Tyler Hamilton's The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs blew the doors off of Lance Armstrong's decade of denial, and it provides excellent insight into the life of a professional cyclist rising from the amateur ranks to a top tier Grand Tour contender.
I'm about halfway through this book, and I find it almost addictive - granted, I am a serious cycling fan and have always been a fan of Hamilton (more than Armstrong). The book is ostensibly about Hamilton and his career, but it's also about doping in cycling and about Armstrong's involvement in and orchestration of doping for U.S. Postal and Discovery teams.
As much as I am loving this book, I find the "aw shucks," humble beginnings, under-sized-athlete version of Hamilton's life a little off-putting. Hamilton is genetically gifted to be a great climber on the bike, granted not with all of Armstrong's gifts (drugs or no, Lance is a freak of nature), and he was a rising star in the U.S. before getting hired by U.S. Postal's continental team in 1996.
Still, I appreciate his honesty about the doping and the lengths he went to not to get caught - not to mention the incredible hunger to win that made doping an option that was acceptable.
More to the point, however, I am blown away by how tough the sport is at the top levels, how much willpower and strength it takes to dig deep and beyond all limits to finish a climb or a time trial.
Sept 8, 2012
Jan 15, 2013—Lance Armstrong has admitted to doping during an interview with Oprah Winfrey. Read Buzz Bissinger's mea culpa for defending Armstrong, and our speed read of Armstrong's longtime teammate Tyler Hamilton's book, containing many startling allegations against the former champion.
There were more drugs in cycling than in a game of Dr. Mario, Lance Armstrong’s longtime lieutenant Tyler Hamilton claims in a damning new account. We speed read The Secret Race for the biggest revelations.
1980s: Doping Before EPO
According to Andy Hampsten, a cyclist who raced in the 1980s and ’90s, riders were only using amphetamines and anabolics, and both had drawbacks. “Amphetamines made riders stupid … Anabolics made people bloated.” “EPO changed everything,” he said. It boosted a rider’s red-blood cells so they could carry more oxygen, leading to greater endurance.
Between 1980 and 1990, the average speed of a Tour de France rider was 37.5 kilometers per hour. From 1995 to 2005, it was 41.6kph.
1996: U.S. Postal Service Team
In 1994, Tyler Hamilton graduated from college and was racing as an amateur when he met Lance Armstrong, who had already won a world championship one-day race. The next year he turned pro, and in 1996 the U.S. Postal Service became the sponsor of his team. There was a new team doctor, Pedro Celaya, who explained what a hematocrit was: the percentage of blood that contains red-blood cells. If it exceeds 50 percent, you’d have to sit out 15 days, according to a new International Cycling Union (UCI) rule. There was no test for EPO yet.
According to the book, one day in the fall, when Armstrong was still recovering from cancer, his friend and teammate Frankie Andreu and his wife Betsy visited him in hospital. Two doctors entered the room and asked Armstrong if he’d ever used performance-enhancing drugs. Hamilton writes that, in front of the Andreuses, Armstrong said yes, matter-of-factly. “He’d used EPO, cortisone, testosterone, human-growth hormone, and steroids … This is a classic Lance moment, being cavalier about doping … He wants to minimize doping, show it’s no big deal, show that he’s bigger than any syringe or pill.” Betsy Andreu has talked about this encounter many times, including testifying under oath. Armstrong also denied it under oath and has attacked Andreu repeatedly.
1997: Tyler’s First Time
In 1997, just before a race, Hamilton says Celaya gave him his first “red egg” or “vitamin”—testosterone capsules. “I didn’t win the race, but I did pretty well.” One day he and others were at teammate/leader George Hincapie’s apartment in Girona, Spain, and they opened the refrigerator to find a foil packet with syringes and EPO. They called it “Edgar,” for Edgar Allan Poe. By the spring, because he wanted to make the Tour de France team, Hamilton took his first EPO shot. “Just a tiny amount, a clear liquid, a few drops.”
He took red eggs, Edgar, and stayed quiet. He rode the 1997 Tour and survived, while the French Festina team dominated the stages by using a synthetic blood called perfluorocarbons.
1998: Armstrong Joins U.S. Postal
Armstrong joined Hamilton’s team in 1998 after coming back from cancer. The two roomed together in training camp, and quickly became close friends. Hamilton was in Armstrong’s inner circle, and the two almost always trained together. He became Armstrong’s second in command, his lieutenant on the team.
