“Secrets are poison” and Tyler Hamilton’s biography, “The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs,” is cycling’s equivalent of sucking snake venom out of a bite and spitting it out for the world to see.
Hamilton’s co-writer Daniel Coyle, also the author of “Lance Armstrong’s War,” distills meticulous research and hours of interviews with numerous individuals into a clear, gripping, unabashed expose’ on cycling’s lost decade of doping.
It is an indictment of Lance Armstrong, to be sure. Any anti-doping official can read through this volume and find rule violation after rule violation. But it is also an indictment of the system.
Hamilton makes a fool of the UCI and its anti-doping efforts, demonstrating how simple it was to avoid positive tests. “In fact, they weren’t drug tests. They were more like discipline tests, IQ tests. If you were careful and paid attention, you could dope and be 99 percent certain that you would not get caught.”
He lays bare the seedy underbelly of cycling, entering just as the UCI rolls out the 50% haematocrit limit in order to keep riders from pumping themselves full of so much EPO that their blood becomes sludge. He has his “thousand days” of being tortured by meaty sprinters hammering up alpine ascents at abnormal speeds before finally caving in at the hands of US Postal Service team doctor Pedro Celaya in 1997.
He describes an atmosphere where doping is not only rampant but openly discussed in the peloton, confirming anecdotes told by David Millar in his memoir “Racing Through the Dark.”
While David Millar’s memoir was a story of his personal journey from doper to advocate for a clean sport, Hamilton’s bio focuses mainly on squeezing out every single bit of detail in order to counter his years of blatant lies. By the end, you sense that he has wrung out everything he could, and the complexity of the tale makes it hard to call his claims false.
He describes a bumbling anti-doping system, constantly behind the curve. When the EPO test was introduced in 2000, the cheaters were way ahead of the game, although the efforts forced the inner circles of doping become more closed. They employed well-paid advisors such as Michele Ferrari, who, Hamilton alleges, were happy to provide methods to cheat the tests. It is glimpse into a world of powerful men with enough wealth and influence to apparently cover up a positive test, such as Armstrong’s alleged EPO positive at the 2001 Tour de Suisse, when those methods fail.
Hamilton’s time in Armstrong’s secret club doesn’t last long, and after he crushes Armstrong’s record time on the Mont Ventoux during the 2000 Critérium du Dauphiné, he is slowly ostracized, and eventually leaves the team for Bjarne Riis’s project, Team CSC.
There, he is introduced to Eufemiano Fuentes, now famous for being busted by the Spanish Operación Puerto, the man who would eventually become careless and prove to be Hamilton’s downfall.
Hamilton confesses everything about his years of blood doping, admitting to taking transfusions prior to his major victories in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Tour de France and Vuelta a España. The latter would ultimately expose Hamilton as not only a cheater, but a liar.
The book is a must-read for those who wish to understand the current events surrounding Lance Armstrong, and it will keep you in your seat for hours. However, if you are a cycling fan, read at your peril: it may be hard to enjoy watching the sport after getting through this book, because every stand-out performance, every heroic breakaway, every amazing ride will trigger a little doubt in your mind. After all of the blatant, bare-faced lies told by an affable rider like Hamilton, it will be difficult to trust any rider’s claims of racing clean.
Hamilton does not give the fans a happy ending. Armstrong’s war may still continue in the courts, and more details of the era are sure to surface. Hamilton may walk away into the sunset to his happy home in Montana, but he leaves behind the snake-bit patient shivering, delirious and feverish on the ground.