"The Secret Race" a Review

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"You're like the thief who isn't the least bit sorry he stole, but is terribly, terribly sorry he's going to jail." -Rhett Butler, in Gone With the Wind

I have now read both of Daniel Coyle's cycling books, "Lance Armstrong's War" and (as co-author with Tyler Hamilton) "The Secret Race." As of now, here's some of the tell-all memoirs I'd like to read from retired bike racers:

-Miguel Indurain, because (at least in English) he is the most enigmatic, least-profiled superstar rider ever
-two or three sprinters, including Cavendish, because their training, goals, and attitudes are so different from that of grand tour teams (which were well-covered by Coyle)
-George Hincapie, because he has said so little, and unlike Hamilton, he was there from the beginning to the end of Armstrong's cycling career
-Jens Voigt, because Jens
-Jonathan Vaughters, as the consensus pick as smartest ex-Postal racer, and currently active rider (but more about Vaughters later)

I'm very far from an expert on pro cycling, and I have not read many long works on the subject, aside from Coyle's two-parter. But let me start with the favoured lay question about cycling:

Did Lance dope?

Almost certainly. The first-hand accounts, separate and together, by his former teammates and professional associates, sometimes in their own interests (as in the case of Hamilton's book), sometimes by accident when they did not realize they were being overheard (as in the case of the infamous text messages between Frankie Andreu and Jonathan Vaughters), and sometimes out of an absolutist sense of justice, and against personal interests (Betsy Andreu, and eventually Frankie Andreu) all speak of highly organized doping within US Postal that absolutely included Armstrong, along with almost all other members of US Postal. Further, it appears that every other Tour contender of that era has been plausibly linked to doping

WIth the dull question out of the way, I found "The Secret Race" fascinating. I believe it is the most widely corroborated memoir of any tell-all from the peloton. The writing is very good, which I attribute to Coyle, but I think he achieved his goal of writing in Hamilton's voice, not his own.

This book is an excellent primer on what it is to race in the pro peloton, and particularly in the Lance Era, and particularly with US Postal and Hamilton's other teams. It answered a lot of questions about the specifics and technicalities of doping. For me, a key revelation was how simple the protocols for both doping and test-beating were.

The doping that mattered was EPO at first, and autologous blood transfusions later, and testosterone (pills, then patches) throughout. There was some sophistication about the dosing protocols (both to avoid testing positive, and to maximize effect), but not that much. More exotic treatments, including perfluorocarbon synthetic oxygenators and Hemopure (a blood substitute) may have been present, but it's not clear they were much used or especially effective. HGH, steroids, and other stuff seem to have been virtually irrelevant (and little used), at least to grand tour racers.

Beating the drug tests is hilariously summarized as "wear a watch…keep your cell phone handy…know your glowtime…none of these things are particularly difficult to do."

There are many more lovely little anecdotes and bits of gossip from the pack. The poor, burned-out doping courier US Postal used for the 1999 Tour de France; the way there was an inner circle and outer circle even within US Postal; the fact that except for Lance, most USPS riders were using shabby old bikes and helmets, apparently because of corruption within the team. These tidbits are fun and add spice to this story, and I will not try to cite all the best bits.

As you would expect from a story by Hamilton, it dwells a lot on Lance Armstrong. Hamilton was a key part of Armstrong's story, and Armstrong was an even more important part of Hamilton's story, as a teammate, then rival, then mortal enemy. Armstrong is the villain here, especially given incidents where he tried to rat out Hamilton (and others) for doping, an infamous (and previously publicized) confrontation between Lance and Tyler at a Boulder restaurant, and other examples where his win-at-all-costs reputation is darkly confirmed. But he is given a bit of the old more-in-sorrow-than-anger in this book, and Hamilton is careful to give Armstrong's incredible natural talent and the singular intensity of his training their due. I don't think it is said explicitly, but you get the impression that even in a completely clean ("paniagua", in the excellent slang of the pros) sport, Armstrong would still have been the dominant racer of the era.

