By Roger Childs
The tests are easy to beat. We’re way ahead of the tests. They’ve got their doctors and we’ve got ours, and ours are better. Better paid, for sure.” Tour de France cyclist and Olympic gold medalist Tyler Hamilton
Tyler Hamilton spills the beans
Soon or later everyone gets popped (tests positive for drugs). Tyler Hamilton was popped in 2004 after the Tour of Spain and the Athens Olympics where he had won gold in the time trial. Plenty of other top cyclists had tested positive before and after this time, but the big fish, Lance Armstrong, held out.
A lot of fellow bike riders and journalists claimed that Armstrong was probably guiltier than anyone, but it was only in January 2013 that he realised the game was up and confessed on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
In 2011 Tyler Hamilton, a former Armstrong teammate, decided to tell about his experience of blood doping and drug talking, in collaboration with well known cycling writer Daniel Coyle. The result was The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups and Winning at All Costs.
Many of Armstrong’s former team mates had testified against him, however it was Hamilton’s book that proved to be the tipping point in destroying the reputation of the seven time winner of the Tour de France and the most famous name in modern cycling.
The decision to tell all
If you shut up the truth and bury it under the ground, it will but grow and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow everything in its way. Emile Zola
This wisdom from the early twentieth century French writer is quoted at the beginning of the book and sums up Hamilton’s dilemma. He had been brought up to tell the truth and his father told him that if they had a family crest, there would be one word on it: HONESTY.
Sadly, like hundreds of other cyclists, Hamilton, quickly became part of the doping fraternity. The reality was that in the 1990s and 2000s you either took the drugs and had blood transfusions, or you were destined to be at the back of the pack. He also became part of a massive deception where charges of doping were always denied.
After being popped, retiring, going through a marriage break up and suffering depression Hamilton decided he could no longer live the lie. He made contact with Coyle about a tell-all book. The writer said he would collaborate on three conditions
- No subject would be off limits.
- Hamilton would give me access to journals, photos and sources.
- All fact would have to be independently confirmed where possible.
Tyler Hamilton agreed without hesitation.
The outcome is a book which is a fascinating and riveting account of the secret world of professional cycling in the late 1990s and 2000s. Hamilton writes the fluent narrative and Coyle provides extensive footnotes with background material and verification of facts and incidents. Not surprisingly, it was the 2012 winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year.
The murky, world of professional cycling
The book reveals a world of elaborate deceit, law breaking, bullying, subterfuge, bribery, racketeering and bare-faced lying, as managers, doctors and cyclists pushed the boundaries to win at all costs. In the three big tours in France, Spain and Italy, as well as in the large number of shorter events on the professional cycling calendar, winning meant getting sponsors, monetary reward and fame. And to win you had to take performance enhancing drugs and dope to even have a chance.
New cyclists in a team, who may have wanted to remain clean, quickly realised that drugs were an essential part of the culture and necessary to be competitive. As Scottish cyclist David Millar explains I went from thinking one hundred per cent that I would never dope to making a decision in ten minutes that I was going to do it.
The Secret Race outlines the elaborate science of drug taking and doping, and the complicated arrangements needed to supply the riders and keep ahead of the testers and the law. He covers aspects such as:
- routine pill taking
- using EPO which improved performance by providing more oxygen carrying red blood cells
- injections of stimulants
- secret visits in disguise to a Spanish doctor to give blood.
- blood being stored and frozen to be transfused later before races
- hiding drugs in vacuum cleaners, at the back of fridges, under floorboard etc..
- secret codes and phone calls
- using a motor cyclist during races to drop off EPO to riders.
Mass deception at all levels
All the teams in the big tours were involved in what amounted to systematic cheating. Managers, doctors and riders were the big players in the complex web of deceit, however the cycling authorities and commentators frequently turned a blind eye to what was going on.
Generally on the issue of performance enhancing substances there was a code of silence amongst the cycling fraternity. They closed ranks when accusations were made. When a few brave former cyclists told the truth, like Irishman Paul Kimmage in his book Rough Ride and former Armstrong team mate, Kiwi Stephen Swart, they were ostracised by the cycling community.
However drug testing got better, police became involved and progressively more and more big names were popped. Many cyclists died soon after retiring from the effects of the drug taking and blood doping, and journalists and authorities became determined to see the sport cleaned up.
Tyler Hamilton comes clean
Confirmation of Hamilton’s testing positive came shortly after his 2004 Olympic gold medal. The game was up and in his home town and throughout the USA he quickly went from hero to zero.
His story is sad one, a tale of triumph, dishonsety, despair but ultimately redemption. A major theme of the book is how Lance Armstrong viewed his changing relationship with Tyler Hamilton from new recruit and trusted team mate, to hated rival and despised whistleblower. Armstrong emerges from the pages as an enigma; a man who could be a close friend, inspired leader and humorous companion but also capable of cruel deception, heartless revenge and ruthless humiliation.
Fortunately Tyler Hamilton, unlike many of his drug taking colleagues, lived to tell this incredible tale and to help clean up the sport he loves so much. The Secret Race is a compulsive read which both shocks and fascinates.