The Secret Race, Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle (2012)
An explosive page-turner from the heart of the peloton
Bantam Press 0593071735 304pp quarto £18.99
The literature of Lance Armstrong’s downfall promises to be at least as voluminous as that recording his rise. Indeed, the daily twists in this story show that it is impossible to guess where the tentacles of the scandal will next reach. As I write Levi Leipheimer has been dismissed from the cycling team where he is a manager because of his admission to doping while at Lance’s side and Nike is accused of paying off Hein Verburggen to the tune of $500,000 to hush up a dope test that Armstrong failed in 1999. In the next weeks and months, you can expect much, much more.
All of which makes it important to read Hamlton’s book and read it now.
His trajectory is a familiar one to Anglophone cycling fans. He is a gutsy, talented rider who successfully transferred to Europe to ply his trade only to find that the expectations of riders went way beyond giving it their all in races. At Armstrong’s side, he soon finds himself taking testosterone, EPO and latterly has his blood transfused. He catalogues in lustrous detail his professional encounters with ‘celebrated’ sports scientists such as Michele Ferarri, Luigi Cecchini and Euferiano Fuentes.
As Tyler tells it, intravenous wrong-doing was hard-wired into Armstrong’s approach to the sport long before he had cancer. His attitude appears to have been that pharmaceutical preparation was as intrinsic to top-level bicycle racing as training and equipment selection. Not only that, but his victory-at-all-costs approach meant that as well as his well-documented bullying, Armstrong even shopped Hamilton to the UCI when he thought that his then rival might have stolen a chemical march on him.
No less surprising is the way that Armstrong apparently orchestrated the entire team’s secret preparations with only those in favour, or who were particularly needed, receiving the full dose.
Read this book now, and its elegant construction and Coyle’s meticulous cross checking are as enthralling as their subject matter is repugnant. Leave it too long, however, and, I fear, the power will be dimmed by the torrent of further developments that will inevitably flow forth. You could, of course, pour though the US Anti-Doping Agency’s 1,000 page dossier on systematic doping at Armstrong’s US Postal Cycling Team. The Hamilton/Coyle version covers much the same ground, but is significantly easier to swallow.
As you read, it is worth pausing momentarily to wonder what such a scandal will mean for the sport of bicycle racing. Lance Armstrong’s miraculous return from cancer was hailed as the good-news story that would rescue cycling’s reputation after 1998’s Festina affair, when systematic EPO use first hit the headlines. Evidence, you might think, that routine as cycling’s doping sensations might be, the sport has developed a curious resilience.
However, the edifice of professional cycle racing rests on shallow foundations. Unlike football, for example, cycling teams are wholly financed by their sponsors – usually on the basis of an annually renegotiated agreement. The furore around doping has already done for Liberty Seguros, T-Mobile, Kelme and Festina as team sponsors.
Numerous others have departed the sport for unspecified reasons. No marketing expertise is required to see that the risk of contaminating a brand by association with cheating athletes makes a strong case for channelling sponsorship elsewhere.
Armstrong’s future is no less intriguing. For the moment, he appears to be trying to ride out the storm, keeping up his denials and continuing to promote his Livestrong Foundation. Storm clouds gather daily, however. Insurance company SCA Promotions, which paid Armstrong around $19m dollars as a result of his winning six consecutive Tour de Frances has already indicated that it may seek to recover its money. If successful, the Texan’s successful facade may start to crumble.
Naysayers have long warned that the propensity for at least some top flight bicycle racers to cheat would fatally injure the sport itself. I hope that never happens, but it is hard to ignore the possibility that the risks today are greater than at any other time in the sport’s history.
TD Oct 12
* Two days after I wrote this, Rabbobank announced the end of its 17 years sponsoring professional cycling teams, saying: “We are no longer convinced that the international professional world of cycling can make this a clean and fair sport. We are not confident that this will change for the better in the foreseeable future.”