Because he wasn’t as fit and ready as he wanted to be, Armstrong wisely and luckily sat out that year’s Tour. The race was marked by the Festina Affair, when a team car was stopped by French police, and 234 doses of EPO and other drugs were found in the trunk. Other teams, including U.S. Postal, flushed thousands of dollars’ worth of drugs down the toilets, says Hamilton.PATRICK HERTZOG
“We all wanted to win. But Lanceneeded to win.”
1999 - Motoman
Armstrong’s most trusted adviser was Dr. Michele Ferrari, who was nicknamed Dr. Evil because he could figure out how to beat any doping test, writes Hamilton. Hamilton says Ferrari singlehandedly changed the sport. In the spring of 1999, Armstrong assembled his inner circle at his French villa in Nice to map out the plan for the Tour. When Hamilton arrived, he badly needed some EPO, and he asked Armstrong for some. “Lance pointed casually to the fridge. I opened it and there, on the door, next to a carton of milk, was a carton of EPO… I was surprised that Lance would be so cavalier.”
Because of the Festina Affair, team staffers were often searched and couldn’t carry EPO any more. During training, Hamilton says he got his from Celaya’s replacement, Dr. Luis Garcia del Moral, an ironic name if ever there was one. But what would happen during the Tour? Standing in the kitchen, Hamilton writes that Armstrong sketched out the plan: he would pay his gardener and handyman Phillipe, a.k.a. Motoman, to follow the Tour on his motocycle, carrying a thermos full of EPO for Armstrong, Hamilton, and a third teammate, Kevin Livingston. The riders would call him on a secret prepaid cellphone, and he would make a dropoff. They dropped used syringes in an empty soda can: the Radioactive Coke Can.
Armstrong won the “Tour de Fucking France,” a feat hailed as a miracle for the cancer survivor. President Bill Clinton phoned him. But he had tested positive for cortisone after the prologue stage. Hamilton writes that U.S. Postal made up a cover story and said Armstrong had a saddle sore, and backdated a prescription for a cortisone skin cream. UCI was not serious about testing or getting Armstrong, so the issue went away. When they had extra EPO, Armstrong suggested giving it to other teammates who were not in on the Motoman drop.
There were elaborate errands, chores, and routines to securing drugs and disposing of paraphernalia. Hamilton would soak the cardboard packaging of the EPO until the label was unreadable. He’d crush the empty vials by wrapping them in paper towels and pounding them with a hammer, then flush them down the toilet. He got to the point where he could estimate his hematocrit level by the color of his blood.
2000: Blood Bags
Hamilton and his wife moved to Nice at Armstrong’s invitation. The riders almost always trained together. One day during a training ride, Hamilton and Armstrong were cut off by a small car. Hamilton writes that Armstrong chased down the car, pulled the man out, and began pummeling him.
Just before the Tour, team director Johan Brunyeel flew Armstrong, Hamilton, and Livingston to Spain to have their blood drawn by del Moral and his assistant, Pepe Marti. “It would be like taking EPO, except better … You're watching a big clear plastic bag slowly fill up with your warm dark red blood. You never forget it." This blood transfusion was called BBs, or blood bags, and had to be done in the days leading up to the race since red-blood cells can only live for about 28 days, and giving blood is also very draining. Before the crucial stage 12 on Mont Ventoux, where Armstrong’s nemesis Marco Pantani would attack, the riders entered their hotel room to find their blood bags taped to a wall above their beds, ready for transfusion. Two days later, Armstrong blew by Pantani on the summit, then famously let him take the stage victory—he had already won the Tour, ended the battle, “Lance by TKO.” Pantani had used up all his energy chasing Armstrong, and dropped out of the race after stage 16.
During training, Hamilton’s numbers improved significantly and his hematocrit was at 49.7. From then on, Armstrong saw Hamilton as a threat and that was the beginning of the end of their friendship.
To prepare for the 2001 Tour, Armstrong rode in the Tour of Switzerland. Ferrari advised Armstrong to sleep in an altitude tent and to drip EPO into his vein all night, so that it goes straight into the bloodstream and then goes away. “In this, as in other things, Lance was blessed: he had veins like water mains.” Hamilton says it took the authorities years and millions of dollars to develop a test for EPO, and “it took Ferrari five minutes to figure out how to evade it.” “The tests are easy to beat. We’re way, way ahead of the tests. They’ve got their doctors and we’ve got ours, and ours are better. Better paid, for sure.”
