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The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France Paperback – May 7, 2013
"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover," illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Learn more
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- First, the co-author, Daniel Coyle, knows his way around pro bike racing. He wrote Lance Armstrong's War: One Man's Battle Against Fate, Fame, Love, Death, Scandal, and a Few Other Rivals on the Road to the Tour de France, and his experience shows. More than just a story about Hamilton, "The Secret Race" weaves in all the significant doping scandals of the past 15 years. Although the publicity surrounding this book is driven by the interest in Lance Armstrong, the book exposes a sport-wide culture where doping was expected and the infrastructure to support it was easily accessible to the best riders.
- Second, the level of prosaic detail adds credibility. It's more than just a chronicle of what drugs were taken -- but also detail on how they worked; how they were concealed; how tests were beaten; the logistics of getting to and from the doping doctors; and the strategy of timing blood doping sessions to correspond with key stages of big races. Hamilton even details the bonus schedule he paid to his doping doctors for each major victory. Although I've read previous books on the topic, I was still surprised by the intensity of doping activities outlined here. It's the difference between having the story told by "outsiders" (investigators, journalists, team assistants) vs. "insiders" (someone like Hamilton who is finally willing to tell the story).
- Third, Hamilton's own personal story is believable. He helps explain why bike racers decide to dope, why lying about it becomes so central to their day to day lives, and what it takes to turn the corner and start telling the truth. The co-author's key challenge in this book is to make the reader accept the story of someone who lied for so long, and inevitably we have to wonder, "He lied then, is he telling the truth now?" The context provided here allows the reader to make that leap.
Two other individuals are worth mentioning. The first is David Walsh, the London Times journalist who wrote, From Lance to Landis: Inside the American Doping Controversy at the Tour de France, which outlined way back in 2007 what was happening inside pro racing during the "Lance Armstrong era." None of the recent doping scandals has been a real surprise to anyone who read Walsh's book. "The Secret Race" has a lot more detail, since it's told by a true insider, but without David Walsh, Paul Kimmage and a few others continuing to tell this story the facts likely would have never come out (One thing that's clear from "The Secret Race" is that the sport's governing body, the UCI, was never going to blow the whistle on itself).
[Nov. 2012 update: David Walsh's stories that laid out the original allegations against Lance Armstrong have just been released in a Kindle edition, Lanced: The shaming of Lance Armstrong, and coming soon is his new e-book, Seven Deadly Sins ]
The second person to mention is Andy Hampsten, another American cycling hero whose 1988 ride in the Tour of Italy is still legendary. Hampsten was competing at the top level of international cycling before the EPO era but then found himself out-muscled by back-of-the-pack competitors who suddenly transformed themselves, turbocharged by EPO and blood transfusions. For anyone who thinks that it's OK to excuse continuing coverups because "it was a level playing field; they all doped," it's worth reading Andy Hampsten's quotes:
"In the mid eighties, when I came up, riders were doping but it was still possible to compete with them...bottom line, a clean rider could compete in the big three-week races. EPO changed everything...all of a sudden whole teams were ragingly fast, all of a sudden I was struggling to make time limits. By 1994, I'd be on climbs, working as hard as I've ever worked, producing exactly the same power, at the same weight, and right alongside me would be these big-assed guys, and they'd be chatting like were were on the flats! It was completely crazy. As the 1996 season went by...everybody knew what was up, everybody was talking about EPO, everybody could see the writing on the wall."
Hampsten retired from pro bike racing at that time. Other racers made a different decision, and signed up for in-depth doping regimes; their story is told here. To believe that anyone raced clean and then won the Tour de France 7 times in a row at the height of the doping era seems to defy reality. To use a term repeated often in "The Secret Race," it would have to be "extraterrestrial."
Hamilton goes to great length to explain the "dopers" as human beings: e.g. people who have no choice in the matter. As a young pro, he felt he was decimated in his first big races by people like Bjarne Riis, who were clearly doping and riding at insane speeds up the steepest climbs. Through rumor, and eventually team support, he and others learn that to win in this game (cycling in the mid nineties to almost now), you had to deal with Edgar (a nickname for EPO), testosterone, and blood transfusions.
What's shocking in this book is not his candidness, but his continuing ability to empathize with Armstrong... a man who clearly doped and others (e.g. his former teammates, wife, ex-girlfriends), not just Hamilton, have gone under oath in saying as such. A man who vilifies him and continues to bully anyone who threatens to get near what turns out to be the truth. No matter what Lance does to Tyler, he still tries to paint him as a human being, instead of as a cartoon villain.
If anything, this book confirmed what had been rumored about in the industry for some time: Lance is a bit of a narcissistic jerk who really thinks he is entitled to greatness. (Take his phrase for when people doped too much or beat him "not normal" as if something was out of whack with the universe.)
This is underlined in his interactions with Hamilton and even his management of Postal and Discovery. Like the fact that Postal rode older bikes, was always short of equipment, etc except for Lance (someone was clearly selling sponsor goods, not Lance, but he had such control of things that it's sad that he didn't stop it).
You may think Hamilton is a liar (this book goes to great lengths to explain why none of them thought of doping as lying or cheating), but I'd posit that attitude as simplistic, naive, and asinine. Given the confessions of everyone from Jan Ulrich, George Hincapie, Floyd Landis, Johnathan Vaughters (who outed David Zabriskie, Christian Vande Velde and Tom Danielson) and even Riis himself, this is probably much closer to the truth than Lance cares to admit.
In fact, I too took a stupid naive view that "Lance didn't dope" or "everybody did it so it doesn't matter" until I read this book. Armstrong is clearly a bully who is cruel and vindictive (like how he threatened to sour Lemond's deal with Trek when Lemond spoke out against him).
This book merits your attention. Hamilton is not the rich, successful racer that many seem to think he is. He is not just trying to make money and, if anything, the doping culture around professional cycling is a sad, dark burden and robbed him (and others) of their dreams as much as it helped them. I think he's far more honest and considerate than people give him credit for and this book is a testament to his character (also these stupid, naive "he lied once" statements are childish and belong in saturday morning cartoons, instead of unfairly burdening real human beings who are faced with complex choices).