Commentary: Tyler Hamilton and The Secret Race
There is a lot of blood in The Secret Race. Over the course of nearly 300 pages, former professional cyclist Tyler Hamilton recounts the story of his career and the multitudinous ways he chose to dope in pursuit of victory. The story is told in the first person, and in effect, Hamilton is saying, here is what I saw and this is what I did.
The result is the most detailed and credible account we yet have of the cycling and doping world during the period when Armstrong reigned over the sport and won his seven Tour de France titles.
Hamilton portrays his decision to dope in 1997 as a desire to be part of the A-team and to ride the big races at the U.S. Postal Service team. He saw the white lunch bags the other riders received. He wanted one too. The narrative traces Hamilton’s EPO-fueled rise, and recounts the laughably simple measures he took to avoid testing positive. He hid from out-of-competition tests and kept tabs on when he was “glowing.” He learned to inject EPO straight into the vein, because it cleared faster.
Throughout the early part of the narrative, the book tries hard not to be about Armstrong, but it’s impossible to avoid him once the Texan joins the U.S. Postal team in 1998. In this account, Armstrong is central to running the U.S. Postal Team and to directing the team’s doping program.
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Hamilton and Coyle portray Armstrong as driven to win and suspicious of rivals — and those rivals often turned out to be his own teammates. Armstrong’s oft-reported vindictive side is on full display here. When Hamilton beats Armstrong’s record on a training climb in 2001, shit gets real. From then on, Hamilton’s days on the team are numbered, and he says in the book that he rode the 2001 Tour on bread and water.
As Hamilton’s career unfolds, the testers start to catch up. A test for EPO, or Edgar in the too-clever language of this twisted doping world, emerges in 2000. The test doesn’t end the doping, that would be too easy. Instead, the team switches to transfusions before the 2000 Tour. In Hamilton’s depiction, Armstrong plays a key role in the setting up the program for his team. In this, as with all things, it seems that Armstrong is the ring leader.
If a man comes to you and suggests that you should give him some blood to store so you can ride a bike faster, you should almost certainly say no. People! This is a very bad idea! It involves big needles and lots of running around Europe with secret cell phones and loitering about in shitty hotel rooms. Did they have secret decoder rings? Because really, that seemed like the only thing that was missing.
At times, the arrangements read as farcical, like an absurd spy-versus-spy game from a boys’ summer camp. Until that is, you remember just what it is that they were doing. Hamilton spells out the process of blood doping in all its ghoulish details: How the blood feels cold when it first re-enters the body, how he had to learn to race differently, and just what happens when it all goes wrong. I could probably have gone my whole life without knowing what happened when Hamilton transfused a “dead” blood bag.
That blood doping became the norm, that it became “what professionals did” is a sign of just how fucked up cycling became at the top level during those years. Hamilton portrays the turn to transfusions as no real turning point at all. He was already doping with “Edgar,” so why not transfusions?
Think about this, for a minute. All those blood bags, blood bags in soy milk containers, blood bags in refrigerators that had to be watched in case the power went out, blood bags thrown in a ditch by the courier who almost got caught by the gendarmes, blood bags packed in a dog’s kennel, blood bags frozen in Siberia, blood bags full of dead cells, blood bags filling up, blood bags emptying, blood bags and more blood bags. There’s so many of them, actually, that the authors abbreviate them to BB’s. I took a BB, I gave a BB, I lost a BB.
According to the Guardia Civile report on Operation Puerto, there were forty-one riders working with Fuentes. For perspective, the Tour de France field is 189 riders, and Fuentes was not the only game in town. Through it all, no one ever stopped and said, you know, this is a really stupid idea. Taking blood out, putting it in the gynecologist’s freezer, transporting it around Europe, putting it back in. It’s amazing it took so long for anyone to catch on. It’s also a miracle that no one died.
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Where were the adults in this story? Oh right, they were the ones introducing the riders to people like Fuentes. It was never quite clear until now how the riders found Fuentes, because he would hardly have advertised in the phone book. Blood storage! Cheap! Reliable! The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported a meeting that included the Fränk Schleck, Bjarne Riis, and Eufemio Fuentes, but everyone involved denied it.
Hamilton smashes down that Berlin Wall of denial. He confirms that Riis served as the conduit between Hamilton and Fuentes. Surprisingly, the elusive Luigi Cecchini comes out squeaky clean in this company. In Hamilton’s experience, Cecchini truly only gave training advice. He left the dirty work to others like Fuentes.
Such is the pattern of Hamilton’s account. So many things that were hinted at and suspected turn out to be true, at least according to Hamilton. Remember the rumors during the 2004 Tour that the UCI had warned Hamilton about his blood levels? Hamilton confirms that it actually happened. Or how about the one about how Armstrong may have tipped the UCI off on his rivals? Yep, it appears that happened, too.
Hamilton’s narrative serves to illuminate the Landis story, also. In this account, the sulfurous anger that emanated from Landis after his positive at the 2006 Tour de France is placed in context. Remember how Landis wanted to take a sledgehammer to the whole system?
