Hamilton’s The Secret Race

The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France
Tyler Hamilton

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.

Review: Armstrong’s Its Not About The Bike

Its Not About The Bike

Lance Armstrong

Even here, in a book that is supposed to be the inspiring, heart-felt version of Armstrong, the story of overcoming every obstacle (the poverty, the cancer, the doubters); the story of the charitable work, and the small town kid made good, even here, you can tell he’s a Grade – A Asshole. He insults those who helped him along the way and pushes those around him unrelenting hard. Those not willing (or unable) to keep up are promptly thrown aside. He all but admits to being a sociopath obsessed beyond all reason with success.

Now don’t get me wrong, Lance’s fight with cancer is inspiring, even now after everything, but in hindsight, its easier to see that his fight with that disease was part of a larger fight against the world. And while it inspiring to go all in against a deadly disease, its less inspiring to go all in against you oldest friends and supporters.

Not only is the Saint Lance mythos of this book now discounted, the book itself is not well written. Its schmaltzy, and corny and just not very good. With all the better books about Armstrong out there, this one should probably be avoided for all but the most completest Armstrong scholars.

Not Recommended.

Review: Coyle’s Lance Armstrong’s War

Ed note: This review was originally written for a now long dead livejournal.

Lance Armstrong’s War: One Man’s Battle Against Fate, Fame, Love, Death, Scandal, and a Few Other Rivals on the Road to the Tour de France
Daniel Coyle

This is without a doubt the best book written about Lance Armstrong before his fall from grace. If you have an interest in professional cycling, you’ve probably already read it (and the Tyler Hamilton memoir co-written by Coyle). If not, you should.

If you don’t have an interest in pro cycling, you should get in on it.  No sport mixes cutting edge science, the limits of human endurance, complex tactics, and horrific physical pain into a more engaging final product. I ask you, where else can you learn about hemocrit levels while watching little men in tights turn themselves inside out, day after day, to hold a little toy tiger in the air? Nowhere.

Lance Armstrong’s War is first and foremost a report of Armstrong’s attempt to gain a sixth Tour de France victory. Even though this was written before the doping revelations, you still get a real sense of what a driven psychopath he is. To say the least, he is not a very nice guy to work for. He holds grudges; he hates his enemies with an unhealthy passion, and he drives himself, and his team, incredibly hard. Its clear from very early on that he’s a pretty terrible person. But he is also a really compelling person to follow. Even in this sanitized version, he is will to go farther, push harder, and do more than anyone else. And, as we all know, it pays off and he wins.

But this book is more than a book about Lance. It is also great primer (maybe the best primer?) on pro cycling. It gives you a real sense of who these mostly working class kids are and how they and their teams go about trying to win the Tour. There is just enough explanation of the tactics involved in winning to be interesting without so much that it would bore the general reader. If I have a criticism, it’s that doping isn’t covered in enough detail. But to be fair to Coyle, when he wrote this the most serious doping allegations about riders of this generation (i.e. Armstrong, Landis, Hamilton, Ulrich) hadn’t been revealed.

Still, the stories were there and Coyle could have done more to tell that part of the story. I wish he had. Despite those reservations I’d read this one again.

Recommended.