The Secret Race – Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle

As Tyler Hamilton relates it, ‘not normal’ was one of Lance Armstrong‘s stock phrases for commenting on something unexpected or out of the ordinary. In that vein – now there’s a doping-related pun for you – The Secret Race is not a normal autobiography. Nor is it a normal tell-all exposé. It isn’t even a normal confessional.

So what is this book? It is a no-holds-barred account which shatters the omertà, the code of silence, which has hung over cycling for decades like a thick fog and provides revelation upon revelation about the extent to which doping infected cycling during his career.

This is an autobiography in name only, as it defies most conventions of the genre. The cover features not the traditional head shot of the subject, but a smaller image of Hamilton racing against Armstrong, recognising the truth that this book is as much about Lance as it is about Tyler. There is no selection of childhood-to-retirement photos gracing the middle pages. And, after Armstrong, the most frequently referenced person in the text is Edgar Allan Poe – ‘Edgar’ being the riders’ code for EPO. (E Poe, geddit?)

Details of the nefarious practices employed both within Armstrong’s US Postal squad and the wider peloton come thick and fast. At times the narrative reads more like something out of a spy novel. Riders take ‘red eggs’ (testosterone). They talk in code using pre-paid (and therefore untraceable) mobile phones. A motorbike courier – nicknamed ‘Motoman’ – is used to ferry drugs to riders when needed. Blood bags are concealed in soy milk cartons in the back of a fridge. Used syringes are casually discarded in Coke cans. Armstrong and US Postal team boss Johan Bruyneel are accused of employing strong-arm political tactics to suppress positive tests and exert untold power over the entire sport.

The book takes us chronologically through Hamilton’s three years with US Postal and his subsequent stints with CSC-Tiscali and Phonak, through to his Olympic gold medal-winning ride and subsequent fall from grace, but it is less about the racing and more about the hive of activity surrounding the riders’ ‘training’. The 2002 Giro d’Italia, where he coped with a broken collarbone by grinding his teeth down – he needed to recap 11 of them afterwards – is glossed over almost as an afterthought but is testament to Hamilton’s uncanny ability to endure and embrace pain.

Similarly, his stage-winning ride in the stage from Pau to Bayonne in the 2003 Tour de France – a mammoth solo effort, again with a broken collarbone – is dealt with in matter-of-fact fashion. It was a victory widely considered to be one of the greatest solo rides in the Tour’s history, and one that most fans – myself included – still talk about in reverential tones. And yet, as Hamilton reveals, it was an achievement fuelled by an illegal blood transfusion.

And this is the crux of the matter for the reader. How does this book make you feel?

It left me feeling conflicted. I was simultaneously appalled and enthralled. Hamilton pulls no punches. His tone is neither apologetic nor begging forgiveness, merely factual and honest (a Hamilton family trait, as he explains up front). As such, by not looking for sympathy, I finished the book feeling nothing but sympathy for him. He comes across as an uncomplicated man, one who is fully aware that he reached a crucial decision point early in his career and – like many, many others – chose to dope to compete at the highest level. It was wrong. He knew it was wrong. But, as he himself posed during his infamous 60 Minutes interview last year: what would you do? If one is being truly honest, it’s a difficult question to answer.

Guided by the expert hand of Daniel Coyle – an author who once spent a year following Armstrong at close quarters to research a book about him – The Secret Race takes us through Hamilton’s career, his complex relationship with Armstrong and the substance of the seven-hour testimony he gave under oath in 2010. It’s a damning account of systematic deception and the extraordinary sleight-of-hand riders employed to avoid detection, and points the finger at many significant names in the sport both past and present – sometimes obliquely, at others in plain black-and-white. Let’s just say that Messrs Riis, Basso, Ullrich and Valverde (among others) will not be pleased.

Critically, Hamilton comes across as a credible subject. This is not hack-job tabloid sensationalism but factual testimony which lays bare a web of corruption which reached out across the entire peloton, with Armstrong the mother spider at its centre. Hamilton acknowledges that he will be seen as both hero and villain by people, while seemingly accepting that he is probably more of an anti-hero.

