Short version: I really enjoyed this book and recommend buying it.
Long version: When Tyler Hamilton got busted for doping, I felt more disgusted than I did when it became clear Lance Armstrong was cheating. That’s partly because I liked Tyler. I respected Lance but never liked him as a person. Likeability was an important part of Tyler’s image. He was the humble, polite, hardworking guy. He caught the bad breaks but gritted his teeth and kept competing. He had a nice wife. Loved his dog. So when he got busted, I was extremely disappointed. I decided not to buy his new book, The Secret Race, though it was co-authored by one of my favorite writers, Daniel Coyle. My thinking was that purchasing the book would help Tyler make more money off his doping past. But I still wanted to read it, so I got on the long wait list at the library.
I didn’t want to read another sob story about how a cyclist faced an ultimatum: start doping or give up on a dream to be a professional cyclist. What interested me the most was learning about how the cyclists fooled the drug testers. The book covers this well. Avoiding the tests was easy. Often, cyclists just didn’t answer the door. Or a wife or girlfriend would serve as a gatekeeper, warning riders when the testers – who were often incompetent – showed up. The athletes were also pretty good about knowing when they were “glowing” with drugs still in their bodies. Tyler says that one day he was returning from the ride shortly after injecting some EPO, and he saw a tester arriving at his home. He rode on to the next town and checked into a hotel for the night and was able to avoid the guy. The book does a great job explaining how the cheating was done.
The other thing I wanted the book to do was to describe the shady side of the doping system. It delivered on this front, too, providing several good anecdotes and plenty of gory details. In one scene, Tyler gets an infusion from a bad bag of blood. He pees red, filling up a toilet bowl with blood as if he’s in a horror movie. Jonathan Vaughters offers an interesting insight about how the doctors who were involved in the doping weren’t the best in the business. If they were, they wouldn’t be risking their licenses and livelihoods by getting messed up in the racket. So the riders were putting a lot of trust in dodgy characters. One of the exceptions, of course, was Lance’s doctor, Michele Ferrari, who was a genius.
It’s fascinating how hard cyclists rely on extreme measures to get skinny and stay there. I would think that riding five to seven hours a day and following a diet plan would be good enough. But Tyler talks about how much more needs to be done. When dining out with friends, he would spit his food out into napkins when others weren’t watching. He shares an anecdote from Bjarne Riis, who would come home from a six-hour ride, consume a fizzy drink, pop some sleeping pills and hope that he wouldn’t wake up until dinner or, better yet, breakfast.
The book made me feel more sympathetic about Tyler’s choice to start doping. He was getting his legs pulled off everyday by riders who were juiced. It was breaking him down – physically and mentally. Finally, one day the team doctor – who seems like a decent guy – offers Tyler some testosterone – all “for his health.” This puts him on a slippery slope that leads to EPO and eventually blood transfusions.
The book left me feeling more sympathetic than disgusted with Tyler. It gave me a deeper understanding of how rotten the sport was during that era. It also helped me better appreciate the complexities of the situation and decisions made by the riders. This is what makes the book worth reading.
Fitness-wise, I’m screwed. My winter training didn’t go as planned. I intended to do most of my riding outdoors, but a brutal January and February – ice, snow, frigid temperatures – made that virtually impossible. I kept thinking: ‘OK, if it continues to be this bad, I’ll switch to Plan B and hit the rollers in the basement. But first, I’ll wait one more week.”
Before I knew it, March rolled around, and my form is pathetic. I’ve done a lot of running, though, but most of it was with the dog and not high level.
Weight-wise, I’m doing great. The scale tells me I’m between 76-77 kilos when I’m usually between 78-80 kilos at this time of year. My peak-fitness weight is 74-75, so I’m almost there and the heavy riding hasn’t even begun. Once that starts with the warmer weather, the kilos will really melt off.
My success in slimming down is mostly due to a big shift in my diet. I’ve pretty much cut out pasta, bread and other baked goods. This has left me feeling fantastic the past few months. I feel like I’m off the blood-sugar roller coaster. I rarely feel famished. When I do run low in fuel, it’s more of a dull hunger, not the dreadful shaky, light-headed, stumbling-around-looking-for-a-Snickers-bar hunger.
For lunch, I’ve been eating salads with lettuce, kale, cucumbers, peppers, carrots, beans – whatever is in the fridge. I’ll toss in some cheese or hard-boiled egg for some protein. Before I leave work to ride home, I’ll snack on a handful of trail mix, apples or a banana with peanut butter.