And now, what of Tyler Hamilton? Considering it's his autobiography, he is a less sympathetic figure than you'd think. I don't really credit that to his profound honesty in this tale. He is, as far as I can tell, as honest about the facts as he can be, not obviously holding anything material back about his life as a pro bike racer. But in his descriptions of himself as a pro, the justice (or injustice) of his treatment when he got popped, and the fairness of what he did in doping to victory, I think he minimizes his own culpability. He lays out the facts in sufficient detail that they (and he) are there to be judged, but I think I judged his behaviour more harshly than Hamilton. I believe, in the end, he felt the choice was, at some point, to either dope and have a bike racing career, or to not dope and not have a bike racing career. I think, without being able to point to a particular quote in the book, he feels he made the right choice.

By way of comparison, his former teammate Jonathan "JV" Vaughters made a much more ambiguous choice. JV is quoted at length in the book, apparently the result of interviews with Coyle, and was obviously a key corroborator of many of Hamilton's stories. He gets, as you might expect from his reputation (Hamilton dubs him "the nerd"), he gets the most perceptive, fascinating, and funny quote in the book, a passage I'll quote in its entirety:

The thing to realize about Fuentes and all these guys is that they're doping doctors for a reason. They're the ones who didn't make it on the conventional path, so they're not the most organized people. So when they leave a bag of blood out in the sun because they're having another glass of wine at the café, it's predictable. The deadly mistake that Tyler, Floyd, Roberto, and the rest of them made when they left Postal was to assume that they'd find other doctors who were as professional. But when they got out there, they found--whoops!--there weren't any others.

I'll admit to loving this quote because it confirms one of my favourite aphorisms: cycling is not a professional sport. The doping in cycling, long thought of by fans and those in other sports as the most sophisticated and leading-edge, is in fact amateurish, the province of profiteering gynaecologists and their senile assistants.

I'm a big fan of JV, both as a twitter presence and as Directeur Sportif of Garmin-Sharp, Ryder Hesjedal's team. He is, in many ways, the example of an alternative path. JV, just before this book was released, made sure to publish his first unambiguous, public admission that he doped during his career. But while Hamilton played the game of doping, winning, getting caught, and fighting the charges all the way to the end, JV quietly left USPS, rode out his career as a clean rider, and founded a racing team that has now won at the highest levels, all while making an effort to be as transparently clean as any team ever. (I'm a fairly gullible guy, and it's possible JV is running one of the great long cons of all time, but I don't think so. His team has gone above and beyond the requirements for anti-doping testing, and according to this book, the biological passport and post-Postal culture in cycling may be working: it's no longer easy to manipulate blood values usefully. Most importantly, I think (and I think JV thinks) doping scandals are sponsorship repellents, while plausibly clean programs will attract sponsor money.

It's far from clear in Hamilton's account, but the amount of money these pros are making is not that impressive. Hamilton, one of the elite talents of the peloton, seems to have scraped into seven-figure territory for his best year or two, if you add up all sources of income. (Lance, always the overachiever, has apparently earned more money than any other pro racer ever, and probably more than anyone will earn for the foreseeable future. He was, above all else, a singularly marketable bike racer). In an alternate life, It's easy to imagine Hamilton as a high-achieving professional with a gift for winning semi-pro bike races. Given that he spent virtually every dime he earned as a bike racer while fighting his doping charges, he would have been ahead financially if he had never taken up the sport (or, for that matter, if he had accepted his suspension without a fight).

True to the book's title, Hamilton tells a lot of secrets, allowing a balanced and truthful description of what's really going on. The story needs to include doping in order to be the complete story, but it also describes all of pro bike racing in a clear way: the training, the eating (to Hamilton himself, a much more complex and important matter than dope cycles), and the racing, and the people. I recommend "The Secret Race" to anyone with an interest in the sport of cycling.