Sunday, November 4, 2012

Book Review - "The Secret Race"

NOTE: This post is rated R for mild strong language.


In this post I review 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.  I describe why I didn’t like the idea of buying this book; why this book is important and admirable; a general assessment of its readability and what it has to offer besides sordid doping tales; and the importance of the footnotes Coyle provides.  At the end I’ll address the obvious question of whether or not you should read this book.

Why I didn’t buy this book

I got this book at the library.  Of course I’ll pay good money for good writing, but I didn’t want to further enrich somebody who has made enough money already by cheating at sport.  If Tyler hadn’t doped, his career would have likely been short and/or mediocre and he’d have made tens of thousands instead of many hundreds of thousands of dollars, and wouldn’t have a book to his credit.  (As Coyle described in his forward, Tyler had approached him in 2004 about writing a book, similar to Lance Armstrong’s War, but about Tyler.  Coyle wasn’t interested:  “I liked Hamilton, and his feats on the bike were amazing and inspiring, but when it came to being the subject of a book, he was fatally flawed:  he was simply too boring.”)

If Tyler had pledged to donate all the profits from this book to, say, a junior development program for cyclists, I’d have bought a dozen copies and given them as gifts.  (I have no problem with a solid co-author like Coyle keeping his profits; after all, he never cheated.)  By donating his profits Tyler could have given back to sport he stole from, while also defusing the predictable argument that Lance’s legal team made—that Tyler was making up all kinds of lies just to make money selling books.

Why this book is important and admirable

We shouldn’t be too hard on Tyler for doping—obviously he wasn’t alone.  Indeed, one of the main points of the book is that practically nobody in that era could have made good money riding clean.  Whether or not that position is entirely true, it must be said that prior to this book, only one of the positive tests and rider suspensions of the last dozen years had yet led to a satisfying confession (and if Floyd Landis wrote a book, I might check it out too).  This sport has long lacked a complete picture not only of the shame and repercussions of getting caught doping, but of the trials and terrors of doping successfully.  Because of this lack, a rider of Tyler’s era could be forgiven for having taken the wrong message from rider suspensions—that you just better not get caught.

As mentioned a couple years ago in a blog post comparing Lance Armstrong to Eminem, I’ve long wished a rider found guilty of doping would come all the way clean, as Eminem has about his own drug problems.  Where are the tales, I wondered, of how scary it is getting a blood transfusion in a motel room; where’s the lurid life story, equivalent to Eminem’s, to scare our junior cyclists away from doping?  Where Eminem is brutally honest, doping cyclists—even convicted ones—have so often continued being as secretive as possible.

Well, I got my wish—this book gives plenty of gory details.  For example, Tyler describes a routine visit he made to Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes to have blood taken out of his body, to be transfused later:  “When the bag was full, I hopped to my feet.  I usually held my arm over my head for a few minutes, applying pressure with a cotton ball—but I had no time for protocol.  I taped on a cotton ball … and headed for the exit.  Then I was outside, on the streets of Madrid, racing down the street toward a cab, dragging my roller bag across the cobblestones, hoping I wouldn’t be late [for my flight home].  I was maybe two blocks from his office when I felt a strange wetness in my hand.  I looked down.  My hand was dripping with blood.  My sleeve was soaked.  I looked like I’d just murdered someone.”

Even more disturbingly, Tyler describes a botched transfusion of previously frozen blood he received in a hotel room during the 2004 Tour:  “[Fuentes] wasn’t there, so the Phonak doctors handled the transfusion; it went smoothly.  I went back to my hotel room to wait for Haven and Tugs to show up.  But a few minutes after I got there, I started feeling bad.  I got a headache, and felt my forehead:  I was burning up.  I had to piss, badly.  I looked down, expecting to see the usual slight discoloration from the [blood bag].  But when I looked down, I was pissing blood.  Dark, dark red, almost black.  It kept coming and coming, filling the toilet like a horror movie….  My fever kept rising.  My headache got worse.  Then I got up to piss again.  I didn’t want to look down.  Then I did.  Pure red.  Then I knew I was in trouble.  The bag was bad….  My body felt toxic.”

Beyond the service he performs in scaring the crap out of anybody who might think about blood doping, I admire Tyler for having the cojones to be so frank about Lance.  Obviously a vast amount has been written about Lance’s doping, but not as much about him being a bully, being insecure, and being a leader—probably the leader—in the doping culture of the last decade.  There is some very damning stuff in this book about Lance’s character, including something truly illuminating:  the notion that Lance was actually proud of his doping—of how clever he was at it.  For example, he came up with a plan to have EPO brought to his Postal team by motorcycle during the ’99 Tour de France.  One of his assistants, whom they called Motoman, would carry the EPO in a thermos and use his motorcycle to zip through the traffic and crowds.  Tyler writes, “Lance practically glowed when he told me about the plan—he loved this kind of MacGyver secret-agent stuff.”

