Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs by Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle

It feels strangely personal to be writing a review of Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle’s book The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs. 

Years ago, my husband and I fell in love on many 50-mile bike rides, and spent hours, weeks and years enraptured by Lance Armstrong’s seven wins of the Tour de France. If former Armstrong cycling team member Tyler Hamilton's accounts are true, and icons of the sport, including Lance Armstrong, LeMond, Indurain, Landis, Contador, Ullrich are all doping “cheaters,” then I feel cheated of important parts of my history, and that hurts.

Hamilton, who along with many other riders has confessed to the use of performance-enhancing drugs, presents damaging stories about  the UCI (International Cycling Union), and prolific doping at the highest ranks of professional cycling. Hamilton and co-author Coyle portray Armstrong as a particularly arrogant mastermind of deceit who took the unmatched seven Tour wins illegally, and at great cost, by injecting himself with drugs, popping pills, and administering blood transfusions. Hamilton then excuses the entire industry by saying drugs just level the playing field - if you are winning, you are doping (everybody does it).

As you may know, the press has dogged Armstrong for years about performance-enhancing drug use, in spite of the fact that he has never failed a drug test. Armstrong recently relinquished his seven Tour de France titles saying that he just didn’t want to fight anymore. The Secret Race provides Hamilton's version of the backstory that leads up to Armstrong’s decision to give up his seven Tour titles. Regardless of what happens, Lance Armstrong has been such a hero to so many – and will remain a hero for his work through LiveStrong.

I was interested in why Daniel Coyle (pictured left), a highly regarded journalist would partner with Hamilton in writing this book. Of course it could just be about the money for both of them.  I did, however, find Bicycling Magazine’s interview with Coyle interesting, and the below excerpt in particular:

Bicycling: As you mention, it’s a dark book. Some of the things that are described in it are horrible, almost ghoulish. Were you surprised about the depth of the doping and deception?

Coyle: Frankly, not really. Semi-surprised would be a good term. To me it’s a larger human story. Look at Wall Street. After deregulation those guys made terrible greedy decisions because they were part of a bad culture. It’s like what (Jonathan) Vaughters said: This is what happens when there’s no auditing. It’s a larger fabric of the way people behave in a corrupt culture. We know people are capable of astonishing things, if there’s a cheat-or-be-cheated mentality. You have the UCI in a position of promoting the sport and regulating it. There’s no way they’d have done a good job. And then along comes a guy like Armstrong who’s a great story and is going to drive all this interest in the sport. There are some situations where people manage to restrain themselves from those natural urges to cut corners, but for a lot of people the attitude is, “Why kill the golden goose?”

When I watched this year’s Tour Armstrong was conspicuously missing. It wasn’t a surprise that he didn’t ride, but what was shocking was that neither his photo nor his name were present. Armstrong and the US Postal and Discovery teams are legendary and a huge part of the history of the Tour, and their performance in the Tour brought a huge audience to the sport and tons of money. Without any mention of their and Lance Armstrong's winning Tour history, this year’s broadcast felt very strange and very wrong. Without a doubt, the doping scandals have cast a pall of sadness over the sport.

In reading Hamilton’s confessions about how doping both ruined and made his life wonderful, I too had conflicting feelings. Sometimes I felt like he had a choice, made the wrong choice, suffered the consequences, and was now gutting others to make a buck. Sometimes I felt they were all victims of an addiction. Not to drugs, but rather the addiction to winning and the power and money that comes with winning.

The book, and this review also feel achingly personal because I too am guilty of dishonesty. Aren’t we all? I like to think that my dishonesties are small and my guilt is large, but this book brought to the surface several large questions for me. Where does forgiveness stop and accountability begin, and perhaps more strangely, why is it in sports that it is legal to build a better bike, a better bat, a better helmet, but not build a better body? I am not going to get into these issues, but I did want to throw them out there because they were so present in my mind as I read this book.

The Secret Race is well-written, and Hamilton's stories of how doping is managed in cycling read like an espionage novel. If there weren't so many reports of doping from other sources I would write off Hamilton's book as sour grapes. Whether it is or not, I feel like the world of professional cycling is tainted, but for better or worse, like with the baseball doping scandals, this mess will probably soon just fade away because we desperately need our heroes.

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