the secret race by tyler hamilton and daniel coyle. bantam press hardback. 290pp £18.99

the secret race

"Dad, if Iever have to take that stuff to compete, I'll retire."

let's be hypothetical for a moment. assume that you are a salesperson, one amongst many, and there's a promotion coming up that would allow progression to the position of sales manager. this would not only provide you with greater repsonsibility, but a substantial increase in remuneration, if only you had the wherewithal to ace the interview and had the credentials to back it up. you see, not unnaturally, the other sales people too have their eye on that promotion, so as of the moment, it's not a done deal.

called into the regional sales manager's office, he says that you general outlook and experience make you a shoe-in for the job, but your sales figures are lacking by comparison with the others who've applied for the job, and he's just giving you the heads up in advance that you might make suitable amends prior to the interviews. though hardly immodest, you cannot for the life of you figure out how your fellow salespeople are managing to return such numbers, as you well know you have better accounts to serve, have more experience and a better track record. yet no matter how hard you try, the numbers just don't stack up.

it's at this point, you discover, as the result of a tip-off from a friendly secretary, that the others are using nefarious means to massage the numbers presented at the end of each month. aside from feeling cheated and aghast that anyone would stoop so low, you are intelligent enough to realise that unless you play them at their own game and join the plot, the chances of ever achieving that sales manager position are pretty much non-existent.

so you join the club.

of course, that's not where it ends, for the minute the sales manager's position is achieved, there's unseen pressure to aim towards the position of regional sales manager. and though you may be happy to settle into the comfortable life, the nefarious means by which you achieved your current status, show every indication of having to be continued and increased as the months and years roll by simply in order to remain employed.

this is not meant to justify the art of wrongdoing in the furtherance of a career, and perhaps it's not even a valid comparison with the title under review, but sometimes circumstances place the individual slap, bang in the midst of a dilemma.

still talking hypothetically, if this was indeed the position you were placed in, and taking into account the financial responsibilities that life has burdened you with, what would you do? would you be happy to continue as ever and forget about such troubling opportunities such as promotions? or would the likelihood that accepting the latter perhaps jeopardises your current position due to a perceived lack of application mean that effectively the choice is not really yours to make?

road cycle racing has long been presented within the framework of pain and suffering, a sport that requires dedication, endless months of hard training and an ability to strategise either in a solo capacity or at the behest of a team leader. take the life of a sprinter, a designated rider who relies almost entirely on the selfless determination of several team members to do everything they have to do in order to deliver him/her to within a few metres of the finish line that they might repay with a win. a similar situation exists for stage race team leaders, except the prize arrives at the end of several days, usually incorporating one or two steep hills along the way.

tyler hamilton has laid bare the ghost in the machine. after reading the secret race there is not a chance you will ever look at those romantic images of road racing in the same way again. to concentrate for a moment on the superficialities, it is a highly compulsive read; my review copy arrived on tuesday afternoon, yet despite work intervening for most of wednesday, i finished all 290 pages by the time i went to bed. it is darned near impossible to put down. this may be much to the credit of co-writer daniel coyle's superb narrative style, but i'd be a fool to try and separate that from hamilton's dramatic revelations.

this is not a tyler hamilton biography. there is little by way of introduction to hamilton's formative years; both he and daniel coyle seem well aware that we're looking for spilt beans without the window dressing and both are ready and willing to accede to our demands. it is presumably no real coincidence that the book has been released as usada's lengthy attempt to bring armstrong to justice seems to have turned the corner, with lance declaring he will no longer put up any resistance. hamilton's exceptionally detailed (and largely corroborated, apparently) two hundred odd page confession undermines any defence of innocence armstrong has provided,and serves to make apologists (such as commentator phil liggett) seem somewhat at odds with reality.

if, for you, road cycling holds any degree of romance and deeds of derring-do, i would respectfully suggest that you leave this book on the shelf, but i'm willing to bet that curiousity won't let that happen. hamilton lays to rest any suggestion that the team managers, directeurs sportifs, soigneurs, mechanics and pretty much everyone else associated with professional road racing (at least during the period under discussion) were ignorant of what their riders were doing in order to win races. but it also returns us to my hypothetical situation outlined in the opening paragraphs.

"It was around this time that I started hearing the phrase 'riding paniagua'. Somtimes it was delivered in a slightly depressed tone, as if the speaker were talking about riding a particularly slow and stubborn donkey. 'I might have finished higher, but I was riding paniagua'. Other times it was mentioned as a point of pride. 'I finished in the first group of thirty and I was paniagua.' I came to discover that it was actually 'pan y agua' - bread and water. From that, I made the obvious conclusion: riding without chemical assistance in the pro peloton was so rare that it was worth pointing out."

the secret race is scary. i dread to think what this would do to any youngster considering professional cycle racing as a career. once the confessions start, they just never stop, all the way to the end of the book. all is portrayed in a matter of fact manner; this is not sensationalism by anyone's standards

though the book follows hamilton's pro career, he leaves little doubt that it was lance armstrong that initiated and orchestrated the doping regime that he subsequently followed till the end. armstrong has maintained the same defence of innocence throughout his tour de france successes and beyond. he maintains the same poker face to this day. a part of that defence is that he is the most tested athlete in history, yet has not failed even one. hamilton's confessions show exactly how that was possible; not testing positive does not necessarily equate to squeaky clean. according to tyler, armstrong did, at one point, fail a test other than the cortisone incident in 1999, but such was the texan's control over his own circumstances, that he made it go away.

hamilton finally came to grief as leader of the phonak team during the 2004 vuelta a espana. he failed a blood test taken during the race, results showing that he had transfused blood other than his own. his b test also showed positive. as if that were not enough to bring the world crashing about his ears, two days later he was informed that a blood test taken prior to his time-trial gold medal in that year's olympic games, had also proved positive for the same reason. he was, however, allowed to keep his gold medal because a mistake at the lab meant the b sample could not be tested, rendering the first test legally inadmissable.

i've often been guilty of accepting cycle racing as a form of entertainment (which it is) figuring that if all the top riders were doing as hamilton and armstrong were, then they'd simply created a faster yet still level playing field. however, as is clearly pointed out, using epo to increase a rider's haematocrit to under the uci's magical 50 cut-off level, worked better for some than others. clearly the lower the natural level of haematocrit, the more room there was for legal improvement. add in cortisone, blood transfusions and one or two other dodgy dealings, and the entertainment value recedes quicker than a rider on paniagua

i've no idea if it takes guts to break the professional riders' omerta or not. has it all made a difference? well, according to a footnote (all footnotes are printed on the same page as their narrative reference, making it far easier for the reader to follow) the uci's internal testing numbers reflect a specific change. in 2001 13 percent of riders were classified as having abnormally high or low levels of reticulytes, or newly formed red blood cells (signs of epo use and/or transfusions). by 2011, that number had dropped to two percent.

so maybe we can judge hamilton's expose as that concerning a period of cycle racing that is now all but over and done with. maybe the only one that ought to be concerned is lance. i fervently hope so.

every member of the contemporary pelotonese, whether actively racing or not, simply has to read this book. unless, of course, you prefer your racing to remain in glorious and grainy black and white. it has often been said that you should never meet your heroes; the secret race simply underlines that contention.

thursday 13th september 2012


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