The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton

The subtitle to Tyler Hamilton's book, The Secret Race, is Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France. It makes for a sexy bit of marketing - look, see the underbelly of the most celebrated bicycle race in the world - but it isn't accurate. It wasn't just the Tour de France, it was in every race for a decade and probably still goes on today.

First, a bit of background. 

Tyler Hamilton is a former elite cyclist and gold medal winner at the Athens Olympics. He rode side by side with luminaries in the biking world like Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis. He holds records - tainted now, by the doping - for some of the toughest bike climbs in Europe.

Hamilton (with Daniel Coyle doing a fine job of writing with him) makes it clear from the outset that every cyclist is beset by the same choice, namely, to dope or to find another profession. Doping is that pervasive in the cycling world.

Often, we hear any excuse that everyone does it. In the case of doping, this was literally true. One of the revelatory passages in the book was a discussion of the speed of the race compared to previous years, the improvement, and subsequent drop-off as the USADA and WADA became better at regulating the sport. It becomes very clear that the entire peloton doped, not just the leaders. 

In part, The Secret Race reads like an instruction manual for doping. Hamilton recounts the drugs used (testosterone, EPO, cortisone) and the use of transfusions to boost performance. He's honest in this, naming names of athletes who doped with him, doctors that assisted, team owners that wanted winners at any cost. 

Unsurprisingly, the science of catching the cheaters always lags the doping culture. The cloak and daggers aspect of doping, the habits built by seeking every possible advantage, keeps smart, if unethical, men alert to possibilities. 

Hamilton does nothing to spare himself. An under-current of his depression runs through the book, and you feel for him when you encounter it. As he noted, though, the depression never struck when he was on the bike. He talks of his successes, his fall-out with Lance Armstrong, the power of the group to ostracize, the failure of his first marriage. 

The general reception for the book looked to define it as an attack on Lance Armstrong, with front cover blurb from Outside magazine saying, "The Secret Race isn't just a game changer for the Lance Armstrong myth. It's the game ender. "

I disagree. The book delves deeply into the Armstrong mythos only because the two cyclists, among the best in the world, were intertwined the same way Steve Scott, Steve Ovett, and Sebastian Coe were. Hamilton tells his story, not to point a finger at other riders, except to say, "This was/is the reality."

Sadly, the doping obscured the truly remarkable performances these athletes would give. Once on the bike, with everyone doped to the gills, the races still devolved to who had the most heart, was willing to suffer the most, to fight the hardest to win. 

Tyler exhibited plenty of championship qualities while astride the bike. Now he moves on, a bit late to be called a truly honest man, but certainly a reformed one. Sometimes, that takes more courage.



{Photo credit to Wikipedia}