But Armstrong tested positive for EPO during that Tour of Switzerland. “I know because he told me,” Hamilton writes. “No worries, dude,” he says Armstrong told him. “We’re gonna have a meeting with them. It’s all taken care of.” According to sources within the FBI, a UCI official had intervened in the test and stopped it. Armstrong later made two donations totaling $125,000 to the UCI. Hamilton says he remembers Armstrong phoning the head of the UCI from the team bus soon after the incident and talking in a friendly, casual tone. The UCI has denied Hamilton's claim.
The team also began using testosterone patches instead of red eggs.
During that Tour, Hamilton largely did not use EPO, and his performance suffered. On a particularly dreadful day of riding, Armstrong grabbed Hamilton’s jersey by the neck and yelled, “What the f--k are you doing, Tyler?” That night Hamilton decided to leave U.S. Postal.
2002: More BBs
Hamilton joined CSC, a different team, and tried to stake his claim as Armstrong’s rival. He and Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes, whom Hamilton called “Ufe,” transfused multiple blood bags during the Tour—one per week, writes Hamilton. The scheduling of taking blood out and putting it back in was complicated. They used code for where to meet, and chose middle-of-the-road hotels.
But Armstrong won the Tour handily again. Hamilton doesn’t know what methods Armstrong used, but “there was always the sense that there was one more circle we weren’t seeing.” He said riders have always considered Armstrong two years ahead of the peloton when it came to doping.
2003: Broken Collarbone
Hamilton again raced against Armstrong in the 2003 Tour, and relied on BBs when he beat Armstrong for the first time ever. But then, near the end of the first stage, he was involved in a crash and he broke his collarbone. Against doctors’ advice, he continued on the Tour, which made him rather famous. But this also brought on guilt and depression.
2004: Siberia and Athens Olympics
Hamilton left CSC and joined Phonak, and Ufe began freezing BBs, a method he called Siberia. This meant Hamilton could give blood at any time and use more bags per race. But when he performed incredibly well during a practice climb on Mont Ventoux that included Armstrong, he was summoned to the UCI headquarters and said he was being put on a close watch.
During the Tour, Armstrong’s new teammate, Floyd Landis—in many ways Hamilton’s replacement as inner-circle friend—told Hamilton that Armstrong had called the UCI to rein him in. Hamilton confronted Armstrong during a stage, and Armstrong denied the claim. Armstrong won again, and would get his final Tour victory in 2005 for a record-shattering seven straight titles.
That summer, Hamilton won the gold medal in the time trial at the Athens Olympics. But 29 days after the Olympics, the UCI claimed that Hamilton had tested positive for transfusion of another person’s blood. BBs are full of a rider’s own blood, so Hamilton was perplexed and fought the charges, although it was possible that Ufe had mixed up the blood bags. A former teammate, Jonathan Vaughters, said, “The deadly mistake that Tyler, Floyd … and the rest of them made when they left Postal was to assume that they’d find other doctors who were as professional. But when they got out there, they found—whoops!—there weren’t any others.” Last month, the IOC stripped Hamilton of his gold medal. After a two year ban, Hamilton tried to make a comeback, but tested positive again in 2009. He retired.
2010: Grand Jury
Floyd Landis, who had won the Tour for Phonak in 2006, the year after Armstrong retired, was stripped of his victory after failing a drug test. In 2010 he blew the whistle and confessed to doping, and provided many details about Armstrong. Within days, Hamilton was called to testify in front of a grand jury investigating Armstrong. Hamilton also confessed, and made many of these accusations against Armstrong during the hearing.
2011: 60 Minutes
In March, 60 Minutes contacted Hamilton and asked for an interview; he agreed. He repeated many of his confessions and accusations against Armstrong. Thesegment aired in May. In June, the owner of Armstrong’s favorite restaurant in Aspen, his new home, called him to tell him that Hamilton was having dinner there; Armstrong rushed over. “I’m going to make your life a living … fucking … hell.”
On June 12, the United States Anti-Doping Agency charged Armstrong, Pedro Celaya, Johan Bruyneel, Luis del Moral, Pepe Marti, and Michele Ferrari with conducting a conspiracy to dope. In August, the USADA officially stripped Armstrong of his seven Tour wins after he announced he would not be fighting the charges.
Since his retirement from pro cycling, Hamilton has been a private trainer to riders. “I’m happy to see my sport cleaning itself up over the past few years … The winning time up Alpe d’Huez in the 2011 Tour was 41:21; back in 2001, a rider with that time would have finished 40th.”
“We all wanted to win. But Lance needed to win. He had to make 100 percent sure that he won, every time, and that made him do some things that went way over the line, in my opinion … I think people have the right to know the truth.”
~ Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly noted Tyler Hamilton's gold medal in the Olympics.