The Secret Race. Photo: Courtesy of Bantam Dell
During the two years Daniel Coyle spent reporting and writing The Secret Race, he interviewed Tyler Hamilton 60 times. That’s a remarkable number, but it doesn’t really give an accurate picture of the amount of work that went into the book. Some of those interviews lasted eight hours. Not included in those numbers were marathon Skype sessions in which the pair hashed out the manuscript. One of those sessions lasted 10 hours and 45 minutes.
Coyle also interviewed dozens of other racers and cycling experts, traveled to hotel rooms in Europe to double check the accuracy of Hamilton’s stories, and read lots of scientific studies and doping articles to make sure he had the science and history of drugs in cycling down. He added those details into the story as footnotes, which freed him to concentrate on Hamilton’s voice in the main text. “One of the comments I’ve appreciated the most is that people who know Tyler really well say that the book really captures his voice,” says Coyle. “I’m grateful for that. We really tried to make sure that we did.”
I called up Coyle to find out a bit more about the process, whether he and Hamilton ever clashed, and what he thinks the future holds for Lance Armstrong and cycling.
In the first chapter of
the book you go into detail about how you first contacted Hamilton and then
went back and forth with him. Was there one moment when you knew you had to
write this book?
There were a bunch of moments. It’s such a cliché, but every book is a journey and this one had some big checkpoints early on. The first one was in our first conversation, which was on the phone, before we met in person. I was content with the projects I was working on and I wanted to challenge him. I did not want to hear, Yeah, I have an interesting story to tell. What I said was, I’m not interested in going 80 percent. I’m not interested in going 95 percent. I am only interested if you are going to go with 100 percent disclosure with no boundaries. When he responded and said he had an openness to that, it was a big moment. You realize, OK, this is a doorway to a place where I don’t know that any journalist, certainly not I as a journalist, had gone.
The next doorway was spending two days at a Marriott Residence Inn in Boulder where we just turned on the tape recorder and started going into it. Tyler talks about it as the Hoover Dam breaking. From the point of the view of the person standing at the base of the Hoover Dam, and watching the river kind of roll over, that’s a pretty good metaphor. Everything just came out, one thing after another, with a lot of emotion and a lot of detail. You know these experiences are so intense for these athletes, these memories they have. They’ve kept them a secret for such a long time. It comes out in Technicolor.
I came home from that trip, and my wife asks me, How’d it go? I tell her and I see her eyes getting bigger and bigger and I realize. I transcribe all the tapes, about 16 hours worth, and it ends up being about 40 pages of stuff, at 10-point font. Reading through that, I was just kind of like, Holy Mackerel. This isn’t just one story or two stories. This is a whole fabric of a landscape that nobody had ever explored.
I guess the next moment was when we went to Europe, to these places that evoked a whole other layer of memory and story and connection. I remember we were driving through Valencia and he made some comment, that was kind of a joke, but, it was, Hey, I think some of my blood bags are being kept in that clinic over there. It was sort of that idea, that, Oh my God, we’re driving past these things that are still around.
So it was sort of a series of a journey where you set foot in a landscape, and then you explore a little bit, and then you get into a city and you explore that, and then you get into a room and you explore that, and it just kept building and building until it was done.
There was a little sense of unfinished business after the other book too (Lance Armstrong's War). There were aspects of that world that were not explored more at that time. I was partly reluctant to go back in, but there was also a sense of, OK, this is an opportunity to complete that project.