Tyler Hamilton’s tell all book about cycling in the 90′s and early Noughties has been out for a while now and gives a fascinating insight into life in the Armstrong era and beyond with insider info on the US Postal setup in particular. It is a powerful account but before I get into the book itself I would like to address a little my thoughts on the book prior to reading it.
The book and me.
Straight up I had a huge problem with this book. I felt like I was supporting a doper by buying it. Post Lance Armstrong’s disgrace (although it was no shock, I had known most of the details for many years) I felt that buying or even reading this book would be tantamount to supporting a known doper and one of Armstrong’s key lieutenants at that. It was something I really struggled with. I lost track of the amount of times I nearly bought it.
Possibly part of the problem was that I had been a big fan of Hamilton back when he was racing for Postal, CSC and then Phonak. He was small of stature, immensely tough and you wanted him to do well. Remember him grinding his teeth down when riding with a broken collarbone? He was more of an Everyman than the tall imposing Armstrong. Hamilton could have been one of your riding buddies.
Then came the fall from grace. The multiple doping sanctions complete with the final ignominy when he was ushered out of the sport having tested positive when riding for Rock Racing, a team that gave of the air of “we dope and we don’t care”. Hamilton had burnt his bridges with me a long time ago.
However gradually my curiosity got the better of me. Part of it was possibly not wanting to wade through the 1,000+ pages of the USADA Armstrong “Reasoned decision” report. The book looked a lot more attractive in that light but the turning point was actually a conversation with an uncle, a cycling fan in the softer sense of the word, not a die hard, a sports fan who had read it. Following a discussion I picked up the book and was hooked straight away.
I should add that just before starting it I read Paul Kimmage’s Rough Ride which is also well worth a read and in a very similar form. In a way it makes the Hamilton book more powerful as paired together the books are a great history of drug taking in cycling and its advancement with Kimmage writing in the 80′s and Hamilton taking up the story in the early 90′s and beyond. They also shows the progression from amphetamines to EPO and blood doping really well.
As one of the most successful cyclists in the US, Tyler Hamilton had a long career that saw him ride for US Postal pre-Lance and during the Festina affair, as a key lieutenant for Armstrong’s first three wins (I’ll call them wins because non-wins sounds ridiculous) and afterwards as his competition as team leader at CSC and Phonak. Olympic gold aside, he was the nearly man, who but for injury could have been a serious contender for Armstrong and should really have won a Grand Tour. However he was also a prolific doper using multiple forms of doping to gain an edge to get to and stay at the top of the sport for so long. He was caught and left the sport he loved in disgrace with a ridiculous claim to innocence involving an absorbed twin. He was silent for years until contacted by Daniel Coyle, a journalist who had written an excellent book on Lance Armstrong and his competition in 2004 (calledLance Armstong’s War a great read incidentally) who had interviewed him then and was interested in his story.
For some reason, seemingly guilt, Hamilton began to talk to him and what followed was a deluge of info on how to dope successfully with in the Peloton and how widespread it was. How Armstrong used it to win multiple Tours and of working with the two most notorious doctors in cycling – Lance’s coach Dr.Michele Ferrari and Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes (Operation Puerto). These two provided all the information needed to dope and even carried out the blood doping in Fuentes case so we get insights into how this actually worked. The book includes information on the federal case against Armstrong that was shut down, of Hamilton giving evidence and also the follow-up USADA case that ultimately led to Armstrong’s disgrace.
Armstrong was known for his superhuman strength, everyone wondered how he did it. As a marketeers dream, Nike even ran a series of ads that showed him defending himself against doping – “What am I on?…I am on my bike…”. Hamilton’s book debunks the myth.
What we learn is that with EPO you can train harder and recover quicker. In Hamilton’s case it raised his pain threshold too. He talks about being able to push beyond what had previously been his limit. We learn of blood doping and what could and did go wrong. We learn about team practises, about hooking up iv’s in the team bus, hotel rooms and how to avoid getting caught by using “speed bags” of saline to dilute your blood when a tester called. We learn it all. From being a Tour contender in 2000 and having a near perfect lead-up to the 2001 Tour de France, suddenly stopping all doping (Armstrong seemingly didn’t like the fact that Hamilton’s numbers were better than his own) saw Hamilton finish in lowly 94th riding clean – the implication? It was impossible to ride clean and be a contender.
We also learn of the personal cost of all this. Of lying to the world and your family. Of wanting to ride clean but knowing it is futile and of a governing body that seemed to be complicit in the lie. Hamilton details Lance telling him that he has tested positive at the Tour of Switzerland in 2001 and that “it was all being taken care of”. This should be music to the ears of Paul Kimmage who is being sued by Pat McQuaid, Hein Verbruggen and the UCI for reporting on Floyd Landis claiming exactly this.
Whether you feel sorry for Hamilton for this personal cost (I don’t think I do) I’ll leave to you but it is an interesting insight none the less. What we get is a no holes barred window into the life of a top professional cyclist that details the extensiveness of doping within the sport. He names names, talks about directeur sportifs (Bruyneel and Riis come off particularly badly) and methods and practises are presented with astonishing detail.
So do I think things are anyway different today? In short no unfortunately. Possibly they are a little better but just as Hamilton talks about EPO use being safe in the 1999 Tour because there was no test, I am sure there are new drugs as yet undetectable that are helping the riders out never mind the spectre of blood doping which is nearly undetectable. With Operation Puerto swept under the carpet, the book even ends with a mention that Fuentes is still working although now he lives in the Canary islands.
So to read or not to read?
This book is compulsive reading and I highly recommend it. I literally could not put it down. The detail is staggering and the candidness with which he speaks is to be honest refreshing. The years we read about are some of the greatest the sport has ever known, now tarnished with no winner for seven Tours and beyond. Where to now is the great unknown although hopefully books like Hamilton’s may mark a turn in the right direction that outs the riders and team officials responsible for the lie.
So do I like Tyler Hamilton again? Hmmm, I’m not sure although I do respect him for his honesty, for finally speaking out, despite slightly questioning his motives.