Sure, the USADA testimonies of many other riders also portray Lance as a bully, but not in such detail, and it must be remembered that this book came before there was so much momentum to the story.  And of all the people in this world whom Lance hates—there must be many hundreds by this point—I can’t imagine a greater target for his wrath than Tyler has made himself by writing such a detailed account.

(It’s hard to imagine being literally afraid of any bike racer, but Lance is different.  He is the only athlete I’ve personally ever felt scared of.  I encountered him at the 2003 T-Mobile Classic in San Francisco, after he’d dropped out of the race, changed into street clothes, and given an interview.  He walked right by me, and I noticed his expensive leather jacket had a big pile of bird shit on it.  I almost tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Lance, man, some bird crapped on your jacket!”  But suddenly I had this feeling that if I laid a finger on him I’d be clobbered by his bodyguards.  (What kind of bike racer has bodyguards?)  Years later, because of Lance’s legendary vindictiveness, I was almost afraid to post, to this blog, an unkind spoof I wrote about his defense team.  Instead, I sent it as an e-mail to friends, claiming I came across the story in “Ladies’ Home Journal.”  A friend convinced me that a garage door wouldn’t fall on my head if I put it on albertnet, and so far he’s been right.  In contrast, I wrote a similarly brazen humor piece for dailypeloton about Floyd Landis, without ever worrying that he’d sic anybody on me.  I think if Floyd read that he’d probably just shrug, or maybe even laugh.)

Above all, Tyler’s book has helped the public understand how widespread doping was in that era, and he has brought to light the corruption above the riders’ heads that allowed doping to go on for so long.  I’m tired of reading about younger riders complaining that they’re bearing the brunt of all these confessions by the previous generation.  That’s a really narrow view.  All the Lance-era Americans who have recently confessed are helping to create a sport in which the younger dudes can be competitive without doping.  That’s a lot better career prospect than the “dope or quit” choice Tyler’s cohort was faced with.  Sure, many of the USADA witnesses have gotten a pretty sweet deal—only a six-month suspension, and they get to keep the big money they made during their dark past—but we can’t hold that good deal against them.  (What are they going to do—ask for a longer suspension?)  And in coming clean they still have to suffer the shame of confessing, and the hit to their reputation.  If the sport is actually cleaning up, the next generation will never have to go through all that.

How’s the read?

The Secret Race is a good read—depressing, but certainly engaging and well-written.  In this review I won’t dwell on the combination of fascination and depression I felt when reading about the doping itself.  Anybody who has read the rider affidavits on the USADA website already knows what I’m talking about.  Suffice to say, these guys did a tremendous amount of doping—more than I ever would have expected.

The prose in this book isn’t as razor-sharp as Coyle’s in Lance Armstrong’s War.  In a sense, I think that’s a testament to how well Coyle has allowed Tyler’s own voice to come through.  I get the sense that these really are Tyler’s words, and that Coyle’s main contributions are asking the right questions, drawing Tyler out effectively, and organizing vast amounts of anecdotes into a coherent narrative.  The book rings a lot more true than Lance’s autobiography, It’s Not About the Bike, which had a strong whiff of ghost-writer embellishment about it.  (Not that I didn’t enjoy that book, in my naïve rubber-bracelet days.)

Beyond the doping, there’s a lot of interesting day-in-the-life bike racer stuff in this book.  For example, there are anecdotes about diet.  Tyler describes having a meal in the presence of Doctor Ferrari, who was obsessed with the weight and body fat of the riders he coached.  “Eating meals with Ferrari was a nightmare,” Tyler writes.  “He’d eagle-eye each bite that went into your mouth; a cookie or piece of cake would bring a raise of the eyebrow, and a disappointed look.”  He also describes how Lance’s own discipline once let him down and he ate three pieces of cake:  “The other Postal riders watched him eat with a sinking feeling:  they know what was going to happen.  The next day in training was supposed to be an easy day.  But the cake changed that.  Instead, Lance had the team do a brutal five-hour ride, to burn off the cake only he had eaten.”  After Tyler left Postal, he continued to run up against the weight/diet obsession; his team manager Bjarne Riis advised him to “come home from a training ride, chug a big bottle of fizzy water, and take two or three sleeping pills.  By the time you woke up, it would be dinner, or, if you were lucky, breakfast.”