But at its core, The Secret Race is not about heroes and villains. It is a tale of highly competitive people who make choices about how far they will go to win. If you are a genuine fan of cycling, if you want to have your eyes opened about the sport’s dark underbelly, you must read this book. It really is ‘not normal’ – it is quite, quite extraordinary.

Rating: 10/10

Tweets of the Week Special: Lance stripped bare

Another of our Tweets of the Week Specials: this one is around the news last week that Lance Armstrong was not going to contest the USADA’s case against him and therefore was stripped of all seven of his Tour de France titles. Armstrong has always been a polarising figure in cycling – it seems the people who hate him, hate him with a vengeance, whereas the people who love him would walk through fire for him.

As is my wont, I have gathered together tweets over the past few days that illustrate each side of this. There are some major themes here that are not necessarily to do with Armstrong himself, but the fall-out around him, which for me is much more interesting and important. As for my opinion on this, I don’t care so much about LA – I do care that people don’t let this drop with him. He didn’t do all this by himself so let’s make sure everyone’s participation is brought to light so that I don’t have to do another one of these in the next few years.

Overlord drops the bombshell

Anyone who has taken an interest in this case knows that @UCI_Overlord has been living and breathing this cause for years. Here’s when those who follow him (anyone who’s anyone) and those who have a crush on him (me) started to get wind of something big about to break.


Disregarding Matthew McConaughey and his petition to the White House (never thought that was going to go anywhere – who can take a man who never wears a shirt seriously?), Lance has garnered support from some strange corners of the galaxy, including Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner, and Darth Vader’s intern. As well as thousands of fans – don’t worry, I won’t list the thousands of tweets, just a few. (Pretty much everything else is Con-Lance …)

Comments from the peloton

It’s amazing. For a sport where the athletes have notoriously itchy twitter-fingers, there was a noticeable lack of comment on the Armstrong case. I trawled and trawled and came up with very little. Where was Bradley Wiggins, patron of the peloton, effing and blinding about doping? Where was Cavendish? I thought for sure I could count on David Millar – note his milquetoast response (tying it in with Neil Armstrong’s death even!) Granted, there are still cases in arbitration, including Johan Bruyneel‘s, who is still running RadioShack, so it’s kind of understandable that there wasn’t much talk from the RadioShack riders, but hey, guys, this is the biggest thing to happen to your sport … where are you?

How to solve a problem like Bruyneel

Personally, I think this is the most outrageous part of the whole damn thing: that Johan Bruyneel is allowed to continue to run a professional cycling team when he has these allegations hanging over his head. Surely there’s a way he could be suspended until the matter has been heard? But no. He’s still in charge. Here’s some of the take on this situation.

Random threads

To bring this to an end, here are some funny and/or thought-provoking tweets, in no particular order.

This whole thing is far from over so I’m sure we’ll have a few more TotW Specials in the next few months, particularly around the time of the arbitration hearings. Be assured, however, that I will be monitoring the twitterstream and pick out anything of interest to share with you all each week.

Laurent Fignon (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

Tour Hosts: Liege – haven’t we been here before?

Liege, in French-speaking Belgium, has the proud distinction of being the only city to have played host to all three of the Grand Tours. Fitting really, given the Belgian’s deep love and appreciation of the noble art of cycling.

In the post-war 1948 Tour de France, Liege hosted the finish of stage 19 and the start of the following day’s stage 20. The Metz into Liege stage was won by Gino Bartali, his seventh of this Tour, who went on to win the overall by a massive 26 minutes. Impressive given that on stage 13 he was in eighth place and nearly 20 minutes down on the leader. Bartali had taken part only at the specific behest of the Italian government in the hopes that his overall victory would quell civil unrest. It didn’t, but it did halt a national strike in Italy.