The mud mixed with slush that coated my bike looked a lot like frozen brown sugar. It clogged up my cluster, preventing me from shifting. It was splattered over my tights and back, threatening to soak through and make my cold ride even colder. This all happened about a half hour into my Sunday dirt-road ride in -2 C weather. Some parts of the road were covered in slippery, gritty cake batter-like mud. Others still had a thick layer of ice with deep ruts and tire grooves – products of the constant freeze-thaw cycle we’ve had in southeastern Michigan the past week. A couple times, my bike almost slipped out from under me. Downhills were frightening, especially when I had to deal with a pickup or SUV trying to pass me. There was barely enough room on the road for both of us, and an untimely wipeout would have put me under the vehicle.
What the hell was I doing out there? I almost didn’t go. It was 3 p.m. and I was considering two options: 1) doing the ride or 2) finishing the Sunday New York Times and taking a nap. The sun was shining, though, and that makes a huge difference. And I’m at the time of the year when I need to be on the bike as much as possible. I did the rollers on Saturday and didn’t want to ride in the basement again so soon.
I was only out for about an hour, and I feel blessed by the cycling gods again for protecting me. Back home, it seemed I spent another hour scrubing down the bike in my driveway with a sponge, brush and hot bucket of water. Tonight or tomorrow, I’m going to have to do a more thorough cleaning and lubing, perhaps get into the BB and de-grit the drivetrain. It seems like a huge hassle for only an hour on the bike, but it will probably be one of my most memorable rides of the year, so it’s worth it.
Great discussion yesterday at Yale about doping in cycling. The always-interesting Jonathan Vaughters made an intriguing comment about how he had a long, candid conversation about doping with David Walsh when he was working on his book about Lance Armstrong. Vaughters said that the discussion was off the record, and Walsh honored the agreement and didn’t mention it in his book.
I remember all the hubbub about Walsh’s book and reportage. The question was: Was he a hack, a big kook? Or was Lance really guilty? As a former journalist, I knew that quite often the best material a reporter collects is often off the record and extremely hard to verify with other sources. So I was thinking that Walsh must have tons of great material that he’s not able to show us.
In the Q&A session, Vaughters says, “It’s a tragedy that we will never know if Floyd could win the Tour de France in a clean environment.”
My closet is full of great gear. If I were forced to keep only one item and trash the rest, I would pick my Patagonia nano puff pullover. There would be no hesitation. When I bought it two years ago, I was planning to do an early summer bike tour of northern Michigan. I needed a warm top that could pack down small, something I could wear on chilly mornings and evenings while sipping coffee or beer at the campsite. The bike trip never happened, but I’ve still made good use of the pullover. I’ve worn it more than anything else in my wardrobe, and it’s still going strong. It might last another year or two.
The polyester ripstop shell is incredibly durable. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard a ripping sound while wrestling with my dog or getting tangled in thorny brush. Expecting to see a hole with PrimaLoft material spilling out of it, I’d reluctantly look at the pullover and be surprised to see that it’s fine. No harm done. The material blocks wind and water, and it doesn’t stain. Once on a road trip, I was eating a Wendy’s chicken sandwich while driving, and a blob of mayonnaisey mystery sauce plopped down on the front of my pullover. I wiped it off with a napkin the best I could and expected the material to be permanently stained with a dark grease spot. To my amazement, there was no trace of the spill.
In the fall and spring, I wear it as a shell. When winter comes, it’s a great insulation layer. In January and February, I wear it when my dog and I go out for our morning runs. I hate fussing with layers at 6 a.m. I just want to put on a base layer and throw on the pullover – ‘womp,’ everything is sorted.
One of the best things is that the pullover packs down so small. I can fit it into a medium-sized ziplock freezer bag. This makes it perfect for traveling. Once when I went on a business trip to Istanbul in the nippy early spring, I carried the pullover in my briefcase. One day, I had to spend the day in meetings wearing a suit. The itinerary included an evening cruise of the Bosphorus. It was damn cold on the water and everyone in my group was freezing. I whipped out my Patagonia pullover and wore it under my suit like a sweater. I spent the most time out on the deck enjoying the sights, while others huddled together in the ship’s cabin.
One concern: The intricate window-pane stitching has come loose in two spots – on the front and the left armpit, where it got snagged by a backpack strap. I was worried the rest of the stitching would eventually unravel, but this hasn’t been the case. If this happened, I’d return it to Patagonia. But so far, it hasn’t been a problem. I’m now monitoring the winter sales, looking for another nano puff pullover I can press into duty if my current one ever wears out.