By the time he tested positive in 2006, Landis knew that Armstrong was in the habit of setting up his former teammates with the UCI. He knew, because according to Hamilton’s book, Armstrong told Landis about dropping the dime on Hamilton. Landis may also have expected his positive to disappear as Armstrong’s did in 2001. Little wonder Landis ultimately became the goad that pushed the anti-doping mule to move against Armstrong.
The Hamilton book works overtime to portray Landis as a hero, or at least, as a rugged individualist who refused to be cowed by Armstrong. It’s worth remembering that the Landis defense was at times an ugly thing to witness. In particular, his efforts to intimidate Greg LeMond on the eve of his arbitration hearing owed little to the high road.
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Hamilton tries hard here to make the case that everyone was doping, and consequently, that the top level of the sport was a level playing field. He says it several times, actually. While he makes a compelling case that many top riders during those years had a blood bag or several in his refrigerator, Hamilton’s level playing field argument reads like a weak effort to justify his choices, especially set against the stark retelling of the details of his doping regime and the rewards he gained by it.
Everyone may have been doing it, but not everyone received the same benefit. Joe Lindsey’s interview with Jonathan Vaughters does a good job of starting to explain why this was so. Additionally, not every rider could afford the same services, as Hamilton’s account shows. Fuentes offered his “Siberia freezer” to just four riders: Hamilton, Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, and Alexandre Vinokourov. It is no coincidence that outside of Lance Armstrong, they were likely four of the most highly paid riders in the sport at the time.
The level playing field assertion also sets up the “everyone was doing it, so there was no choice” circle jerk. There are always choices. Always. There just might not be have been a choice if you wanted to win the Tour de France, which Hamilton so obviously did. Life is choices and trade-offs. Hamilton could have stopped with the needles and blood bags and given up that six-figure salary. He could have travelled back to the United States and gotten a job. But he didn’t.
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A close reader of the European press during these years will recognize much of the information here, but at the time, it was scattered throughout the European press like Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs. Following them meant tabbing from L’Équipe to El País to Le Monde to Gazzetta dello Sport to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and back again.
The Hamilton-Coyle account assembles those bread crumbs all in one place and all in one language, and it should be much more difficult to discredit this account. Certainly Armstrong and his acolytes will keep trying, but the weight of details here make it difficult to challenge Hamilton’s credibility. I finished it with few doubts that Hamilton did what he said he did.
The first-person narrative makes the book an accessible read, but it’s also one of the weaknesses of the book. Some of the most valuable material is written in Coyle’s voice and dumped into the footnotes. I mean, at least it’s there? But, I wanted more of those details.
For example, buried in the fine print is a possible explanation of the Hamilton blood doping positive. The note cites Ashenden and explains that it was a multi-step and time-consuming process for Fuentes to freeze all those blood bags. Ashenden suggests that Hamilton’s positive resulted from an error in that process. It’s one of the more convincing explanations I’ve seen, but here it is a footnote.
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In the end, Hamilton chooses to turn this long, sordid tale into one of redemption. He tells an anecdote about riding his cruiser around Boulder. A dude rides by in a “dopers suck” jersey. Hamilton chases him down. I’m an ex-doper, and I don’t suck, says Hamilton. It’s intended to demonstrate that Hamilton has come to terms with it all. The truth shall set you free, Hamilton says, and proceeds to detail how much better his life is now that he has told the truth of his career. Which is nice. People should find happiness in their lives.
But by this point of the story, it’s hard to avoid thinking about the riders who did not eat the cookie, the riders who passed up the red eggs and the Edgar. They rode for smaller teams or did not ride at all. Those riders never made six-figure salaries. They aren’t buying houses in Missoula. But those things can not all be laid at Hamilton’s door.
For if there’s a lesson in this sorry story, it’s that individual ethics only go so far. Institutions matter. According to this account, cycling’s institutions were rotten through and through. The team managers who appear in Hamilton’s account helped, rather than hindered, his efforts to break the rules. The UCI comes off even worse. Positive tests like that of Armstrong at the 2001 Tour de Suisse disappear for a price, and the rules bend until they break. A community can only finally be as ethical as the institutions and people who govern it.
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As they tell the story of the Novitzky investigation and the Landis confession that set it off, Hamilton and Coyle quote the book of Numbers from the Old Testament. “Be sure your sin will find you out.” In the context of their story, the verse serves as a device to explain Landis’s unwillingness to bow Armstrong’s pressure and his decision to tell the full story to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
The book of Numbers tells the story of the Israelites’ journey to the promised land. After they lose faith, a generation is condemned to wander in the wilderness, and it remains for their successors to reach the promised land.
As a consequence of both their own choices and the failures of the institutions that surrounded them, Hamilton’s generation of riders raced through a wilderness strewn with needles and populated with charlatans. Hamilton’s book is a cautionary tale. It tells the story of how so much went wrong. Now it’s time for a new generation to write their story. We can only hope it will turn out better than the last one.