Wednesday, October 31, 2012

BC2012: The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle

I am so glad that I read this book. All the things I once loved about Hamilton are evident: his sincerity, his modesty, his dedication, and his honesty. Wait -- honesty? Well, at least I used to think he was being honest, and as he explains it, doping was taken for granted in cycling to the point where they didn't even think of themselves as cheaters. I have no reason to doubt his honesty now -- The Secret Race is the most detailed account of doping tactics in cycling that I've ever read. I can't imagine how or why anyone would make this stuff up.

I could write a book-length review of this book, but I'll just note a few things:
  • Hamilton gives a great description of bike racing that I've never heard before: "Each race is really a bunch of smaller races, contests that always have one of two results: you either keep up, or you don't."
  • Most cyclists' wives and girlfriends knew about doping. It made me wonder how Lance Armstrong handled his divorce from Kristin. Did he pay her extra to shut up, or did she shut up to keep the money flowing to her and the kids?
  • For years I've felt that Greg LeMond was just an old-timer who was jealous of Armstrong's success. Clearly I need to reevaluate that opinion.
  • As various cyclists got caught, I'd think Well, at least _____ is still clean. After reading this book I doubt that any of them were clean, certainly not any of the notable three-week grand tour riders.
  • I don't think Hamilton would call Armstrong an asshole -- he expresses a lot of admiration for him -- but after reading this book I know that's what I'd call him.
This wouldn't be a good book for someone who doesn't know much about cycling. Hamilton doesn't deliver the blow-by-blow excitement of the Tours he rode, choosing to focus on a few critical moments in his career and a few races that relate to the doping he describes. The ideal reader is someone already familiar with pro cycling during the 1996-2004 era. As one of those people, I got a lot of closure from The Secret Race. It answers a lot of questions that I had as well as many that I never would have thought to ask.

One thing I wondered about was how so many formal Postal riders got caught after they left the team. Hamilton lets former teammate Jonathan Vaughters explain that one:
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 cafe, it's predictable. The deadly mistake that Tyler, Floyd, Roberto [Heras], 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.
That makes sense, but for some reason it hadn't occurred to me before. Speaking of blood bags left in the sun, Tyler describes an instance during the 2004 Tour when he got a transfusion of bad blood, probably the most wince-inducing episode in the book.

The Secret Race is a lively account that is hard to put down. Coyle, author of Lance Armstrong's War*, does an excellent job shaping Hamilton's narrative and inserting notes from other sources. It's too bad the book couldn't have waited to include some info from the USADA report as well. I would recommend it to any pro cycling fan who wants to know what really happened in the sport during the Armstrong years.

* That is the most balanced book I've read about Armstrong, neither attacking nor glorifying him (he is treated fairly in this book as well). Introducing The Secret Race, Coyle says Armstrong was "okay" with Lance Armstrong's War, which IMO is probably the nicest thing he would say about any book not originating from within his camp. Coyle says people often asked him whether Armstrong was doping, and he said he was 50-50 with the likelihood rising as time passed. He considered doping to be too depressing and didn't plan to write about it again until Hamilton approached him.


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