Lexi sits quietly in the backseat as we drive through the Sunday morning darkness. We always listen to “Dead White Guys,” a classical music show on a Ann Arbor radio station. She begins to whimper with excitement when we are about a mile away from our destination – the Arboretum, or “the Arb” in local parlance. Aside from being one of my personal holy places, it’s a park on the eastern edge of the University of Michigan’s central campus that includes a hickory-oak forest surrounding a grassy valley.
Bikes aren’t allowed in the Arb, but there are fantastic trails for running. Lexi and I do a loop that’s about 1 km long. We’ll run it for about an hour. One section climbs along the side of a ridge before plunging down into the valley. Sometimes we see some deer, and Lexi chases them. I’m not sure what the silly Airedale would do if she caught them.
The Huron River cuts through the Arb, and we always begin our runs along the river. In the winter, we pretty much have the Arb to ourselves. Getting out of bed at 6 a.m. on a Sunday in February is hard. The negative chatter in my head implores me to sleep in, but I know that if I can just get downstairs and start suiting up for the run, I’ll be good to go. Doing the Sunday Arb run leaves me with a wonderful buzz that seems to last through Wednesday. I’m sure it does the same thing for Lexi.
This video reminded me of the time I was riding in Guangzhou, China, three years ago and a guy in a Honda Civic stayed on my wheel through a tunnel, honking his horn the whole way. The sound reverberated off the tunnel walls and my heart was pounding. As soon as I cleared the tunnel, which was about 100 meters long, I turned around and motioned to the driver to pull over so that we could have a chat. He was a skinny, pencil-necked guy. All it would have taken was one punch.
I’m not sure why the riders in this video didn’t pull off and let the idiot in the Ford Ranger to drive by. Or why didn’t they pull up to the window and ask what the hell the guy’s problem was. I wonder if there was any police action in the end.
The ride didn’t begin with a mass start, thank God. We all had chips and could set off whenever we wanted to in the morning. Slightly soaked from a steady drizzle, I rode over the timer mat and pedaled off alone. A lady at the start told me to turn left and I cruised along for about two kilometers looking for signs or volunteers telling me where to go next. I saw none so I kept riding. After about six kilometers, I realized I was still alone and no one was behind me. The rain continued to fall, the sky was headache gray and I was feeling miserable and pissed off. I turned around and began thinking about quitting the race as I made my way back to the start. After four kilometers, I started seeing other cyclists and they were making left turns at an intersection that I somehow missed. I noticed there were arrows painted on the road telling us where to go, and if I would have studied the materials in my race packet, I would have known this. Yes, I’m an idiot.
About a half hour into the ride, the rain stopped and the skies became sunny and blue. It stayed that way the rest of the day. The roads were fantastic, smooth with only occasional ruts, cracks and potholes. The scenary was beautiful: barns and cherry farms set among the rolling hills. The aid stations were well staffed with smiling volunteers presiding over a buffet of snacks: bagels, pop tarts, energy bars, bananas. There were no mountains, but the climbs were many and some were long and steep. I was thrilled to discover that my climbing muscles have not shriveled up and died during my two years living in pancake flat southeastern Michigan. I felt my best riding upward, my inner mountain goat couldn’t be happier.
At the 50 km mark, it was obvious that if I did the century, it would become a sufferfest. My legs could do it, but my upper body – neck and back – weren’t up to the task. I needed to do longer rides to cover the distance in a dignified manner. I spent a lot of time debating whether I was being a wussy for not doing the century. I concluded that I had done centuries before and didn’t have to prove I could do another one. I also realized that my priorities and interests in cycling have changed. Long endurance events no longer seemed fun and important to me. I didn’t want to spend so much time doing six-hour rides on the weekends. I enjoyed doing them when I lived in China because they filled the void in my life created by my unhappiness with my career and environment. But I’m living a more balanced life now, and there are plenty of other things that I enjoy doing. Three-hour rides suit me perfectly. A one-hour cyclocross race sounds just about right.
I began amusing myself by vowing not to let the triathletes pass me on the hills. They were hard to beat on the flats, with their time-trial bikes and aero bars. But the climbs belonged to me. There was one guy wearing a sleaveless skinsuit that kept passing me as he listened to his iPod. But I’d catch him at the top of the hill and sprint by him with my hands in the drops like Marco Pantani.
