cycling. He met Lance early on, before his illness, and beat him in a race. Next day Lance congratulated him and that encouraged him to think he might one day make his mark in racing. Some time later came an invitation from Thomas Weisel to join a team he was building with the intention of winning the Tour. This was to be Postal.

When the new team arrived in Europe in 1996 they quickly realised that they were nowhere near the standard they would have to achieve to be invited to participate in the Tour, never mind to win it. Their training intensified. Lance was looking remarkably big and strong but then came the news that he had been diagnosed with testicular cancer and might not even survive.

In 1997 Tyler began his doping under the supervision of the new team doctor, Pedro Celava. He started by giving Tyler a testosterone capsule. Tyler agonised about taking it but in the end he did, and before long he progressed to erythropoietin (EPO. which they nicknamed Edgar, from Edgar Allan Poe). This is a naturally occurring substance which boosts the haematocrit—the number of oxygen-carrying red cells in the blood. At that time it was undetectable by testing but the timing of the injections had to be carefully adjusted to avoid causing too big a rise in haematocrit—it had to be kept below 50 per cent.

Tyler describes the rationalisations and euphemisims he used to himself to suppress his sense of guilt as he took this course, but he makes it clear that the only choice he had was to dope or to get out of the sport. He was able to persuade himself that it wasn't 'really' cheating, and, anyway, if he didn't do it he had no hope of competing with the other riders who did, and there wouldn't be a place for him on the team.

He has an interesting discussion of a question that might occur to some readers: would it be better if the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) simply gave up the struggle and accepted doping for everyone? This might seem logical, if defeatist, but Tyler explains that it would be unfair because there is a wide range of individual responses to the drugs; not everyone gets the same benefit.

Lance rejoined the team in 1998 after his recovery from cancer, and he and Tyler shared a room so Tyler got to know him well. He comes across as ruthless and intensely competitive to the point of obsession, yet also surprisingly insecure, thinking that all his competitors were out to do him down unless he got in first. Hence his commitment to doping. We get a detailed and often comic description of the routines the team used to achieve this; in fact, it wasn't difficult, because the surveillance in the early years was laughably incompetent. Even so, there were a few close shaves.

Eventually relations with Lance deteriorated; the two fell out irretrievably and Tyler moved to a different team, where he continued to dope. His eventual downfall came about, ironically, from an apparent mistake on the part of the UCI testers. They accused him of having had a transfusion of someone else's blood. This was impossible and the reason for the finding was never fully explained, but it made no difference; Tyler was out.

At first he resisted his expulsion by every means he could think of and tried to get back into the sport, but in the end he decided to come clean and reveal the whole story of how the doping scam worked. This, of course, involved Lance among others, and a difficult and stressful encounter took place in public between the two men.

Tyler's marriage broke down and he became severely depressed for a time, but in the end he remarried and made a new life for himself as a sports coach. There is no self-pity in this book and no self-exculpation, but in the end the reader is left with what is probably an unanswerable question: what would you have done in his situation?

26 February 2014


%T The Secret Race
%S Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs
%A Tyle Hamilton
%A Daniel Coyle
&A Bantam Press %C London
%D 2012
%G ISBN 8780593071731
%P 290pp
%K cycling
%O hardback


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