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The Secret Race – Inside the competition machine

Tyler Hamilton’s new book, The Secret Race, accomplishes many things. First and foremost, from Hamilton’s perspective, it frees him from lies. He had lied so much during his cycling career that telling the truth in general was not enough. He needed to retell his whole story in detail – truthfully this time – in order to free himself.

It was as if he had gotten caught in a web of deceit and the only way out of it was to weave another, truer story. Surely all autobiographies are to some extent fiction, in that they only reflect the past as the teller remembers it, in a subjective way. But Hamilton engaged Daniel Coyne to help him tell a truer tale. The writer and journalist corroborated the details of Tyler’s account, making it more accurate and complete. The end result is a detailed, excruciating tale that recasts Hamilton’s past as a competitive cyclist in a much more painful and accurate light, freeing him from the lies of his past.

Not that Hamilton’s motivation is only to exonerate himself to his own conscience. The book is intended to shake up the sport of cycling, and given that it was originally scheduled for release on Lance Armstrong’s birthday, Hamilton no doubt intends for the book’s revelations to shake Armstrong’s resolve to continue lying about his own use of performance enhancing drugs.

So, exoneration for Hamilton, and (yet another) challenge to Armstrong to tell the truth:  two things this book does.

A third is dispelling the myth that since during the era when Hamilton and Armstrong competed, all the professional cyclists were doping, it was a level playing field. Not so, says Hamilton (and David Millar, and Jonathan Vaughters). Some riders responded really well to drugs, and this gave them an advantage over others who responded less, meaning, for example, that slower riders could surpass superior riders because of how their biology interacted with EPO.

Also, the richer and more influential the cyclist, the better his access to doping doctors, cutting edge methods for avoiding detection, the latest drugs, etc. He would have a lot of advantages. If you were doping without these advantages, you would be more likely to be caught, more likely to damage your health, and you would probably be slower too. Not exactly a level playing field.

But, really, even without the drugs, cycling, like other very competitive sports where athletes and their sponsors stake their reputations and their fortunes on winning, would still not be a level playing field.

Athletes from rich countries have great advantages over those from poor countries – they have better training, equipment, nutrition, coaching, education, travel, competition opportunities – the list goes on and on. And in cycling, athletes win prize money and sponsorships, which in turn allow them to further cement their advantages.

Getting rid of doping is probably important not because the sport would be more fair (I don’t really think it would be), but because it would be safer for athletes. They would not have to risk their health by taking drugs that could cause heart attacks, cancer and other serious problems.

And finally, it would free athletes from having to choose between living an honest life and living a life of deceit and constant stress. As Hamilton has made clear, no amount of glory, adulation or money could compensate for the loss of an honest life.

Hamilton has said many times that he takes full responsibility for doping – that it was his own free choice. I disagree. Many of the top cyclists of that period were pressured to take PEDs by doctors, coaches and mentors whose job it was to ensure their well-being and success.

These riders were also under a pressure to keep their teams winning so that riders and staff would not lose their jobs.

Doctors are among the most trusted of all authority figures, and coaches are a close second to athletes who rely on them. To expect a young athlete to freely choose not to dope when his doctor and coach are handing him EPO is unrealistic to say the least, and to place all the blame on the individual cyclists misses the point – doping was a part of a very compelling, high pressure culture, and refusing to participate meant giving up any chance of winning.

Cleaning up cycling is in no way the sole responsibility of individual athletes, and neither is the choice to dope. That choice is the product of cycling’s competition machine.

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