Liege made its second appearance as a staging town two years later in 1950. Stage two was won by Adolfo Leoni, better known as a Classics rider than a stage racer, who withdrew before the start of stage 12, along with all the other Italians, after French fans in the Pyrenees – sick with Italian domination of their beloved stage race – hurled sticks, stones and bottles at them. The withdrawal of the yellow jersey Fiorenzo Magni paved the way for the first of two consecutive Swiss wins – this edition belonged to Ferdi Kuebler.

Liege popped up again on stage two in the 50th anniversary Tour of 1953. It was won by Switzerland’s Fritz Schaer, who’d also taken stage one and went on to become the first ever winner of the points competition. The French were mollified as victory in that year’s Tour went to Louison Bobet, whom many felt should have won a Tour before then.

Andre Darrigade (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

Andre Darrigade (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

Three years later the Tour was back in Liege for the first stage, which was won by Andre Darrigade, the Tour’s star sprinter in the 1950s, who made a point of winning the first stage and, more importantly, the maillot jaune leader’s jersey – a feat he was to repeat an unequalled record-breaking five times. In all, he won 16 yellow jerseys and 22 stages. The overall was won by the relatively unknown and unfancied Roger Walkowiak. Critics panned his victory for its lack of panache.

In 1965 Liege hosted the finish of stage 1a in the morning, then the stage 1b team time-trial in the afternoon, and provided the start of the following day’s stage. Rik Van Looy, another noted Belgian Classics rider, won the first of these – only the Tour’s third start outside of France and its first in Germany. But the 1965 edition of the Tour was memorable for a couple of other reasons. In his rookie year, Italian Felice Gimondi, a last-minute replacement on the Salvarani team, captured the overall ahead of eternal runner-up Raymond Poulidor. Gimondi would go on to become only one of five riders, along with Alberto Contador, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault, who have won all three Grand Tours. It was also the first time a start ramp was used in time trials.

There followed a bit of a lull until the 1980 Tour, when Liege was once again the finish town for a sprint stage from Metz. The winner was Dutchman Henk Lubberding, enjoying what was to be his most successful year as a professional. The following day’s stage from Liege to Lille was the longest of that year’s Tour. After Bernard Hinault did a disappearing act in the Pyrenees, on account of his injured knee, race leadership was assumed and retained by Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk who shares with George Hincapie the record for the most Tour starts (16). George is set to break that record today and make it his own.

Laurent Fignon (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

Laurent Fignon (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

The Tour returned to Liege again in 1989 after starting in Luxembourg, where it hosted the start of stage four to Warquehal. The flat stage was won by Dutchman Jelle Nijdam, who later also won stage 14. This edition of the Tour is best remembered for the epic battle between Greg LeMond and the late Laurent Fignon, with the latter losing by the smallest margin ever, eight seconds, on the final day in Paris in an individual time trial.

In the 1995 Tour, the undulating stage seven from Charleroi to Liege was won by Johan Bruyneel in what was to be Miguel Indurain’s fifth consecutive and final victory in the Tour. Indeed, he’d beaten the great man himself on that very stage having sat on his wheel for most of it, an experience he likened to riding behind a motorbike. Sadly on stage 15 Italian Fabio Casartelli died after a fall on the Col de Portet d’Aspet.

In 2004, Liege finally got to host Le Grand Départ. It was my first Tour de France, Lance Armstrong’s sixth consecutive victory and, having overhauled Indurain, he was now firmly going down in history as the greatest Tour rider ever. The 6.1km prologue was won by Fabian Cancellara, then riding as Alessandro Petacchi’s lead-out man, in what was to be his break-out season. Here’s how he did it.

So who’s going to win this afternoon? Will it launch someone’s career as it did Cancellara’s back in 2004, will it be won by a sprinter intent on spending his day in the leader’s yellow jersey or will it be won by one of the GC contenders sending out a strong message to the rest? We’ll just have to wait and see. Meanwhile, here’s a reminder of the route.