Lamenting bad choices

2012-10-17 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

The Secret Race

Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle

Bantam Press

 

IT’S no secret that professional cycling was awash with doping throughout the nineties and 2000s. The United States Anti-Doping Agency’s (U.S.ADA) 1 000-page report on Lance Armstrong, which was released last week, provides a conclusive, comprehensive account of the scale of the systematic doping programme followed by Armstrong and nearly all his team-mates. It was a programme replicated through all the teams.

Tyler Hamilton’s book tells the story of how the doping system worked in its minute day-to-day details. He was on Armstrong’s Tour de France team, won an Olympic gold, got bust and banned, and eventually came clean in testimony to U.S.ADA, together with a couple of dozen others.

Hamilton says that he’s ordinary in every way, except that he’s “good at pain”, and it’s that quality that made him a superb athlete — without the aid of drugs. That changed once he joined U.S. Postal. There, to stay clean meant falling off the pace and being washed from the team. To be drawn into the doping programme was, therefore, inevitable, and indeed an honour because it was an acknowledgment of championship potential. A little testosterone pill as a pick-me-up after especially hard training, some EPO for oxygen uptake, and blood-doping during races, with a few variations on the doping theme from time to time.

“Glowtime” — the period after doping, during which riders would test positive — was timed exactly. Hematocrit levels (the indicator of EPO use) were closely monitored. If they went over maximum levels, injecting saline solution and drinking copious amounts of water brought them back within legal range. Doping took place at home, in hotels and in team buses. During the Tour de France, a motorcycle courier would carry the team’s stash to designated doping stations, sometimes in car parks and sometimes under the nose of testers. Riders watched each other closely, and doped-up performances were noted as “extraterrestrial”, or from “another planet”. No one felt they were cheating, because everyone was juiced up.

The portrait of a professional cyclist that emerges is one of training, sleeping, watching your diet, clandestine trips to procure drugs, dodging testers, lying to everyone, and living in fear of miscalculating a dose, or your glowtime, and being bust.

While this is Hamilton’s personal story (and it’s profoundly moving in a tragic way), it is inevitably also a story about Armstrong. That he triumphed while on drugs is now beyond doubt, in spite of his protestations, and Hamilton’s account of those years is corroborated in every essential detail. Hamilton doesn’t take the opportunity to put the knife into Armstrong, but even so, the picture that emerges of the seven-time Tour winner is of an obsessive, win-at-all-costs, vindictive bully who beat the system. It isn’t pretty and it’s profoundly sad.

The Secret Race is as much an exposé of doping as it is an account of the world of professional cycling, with its hopes, dreams, triumphs and disappointments. But above all, it is a lament for a lost generation of ordinary people, extraordinary athletes, who made bad choices, because that’s the way the system worked. 

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