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A half-seductive, half-comical insider tale of professional cycling

The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France – review.

The Secret Race – Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-Ups and Winning at All Costs
Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle
Bantam Press, 304pp, £18.99

For Tyler Hamilton, The Secret Race is a piece of personal testimony: the confessional, cathartic, ultimately redemptive story of his life as a professional cyclist and repentant drug cheat. For everyone else, it’s the latest deposition to be entered as evidence at Lance Armstrong’s trial in the court of public opinion. As such, it’s a valuable document and a well-timed one.

Last month, Armstrong declined to contest the range of drug charges brought against him by the US Anti-Doping Agency. Cycling’s fiercest and best-known competitor waved a weary hand at his pursuers, saying that he no longer had the strength for the fight to prevent them declaring his seven Tour de France titles to be the spoils of cheating.

To those who had been following this drawnout affair, there was a more easily believable reason for his seeming capitulation: to contest the charges would be to air the evidence. As damaging to his reputation as tactically throwing in the towel was, it was apparently preferable to facing the avalanche of dirty laundry that a public hearing would have produced. Now we have at least a portion of that unheard testimony in book form and Hamilton’s first-hand account of a career spent riding both with and against Armstrong is toxic enough by itself.

With the help of the journalist Daniel Coyle, Hamilton details a cloak-and-dagger, syringe-and-cellphone existence. Coded text messages lead to hotel room appointments for blood transfusions. Drugs are handed out to favoured riders on the US Postal Service team in paper lunch bags. Soy milk cartons in the fridge hide blood bags. Armstrong’s handyman allegedly follows the Tour de France by motorbike, delivering the blood-booster erythropoietin (EPO) on demand.

The insider terminology is half-seductive, half-comical: steroids are “red eggs”; EPO is “vitamin E” or “therapy” or “Edgar” (Allan Poe). The brief period when a rider might test positive – after ingestion and before a drug has cleared his system – is “glowtime”. It conjures a picture of US Postal Service riders pulsing gently in the living rooms of their apartments like fireflies as dusk falls on the Catalan town of Girona, where most of them lived.

Coyle recognised that his co-author’s credibility had been damaged by years of lying about drug use and set out to satisfy himself that this account would be watertight. He interviewed eight former US Postal Service riders, as well as mechanics, doctors and team assistants. The pair travelled to Spain and France so that Coyle could check Hamilton’s descriptions of hotel rooms in which the rider claims he and Armstrong underwent transfusions.

That may not be enough to sway Armstrong’s core constituency, the cancer community, whose belief in him as an inspirational survivor is a matter of faith. Armstrong has questioned Hamilton’s honesty and motives. Yet to dismiss this book as fantasy would be to believe that a respected journalist and a cast of witnesses had colluded in one man’s nove - lisation of his life – libelling a number of wealthy and influential people in the process. Indeed, given the UK’s litigant-friendly libel laws, that the original manuscript seems to have crossed the Atlantic largely intact is its own endorsement.

The book’s collaborative nature is a weakness as well as a strength. Chunks of information crucial to the wider narrative are jemmied into Hamilton’s first-hand account of his career and his voice sounds too much like Coyle’s. Anyone familiar with Coyle’s earlier book Lance Armstrong’s War will recognise the way he seizes on a phrase or observation he feels particularly pleased with and then repeatedly quotes it back to himself – and to us – like a barrister building an unanswerable, if slightly wearying, case.

Hamilton has to fight for our attention. After a career spent trying to escape Armstrong’s shadow as a rider by imitating his methods, he differentiates himself from his old teammate in retirement by opening up. However, he remains a supporting character in his own book and his honesty fails him in moments of selfjustification. Early in his career, riding clean, he complains about being cheated out of his livelihood by the dopers. Then, when he joins them, he’s simply levelling the playing field. This not only ignores the clean riders he is cheating out of their livelihoods in turn but the evidence of the rest of the book: even among other dopers there were few who could afford to compete with the drugs, doctors and support system that Hamilton had access to while he was riding for Armstrong.

It was when he left to lead a team of his own that things went wrong. His new doctor’s storage system failed, producing a horrifying episode in which the rider realises that he’s transfused a bag of his own dead blood cells. Eventually, he tested positive. Prior to that, Hamilton claims, his former team leader had alerted the authorities to his doping.

For Armstrong, who has always stuck to cycling’s code of silence and excoriated other riders who dare to break it, this might be the most personally hurtful allegation in the book. According to Hamilton, Armstrong isn’t just a fellow cheat – he’s a fellow snitch.

Gary Imlach presents ITV’s coverage of the Tour de France.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.