The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France
This is one of the best book on the culture of pro-cycling. It’s also one of the best books on the mechanics of doping, especially, in endurance sports, and on the psychology and pressure that can lead a good kid far astray in pursuit of his ambitions.
Tyler Hamilton was one of the premier cycling stars of the late 90s and early 2000s coming up through the ranks to join Lance Armstrong and the all-powerful U.S. Postal team for its dominance of the Tour De France and the other big stage races. Hamilton started off, as all these guys did, as a talented rider. But in the pro-peloton of the 1990s, talent wasn’t enough. Not long after hitching his star to Armstrong, Hamilton began doping, first with EPO, the legendary performance enhancing drug which was rampant in endurance sports in the 90s, and then with blood doping – the practice of removing your own red blood cells and then reinjecting them to increase your red blood cell count.
For a while, Hamilton was seen as the next Lance Armstrong, a rising star in a sport of rising American popularity. Then he got caught. And while he denied his crimes (and cynically raised money from fans to fight the charges), he eventually confessed to years and years of systematic cheating and was banned from the sport.
I’ve followed pro-cycling for much of my life. From the time Greg LeMond won the tour, I’ve been hooked. I followed Hamilton’s career very closely and when he said he was clean, I believed him. How naïve.
After the revelations started to come out about Hamilton, and Armstrong, and Hincapie, and every major American cycling star of the era, I felt angry with the lot of them. But this book does a lot to humanize these men* and the pressures they were under. Right or wrong, they felt they needed to do it. They felt everyone else was doing the same thing. Of course, this is self-justification, but it’s also likely true. Was every rider in the peleton doping? No. But all of the riders with a shot at winning were.
That’s the ugly truth and one I’ve come to embrace as central to understanding the sport. To follow cycling serious is to follow cheating, and specifically doping, seriously. There has always been a secret race. And this book, more than any other I’ve read, gives you an insight into that aspect of the sport.
Recommended for the enthusiast.
*Except Armstrong, Armstrong is a socio-path who, this book makes clear, ruined people’s lives with little regret.