There are also some funny tales in the book.  Tyler describes the boredom of being at a training camp in Tenerife with new teammates who didn’t speak much English.  “We stayed in a big empty hotel on the top of a volcano; I roomed with Roberto Heras, and for almost two weeks we did nothing but ride, sleep, and eat….  We ate in the empty dining room.  We wandered the halls.  Roberto would try to say, ‘I am so fucking bored’ but since his English wasn’t great, he would say, ‘I am so fucking boring.’  That became our motto for the trip.  I am so fucking boring.”  

Another funny anecdote concerns the crappy camper that Postal had during the ’99 Tour, before they made it big.  It belonged to the team’s head mechanic, Julien deVriese.  “We called it Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, because everything shook when you drove; the cabinet doors tended to fly open on the gentlest curve; every hinge squeaked frantically; it was so loud that, when under way, you could barely talk over the din.  Julien had one rule:  No shitting in the camper.  He was very clear on this rule.  We could tell because every time we saw him, he would point his big finger at us and say, ‘No shitting in the campa!’ in a husky voice.  We informed Julien that shitting in the camper was likely to improve it.”

Of course Lance looms large throughout the book.  Tyler describes how, during the 2000 Dauphiné Libéré, Lance had an off-day on Mount Ventoux, and Tyler—with Johan Bruyneel’s blessing—soloed to victory.  After the race, Bruyneel went straight to the team bus, thinking only of Lance.  “’This was no big deal, man,’ Johan told Lance.  ‘It was probably the altitude.  Perhaps you have been training too hard, no?  We will talk to Michele [Ferrari]….’  After a few minutes of this, Johan asked, ‘Who won?’  Without looking up, Lance pointed at me…  That night at dinner, when everybody was toasting my victory, [Lance] would barely make eye contact.  It was like he was having an uncontrollable reaction, like an allergy:  my success in the race—which was good for Postal and therefore good for him—drove him bananas.”

Tyler describes how his ongoing improvement, and particularly a stress test he did with Ferrari in which he beat Lance’s record for a certain climb, began to make Lance feel threatened.  As a result, in the 2001 Tour, Tyler wasn’t given any EPO or blood transfusions, and thus struggled just to keep up, eventually finishing 94th.  In one stage, he struggled to make pace on the front:  “I felt a hand grab my jersey by the neck and pull me back, hard.  Lance’s voice, yelling in my ear at the top of my lungs.  ‘What the FUCK are you doing, Tyler?’ …  After that stage, Johan asked me to apologize to the entire team for my poor performance.”

Perhaps most illuminating of all is the very clear depiction of how the doping culture at Postal worked.  Nobody pushed the drugs on the riders.  Quite the opposite:  a rider wasn’t even offered them unless he made it into Lance’s inner circle.  Tyler describes the white lunch bags that these riders were given by soigneurs after a race:  “They were given only to the stronger riders on the team—Hincapie, Ekimov, Baffi, Robin.  The guys I thought of as the A team.  That’s when I felt a sinking realization:  I was on the B team.”

So when Pedro, the team doctor, finally offered Tyler a capsule of synthetic testosterone—a “red egg”—Tyler didn’t hesitate to accept it, and (at the time) felt no shame.  Quite the opposite, actually:   “The red egg was a badge of honor, a sign that Pedro and the team saw my potential.  I felt like this was a small step toward making the A team.”

Coyle’s footnotes

The Secret Race is a memoir, not an exhaustive journalistic exposé, but Coyle provides copious footnotes in which he elaborates on certain points, often citing other sources to validate Tyler’s claims. A good example is how Coyle describes the Catenay-Malabry doping-detection lab study that found EPO in six of Lance’s fifteen urine samples from the ’99 Tour.  The study itself isn’t news, but Coyle lines it up with Hamilton’s claim that that Motoman, the guy who delivered EPO to the Postal team, became exhausted and went home after stage 14.  “All samples taken after stage 14 tested negative,”  Coyle points out. 

While he’s at it, Coyle completely torpedoes the tired old “level playing field” argument that enables many diehard Lance supporters to ignore the importance of his doping:  “Perhaps more interestingly, it looks as though Lance was in the minority [of Tour de France EPO users] in 1999.  Of the eighty-one urine samples taken during the 1999 Tour that were not Armstrong’s, only seven tested positive for EPO, or 8.6 percent.”  Probably at least one or two of those positives were from Lance’s teammates.  In other words, Postal won the ’99 Tour largely because they were using EPO and most of the others weren’t.  Perhaps the others had been scared straight by the Festina scandal in 1998.  After the ’99 edition, noting what EPO could do for a former Tour also-ran (Lance had one 36th-place plus three DNFs), the other riders may well have decided it was “game on,” and went right back to doping.