I spent the last 20 km racing a guy on a Seven titanium bike. I would open a gap on a long hill but he would catch me by doing a daredevil descent. Once, he narrowly missed a wild turkey that ran across the road. I finally dropped him on a brutal set of rollercoaster hills. But with 10 km left, I stopped to help out a cyclist on the side of the road. The guy was riding a carbon Focus with carbon wheels. He had a flat and was just circling his bike in a mild panic. He had a spare tube but no pump, so I loaned him my pump. He tried pumping up the tire but it wouldn’t hold air. I told him it was time to change the tire, but he just stood there looking at the wheel. Meanwhile, the guy I was racing appeared and cruised by me with a big smile. It became apparent to me that the guy with the flat didn’t know how to fix it. Maybe my new rule should be: If you can afford an $8,000 bike, you can afford a lesson in changing flats and you don’t need my help. Just as I was about to strip off the tire for him, the mechanics truck appeared. I never saw a guy look so releaved before. So I pushed off and tried to catch Mr. Seven.
I can’t remember what my time was, and my chip must have malfunctioned because my name never showed up on the results list. I sent an e-mail to the race organizers about this but they never replied. Would I do the race again next year? Maybe.
At exactly 5 a.m., everyone emerged from their tents. I only heard one alarm go off. The rest of the cyclists were probably like me and endured a sleepless night, just zipped up in a sleeping bag waiting for 5 a.m. to roll around. That’s when the high school building opened for those who wanted to shower and eat at the breakfast buffet. The high school was fantastic, new and clean.
The breakfast seemed a bit pricey at $8 (hmmm, or was it $7?), with eggs, hash brown wedges, fruit, oatmeal (grrrr, made from instant oats) and no orange juice. But it was generally OK. The mood at the breakfast table was gloomy because it was still raining and the outlook didn’t look good. One woman called up the forecast on her iPhone and it showed a long line of thunderstorms moving in from Wisconsin. The storms were supposed to hammer our area all afternoon. People started talking about changing their plans, switching from the 160k ride to the 100k or 50k.
As I left the school to change into my kit in the tent, I looked up at the sky and this is what I saw. The forecast for scary storms seemed extremely credible to me. I don’t mind riding in rain. I actually enjoy it. But I don’t like it when bolts of lightning are crashing down around me. I could easily see myself get 40k outside of town and have to spend the rest of the afternoon sheltering in a barn, waiting for the electrical storms to blow through. But I decided to give it a go anyway.
The race began in Boyne City, a town of only a few thousand people on beautiful Lake Charlevoix. The city didn’t have enough hotel beds for the 1,500 cyclists doing the ride, so people were allowed to camp on the front lawn of the Boyne City High School. This the first time I’ve camped out at an endurance event. Actually, it’s the first time I’ve camped out beyond my back yard. I wasn’t sure what makes the best campsite. Common sense told me to seek out some high ground (there wasn’t any), and try to find a spot with a wind break. I pitched my tent in one corner of the school building, then realized that it was close to two rain spouts leading off the roof. Another camper walked by and I pointed to the rain spouts and said, “This probably isn’t the best spot for me.” And he said, “Ah, it ain’t going to rain.” As soon as he said that, dark clouds began moving in and it began to drizzle. I moved the tent to an area where three small trees made the points of a triangle. I set up the tent inside the triangle figuring that the trees would keep other campers from getting too close to me. Then I went and had a burrito at an eatery downtown.
When I returned to dinner, I discovered several more campers had arrived and half of them seemed to have set up a few meters from my tent. There was still plenty of wide open space on the school’s front lawn, so I was perplexed about why there was a big cluster of tents in my area. I thought about moving, but I didn’t want to seem anti social. Also, the pitter pattering rain had become a steady downpour. I got into my sleeping bag and tried to block out the conversation the two guys were having in a neighboring tent. I was still getting over my jetlag from my Asia trip, so I was able to doze off by about 9 p.m. But before I went to sleep, I tied a poly tarp over my tent because it looked like the rain would last all night. I wasn’t sure how long the rain fly would keep things dry.
At 11 p.m., I woke up to the loud sound of the tarp flapping in the wind. I removed the tarp, fearing that it might be keeping other campers up. When I got back into my sleeping bag, I noticed a loud noise, like a bullfrog with severe sleep apnea. The guy who pitched his tent closest to mine had a chronic snoring problem, and it was keeping me awake. When I finally dozed off, I awoke again when my tent suddenly lit up, as if someone were shining a spotlight on it. Then I heard a loud crack of thunder and realized it was an electrical storm, which lasted the rest of the night. When it was time to get up at 5 a.m., I think I only had about four hours of sleep.