Review: "The Secret Race" by Tyler Hamilton

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

Published in hardback by Bantam Press, £18.99

Review by Wheelsuckers member Greg Russell

I didn't want to read this book. I had seen the snippets of the 60 minutes conversations. I had seen the previous denials and to be honest, between Hamilton and Landis, I was bored with what I thought was the case of two domestiques that were unable to accept their roles and work for the team.

Laurent Fignon touched on it in "When We Were Young and Carefree" regarding his former domestique Bjarne Riis when he won the Tour in '96. He said something along the lines of: He was a very good rider but he was no champion. He was right.

Cycling seems to be full of contradictions. The most striking being a team supporting an individual.

A rider makes a difficult decision to dope or not to dope. I had a difficult decision in whether or not to buy a book which essentially looked to be a last attempt to cash in on the Armstrong days and pad out the Tyler Hamilton retirement fund.

I bought the book. I didn't read it at first. I questioned my own morals for supporting a convicted doper. What could this book possibly offer me? I opened the thing and read the first page a few days later. The first page is not a full page. It's two thirds of a page. In it he mentions Lance Armstrong 6 or 7 times.

I put it down.

I'm all for reading about a person saying sorry and getting on with their lives. I read the Riis book and he agonizes over his decision to come clean. Not the one to dope. He doesn't go into that much detail but he does comes clean and does not throw anyone under the team bus.

I read on.

Mr Hamilton goes on to tell a story. As it unfolds I am reminded of just how much Armstrong was cycling back then. Everything was Lance this, Lance that. He couldn't possibly write a book about cycling in the last decade without mentioning the guy, let alone the leader of his team.

He doesn't say Lance made me do it although he gives plenty of examples where he was meant to tow the line and that meant doing whatever it took to win or you were out. This included (described in great detail) EPO, testosterone, transfusions. There were nerves about getting caught but not about whether or not they should be doing it.

Whatever you're doing, those bastards are doing more.

He tells a story. A good story. I think its a story that needs to be heard. There is one part where he talks about getting team transfusions before the stage on Mont Ventoux in 2000 where Armstrong sprints up to Pantani like he is going through Richmond Park. Watch the youtube video of it. It is amazing. As it turns out (if you believe Tyler Hamilton) is too good to be true.

He talks about the stage in which Lance won on Alpe du Huez. 10 minutes faster than LeMond and Hinault in 1986. LeMond and Hinault would have finished 40th. Here's where my perception of the whole Lance thing and doping changed.

It reminded me of what Fignon had said: "He was good but he was no champion."

It is said that with proper training and exercise, anyone can be an elite cyclist. A champion has a gift. Something extra. EPO gave everyone a chance to have that bit extra. In that sense, Armstrong himself was able to come out and win seven straight yellow jerseys. Was he even a proper champion? Here he is portrayed as a ruthless, win at all costs tyrant. In the end you feel sort of sorry for the guy and the image he had to live up to as expectations grew. Not something most of us would want or could do. In the doping era, perhaps it's this drive that made the difference in who was or wasn't a champion.

I do find it ironic that of all the guys that rode on Postal and Discovery over the years, the two (Landis and Hamilton) that got caught are the ones that spoke about the doping on the team. Others eventually did after they were subpoenaed in the Landis whistleblower case but they were forced to under oath.

This book was very easy to read in the end. Like these types of books it's a one sided story so in the back of my mind there was always the thought...Why should I believe a convicted doper? By the end of it it had changed to...Why not believe a convicted doper?

No one is going to come out and say "I sucked so I had to use EPO."

EPO gave and gives every rider a chance to dream big. If you were on Armstrong's team and saw the money and the treatment he was getting would you be jealous? I'd say no. It's this part of the book that bothered me before and after I read it. What good is it for cycling? Everyone has a role. Ego is a very real thing. Lance's may have been all the difference he needed to win 7 straight. I admire Hamilton for his honesty.

If I'm honest with myself, I didn't know much about Tyler Hamilton and quite frankly I would not have read this book if I didn't think I'd be provided a ghoulish glimpse into the all conquering US Postal Blue Train. It was a good read and I really enjoyed it.

Now I have my own morals to question for reading dirty stories from a convicted doper.


Wheelsuckers would like to thank Greg Russell for kindly submitting this review.

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Comment by Hue Le on October 25, 2013 at 9:05

I like your post, very passion, very touch about cycling and very emotional about those hidden secrets.

Comment by Andy Dawson on November 29, 2012 at 10:09

I see that "The Secret Race" has just won the 2012 William Hill Sports Book of the Year.

Comment by Greg Russell on November 3, 2012 at 15:51

Dave, great post. The bit about feeling great is very nice.

Comment by Chris Walker on November 1, 2012 at 22:29

Great stuff from David - I too felt myself empathising with Hamilton as I read this book. Yes, his attitude to Armstrong is ambivalent, but to me that makes his case all the stronger. He has every reason to hate Armstrong's guts, but he doesn't. Remarkable - if I'd been in that situation, I'd loathe and detest the man. I'm also glad that he's found peace. What a life - and he's only in his mid-thirties.

