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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