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.
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.”
Our beautiful sport rarely gets covered in America’s mainstream media. If an event doesn’t involve a ball, it generally gets ignored. So I was delighted to see seven, yes seven, cycling items in the Sunday papers I read yesterday. Some of them are strictly Ann Arbor-related, and I realize that they have little or no direct relevance to the lives of most readers of Waffles & Steel. But I thought I would share them anyway. It’s good to hear about positive things going on in the cycling universe.
Common Cycle volunteer at work. Source: Ann Arbor.com
1. A short feature in Ann Arbor.com about Common Cycle, a non-profit group that teaches people how to fix their bikes. Until it raises enough money for a permanent venue, the group sets up shop at a mobile station at community events in Ann Arbor. It’s a fantastic idea, and I plan to contact them for a more detailed post. Maybe they can teach me the dark art of derailleur adjustment. For more information or to make a donation, go to www.commoncycle.com
2. When the U.S. got into its current financial mess, Washington approved a massive stimulus package. Ann Arbor.com reports the city is using $250,000 of the funds to add nine miles of bike lanes and improve 24 miles of existing lanes. More “Share the Road” signs will be added, at $100 to $150 a pop. It’s wonderful to see that some of the money is being spent on cycling. I support Keynsian economics when it involves funding cycling.
3. Cycling advocate Ken Clark wrote a long letter to the editor – “Law-abiding cyclists can’t control red-light runners” – in Ann Arbor.com. Heeding red lights is another topic that I plan to discuss in a future post. Clark mentioned a couple things about Ann Arbor’s cycling ordinance that interested me. State law allows cyclists to ride two abreast, or side by side. But Ann Arbor’s old cycling ordinance said that if a driver honked at people riding this way, they would have to ride single file. Clark calls this the “harass me with your horn ordinance.” The city council got rid of it last February when the panel also passed a new ordinance making it illegal for vehicles to block a bike lane (exceptions include buses dropping off and picking up people). Longtime readers of Waffles & Steel will remember that in my former home, cars were encouraged to park in bike lanes!
4. My Sunday paper comes with a skimpy inserted magazine called Parade. It had a feature about a family of four (with 10-year-old twins) who cycled 18,000 miles, from Alaska to Argentina. It took them 26 months. A bear almost ate them in British Columbia when they were scouting for a campsite.
5. The New York Times’ had a brief AP story about Levi Leipheimer breaking Lance Armstrong’s record in the Life Time Fitness Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race. Leipheimer won the race in 6:16.37, beating Armstrong’s record by about 12 minutes. Kudos to the Times for shoehorning in a cycling story. Too bad nobody reads the Times for sports!
6. The New York Times had a one-paragraph item in its “Out Box” section about the five most e-mailed articles during Aug. 7-13. The most popular story was…drum roll please…”Cyclists said to back claims that Armstrong doped,” published Aug. 4. I was too busy with my move to read that one!
7. (I didn’t see this story until Monday because I saved the New York Times’ travel section for lunchtime reading. I still have the NYC habit of carrying the paper around with me until I read the entire thing.) A feature about Google’s new mapping service for cycling. The story, “Google Leads, You Pedal,” is generally favorable but adds: “The reviews within the biking community, notorious for its outspokenness, have been mixed at best.” Are we really that outspoken?
There you go. Seven items and only one involved doping and none was about the Tour de France.
I used to believe Lance. I respected Greg LeMond but thought he turned churlish in recent years. I liked Bernard Hinault because I have a soft spot for crusty, pugnacious, anti-social, extremely talented people who don’t really give a damn what others think of them.
Now, my opinions of them are changing.
I’m not so sure about Lance anymore. I don’t want to get into a debate about the issue, but I have my doubts now, especially about the first couple of years of the comeback. Still, I won’t deny he’s an incredible athlete and symbol for the sport.
I’m a big LeMond fan again because I think he’s just an all-around likable, good guy. This article influenced my new appreciation of LeMond. It’s wonderfully written. The author shares my favorite observation of LeMond. In most of the photos I’ve seen of him winning a race, he’s crossing the line with this wonderful “Jeez, I can’t believe I won!” expression of wonderment on his face. The article also points out that the French public loved LeMond because he had a certain panache. He often found himself in some sort of crisis or trouble and managed to dig his way out of it. I wish the article explored why LeMond decided to speak out against Lance. He did it at a great cost. Perhaps LeMond knew something that he couldn’t publicly bring up because of libel issues.
One more thing about LeMond. If you haven’t yet, check out this clip of LeMond beating Fignon in the Worlds in 1989. Fignon attacks on a hellish climb and Phil Ligget says it appears that the Frenchman is going to win the race. Then, seemingly out of no where, LeMond pops up on the screen and catches Fignon. Ligget pronounces, “That is a fine piece of riding by the American.” Now for the “Badger.” Lately, I’ve been watching the three-disc set of the “Red Zinger/Coors Classic.” It has been fascinating for me because I know a bit about Euro racing in the late 70s and 80s, but I’ve never paid much attention to the race scene in the U.S. during the time. Last night, I was watching the 1986 edition of the race, with Hinault riding in the last stage race of his career. He’s on LeMond’s team, of course, and they battling it out again. LeMond says something like he spent the Tour fighting with Hinault, and he was hoping to come to the U.S. to just race without all the extra drama.
There’s a classic scene in a mountain stage where Hinault is in a three-man breakaway with Davis Phinney and someone else I didn’t recognize. I don’t think the third guy was on Phinney’s team. Anyway, Hinault declines to pull and spends the entire time sucking wheel. In the final few meters, he rockets off Phinney’s wheel and wins the sprint. He crosses the line with a huge grin on his face, as if it’s the first victory in his career (It is his first win in the US). In the post-race interview, Phinney is obviously angry and agitated. As he wipes his face with a towel about 20 times in five seconds, Phinney says something like, “If you want to win a race like that, you can win like that.” When Hinault is asked why he didn’t help out in the breakaway, he says something like, “It would have been stupid to do that. I wanted to save my energy for the end.”
I’m not an expert on race ethics and honorable cycling behavior. But Hinault was already a legend, and his tactics seemed desperate, far beneath him. For me now, Hinault = Jerk.