Comment by Dave Nash on November 1, 2012 at 21:23

A great and personal review Greg and I think your reaction to reading this book is one that will be shared by many cycling fans.

I've just finished reading the book and reading your post  I think you make some really astute observations, though I wouldn't beat yourself up about the morals of reading a book penned by a convicted doper.  This book, like David Millar's brilliant autobiography, Racing Through the Dark, offers an insight into a grim chapter of the sport that we, as fans of cycling, cannot and should not avoid. We all learn from such articulate and reasonable memoirs and only through understanding the motives and the mentality of the doper can we begin to understand why professional cycling was so consumed by a disease that so nearly dealt a mortal blow to the sport.

Fortunately, the omerta of the pro peloton has been ruthlessly exposed in more recent times and  the sport, though still in pain, is well on the road to recovery. Or at least we hope . . .

It is a great read - illuminating, honest, frightening. The facts are lurid, but are backed up by documents and witness statements that validate the claims made by Hamilton. He does not hold back and as co-author Dan Coyle concedes, Hamilton 'has given us sort of an all-access, backstage pass to the life of a pro racer'.

And what a life it was in the Armstrong era!  Doping, coupled with the 'win at all costs' mentality was so prevalent in the peloton, so openly discussed and acknowledged by the riders  that it seems quite amazing that these revelations are now only beginning to appear.

What The Secret Race really exposes is that that the sport was never a level playing field - Armstrong had access to the best 'doping doctors' in the World, the ear of the UCI board and the financial back-up to initiate what USADA have called 'the most sophisticated doping programme in sport.'  If he wanted to get rid of a trusted lieutenant and recruit new blood (excuse the pun) then he would make it happen. If, as Hamilton alleges, Armstrong tested positive, then he had the power to make the records mysteriously disappear. He bossed and intimidated the peloton and Hamilton is right to assert that the world of  professional cycling revolved around Armstrong's empire.

What the book also illustrates, and let's not forget this, is the total dedication of the riders in the US Postal tean, to both Armstrong and the success of the team as a whole. Hamilton's descriptions of their training schedules and the meticulous race preparation -  particularly the obsessive nature of Armstrong  - show that it was not only EPO, testosterone and blood transfusions that enabled the Texan to record 7 consecutive TdF victories. 

I have often, mistakenly, believed that dopers did not suffer the same degree of pain as those riding clean - that somehow doping allowed them to skip some of the suffering for the same level of achievement. One passage in the book put that to rest. Talking about a particularly arduous ascent of Mt Ventoux, Hamilton says he 'felt great' but he then goes onto clarify:

'When a bike racer says he feels great, he does not actually feel great.  In fact, you feel like hell - you're suffering, your heart is jumping out of your chest, your leg muscles are screaming, flashes of pain are moving around your body like so many strings of Christmas lights. What it means is that while you feel like crap, you know the guys around feel even crappier and you can tell through their subtle expressions, the telltale signs, that they're going to crack before you do. Your pain, in that situation, feels meaningful. It can even feel great.'

I love that passage and - doper or non-doper - you have to admire the mentality behind that statement.

My one criticism of the book (aside from the crude, unnecessary slight directed towards Jens Voigt)  is that the tone of Hamilton's current position on Armstrong is ambiguous: at times a little bitter and resentful, yet  full of empathy and even pity in other passages. Saying that, Hamilton never paints himself as a victim . He had a choice and he made what he felt was the right one at the time.  Hamilton grew on me as I read his story and I actually found myself (metaphorically) cheering the fact that he is now in a happier and far more honest place.  The final line of the book is as much a proclamation as to how he found his personal peace, as a message to his disgraced former team mate.  It is almost evangelical, but Armstrong, Hamilton firmly believes, will find his own salvation in telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  

Much has happened since this book was published and it is already struggling to keep up with the fast moving events that seem to change by the hour. Don't let that deter you from reading it though, as like all great autobiographies it will profoundly alter your perception of the person who wrote it. Highly recommended.

Comment by Greg Russell on October 29, 2012 at 14:46

Well said Chris.

Comment by Chris Walker on October 21, 2012 at 20:37

This was the book that confirmed to me absolutely that Armstrong was a cheat. Not only a cheat, but a thoroughly unpleasant man (which we all probably knew at some level). I've moved from a position over the years from hoping Armstrong didn't dope to being convinced that he did.

An absolutely explosive, unputdownable read. The detail is amazing. The fact that Hamilton had the guts to stand up to Armstrong and admit to doping does him enormous credit. This book alone has blown the whole thing wide open. I could not believe the scale, the duplicity, the intimidation, the conniving. Hamilton refers to the UCI obliquely, but they have an awful lot to answer for.

It's as if a spectre has been lifted from the sport. However, the opportunity must be seized to enforce a complete overhaul of the way pro cycling is run. Depressingly, I don't think it will happen.

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