Thursday, 16 May 2013

Book Review: The Secret Race - Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle

Just Let Them All Take Drugs And Leave Them To It

Wow, there a books that can really shake your understanding and beliefs in life. Some are very profound, the excellent Bounce book by Matthew Syed for example has changed how I raise my children and has made me assess my (lack of) limitations in life. The Secret Race has been so quite life changing but it has brought a whole new understanding to the soap opera that is cycling.

Tyler Hamilton was Lance's right hand man, for a period of time he roomed with him, he shared his aspirations and worries with him and he even doped with him. In this book Hamilton gives a first hand account of what it was like within the US Postal team and their organised doping. He also gives a full account of Armstrong and his personality, I never thought I would like him be I can't quite believe what a bullying nutcase he comes across as in the book.

My very wise wife has said to me in the past that they should 'just let them all take drugs and leave them to it'. Well it seems that they pretty much did. Hamilton says in his book that Armstrong was even caught for EPO in the Tour of Switzerland and the UCI swept it under the carpet - all for a $125,000 'donation' from Lance. Wow! It seems the authorities were so far behind the cyclists that they might have not bothered. Simple techniques like chugging down loads of water and simply pretending to not be in worked getting around drugs tests. Also they knew what time the testers were allowed to turn up so they would just try to take the drugs outside of those hours. One tester even phoned before he came to make sure they'd be in!

However, many keen cycling fans will have heard about the Festina affair in 1998 where a member of the team was caught carrying a load of drugs across the border during the tour. This meant a massive clamp down and all the cyclists and teams were running scared of the testers and being caught. Armstrong thought everyone else would still be getting their EPO one way or another and so organised his to be delivered. However they were wrong and in recent times (since Lance's retirement) the samples taken from riders at the time were tested with the new tests able to catch the cheats. Only 8% tested positive. 8%! That means only 8% of the field had a chance against Armstrong in his first tour win.

This really changed my perspective on the whole thing. I've always felt it was a fairly even playing field but it obviously wasn't that year. As time went on everyone else was doping, in fact most of them were using the same doctor! In fact I can remember one year when everyone was attacking Armstrong and it was a real close race - that must have been the year everyone was wired up to the eyeballs!

Having read David Millar's Racing Through The Dark and now this book, there is a stark contrast. Millar felt he was pushed in to drug taking, that he had no choice, that he felt bad. I feel Hamilton's view point is probably a lot more common. He portrays it as a cool club that he wanted to be in, that it gave him belief he could win or more that he didn't think he could win without it. He saw a marked change in competitors and felt he wanted and needed to follow them.The irony being that one tell-tale sign to him was one person's improvement over another athlete. It turns out that at that point that cyclist wasn't doping, he was just on good form but I guess this is why drug taking gave them the belief.

I think at the moment there is still a lot of drug taking about. The course for the Vuelta was so punishing but some cyclists seemed to compete day after day at the same level, cycling up the steepest of mountains like they were racing on the flat. There was a phrase used by Lance that someone was doping, he said a result or a performance was 'not normal'. The Vuelta this year was 'not normal', let's hope the tour this year is.

Oh and do buy the book, you will find it fascinating.