(The notion that Postal’s EPO use in ’99 was the exception rather than the rule, and the notion that Lance pressured his teammates by claiming everybody else was doing it, is corroborated outside of this book by an instant-messaging transcript cited by cyclingnews between Jonathan Vaughters and Frankie Andreu.  The transcript—available on USADA’s website—was evidence in the SCA lawsuit of that year.  In the chat, Vaughters tells Andreu that Credit Agricole, the team he rode for after Postal, didn’t dope:  “So that’s when I realized Lance was full of shit when he’d say everyone was doing it.  As crazy as it sounds - [team leader] Moreau was on nothing.  His Hct [hematocrit] was 39.”)

Coyle’s notes are helpful when it comes to the matter of Tyler’s own impression of the risks he took, which may not be the same as Coyle’s impression.  To my mind, Tyler doesn’t always seem to grasp just how dangerous his doping truly was.  He lists cycling injuries he’s had—“elbow, shoulder, collarbone (twice), back, hip, fingers (multiple), ribs, wrist, nose”—and concludes, “When it comes to the risks of EPO, they tend to feel pretty small.”  He doesn’t seem to acknowledge the categorical difference between a relatively simple bone injury and the very complicated matter of blood chemistry.  I find it odd that he would compare the risk of crashing to the risk of doping even after the botched blood transfusion he describes, where he was pissing blood and running a high fever and had nobody to turn to for medical help. 

Coyle writes more frankly about the danger of blood doping than Tyler does when it comes to Tyler’s positive test.  Tyler doesn’t seem to have thought too hard about how he managed to have somebody else’s blood in his body.  He describes his defense, which was based on the test equipment or protocol being faulty, and seems to still doubt the veracity of the test. 

While Tyler doesn’t dwell on the question, Coyle does, in an extensive footnote:  “Presuming the blood test was accurate, how did someone else’s blood get inside Hamilton’s body?”  He cites Dr. Michael Ashenden’s analysis of the situation:  “Freezing blood is a multi-step procedure that includes several transfers and mixings with progressively stronger concentrations of glycol…  Because the cells are alive, you have to babysit this machine for hours at a time, and keep everything straight.  In a situation where Fuentes and his assistant, Jose Maria Batres (aka Nick), were handling the blood of dozens of riders, it would be possible to envision a scenario where Hamilton’s and another racer’s blood were accidentally mislabeled and/or mixed.  In addition, according to Spanish newspaper reports in 2010, Batres was suffering from dementia.”  I am struck by how lucky Tyler really was:  if the foreign blood he got hadn’t happened to be compatible with his, he’d be dead.

Should you read this book?

If you haven’t been glutted by all the rider testimonies against Lance; if you have been glutted but just can’t get enough of this guilty pleasure; if you’d like to get the perspective of a doping cyclist and an answer to the question “Why would you ever do that in the first place?”; if you’re looking for a way to find compassion for an entire generation of doping cyclists; if you’d like to get a feel for what it’s like, day-to-day, to be a world class pro rider; if you don’t mind reading something as depressing as it is gripping—then I think you should read this book.  But I’m not saying you should buy it.

1 comment:

  1. I bought the book. Notwithstanding my love for the sport and my despair for what it has turned into, I find drugs in sport to be a fascinating story full of contradictions and ethical grey areas. Hamilton’s book is a big part of the story, and his version is full of contradictions and grey areas.

    For example, he points out that one year all the top riders had comparable doping programs for the Tour, which leveled the playing field because no one team had a big advantage. He contradicts his earlier point that that someone who bumps up their hematocrit from, say, 43 to 50 is going to realize a greater increase in power than someone who goes from 47 to 50. The Pantani book points out that Pantani before drugs was unremarkable and the idea that drugs can’t turn pack filler into champions is clearly not true. So what playing field, in Hamilton’s mind, was leveled?

    He also uses the “What would you do?” query to lessen his guilt. This is not an honest question. What about the riders who did not become champions after they took drugs? If you were a so-so rider and then chose to take drugs and were still a so-so rider, what would you do? If Andreu was given the chance to choose again, what would he say? If you were going to get caught, what would you do? If it would make you a wealthy champion, what would you do? All of these are different questions and they all ignore the fact that when given the choice to dope, you don’t know what the answer will be. Better, sure, but by how much?

    There is no indication that Hamilton struggled with the choice even for a minute, unlike Zabriske and Vaughters. He talks about how he was raised to be truthful, yet lied to his parents and family for years while earning big money and winning medals. He may have been told to be truthful when he was growing up, but he certainly was not raised that way. Perhaps he saw honesty as a virtue, but not one that really mattered. His parents failed in that regard.

    Perhaps that part of him that allowed him to endure physical pain and suffering also allowed him to endure the psychological suffering of his bad behavior. Now he’s telling the truth and sharing his therapy with us. He’s a bad guy with a conscience, a villain with a heart, and that makes for a good story. And I do think bringing the story out into the open helps cycling.