A few years ago, I got a call from a journalist friend. He’d just been assigned to do a Lance Armstrong cover profile for a major magazine, and he didn’t know very much about cycling. This was typical—the more you knew about the sport, it seemed, the less access you would enjoy, thanks to Armstrong’s army of PR flacks, agents, and protectors.
Then my friend asked the inevitable question: “What about the doping?”
I sighed, then gave him the rundown: the sad history of scandal in the sport, beginning with the EPO era in the mid-1990s and continuing through the Spanish affair called Operación Puerto, in which police raided the offices of a Madrid gynecologist in 2006 and found detailed doping plans and freezers and refrigerators full of blood bags marked with code names for dozens of top riders. One of those riders was Tyler Hamilton, who’d been caught, basically, with someone else’s blood in his blood. It was creepy, ghoulish stuff.
Then we turned to the subject of Armstrong. At that point, he’d steered clear of major scandal, but there were enough tidbits to suspect that something was not right: the positive cortisone test from 1999, the urine samples from that year that had supposedly tested positive for EPO when they were checked in 2005. All the teammates of his who’d gotten popped, who’d tested positive; the two teammates who had already confessed to The New York Times. The fact that he was working with Michele Ferrari, unknown in the United States but renowned in Europe as the master of dope-fueled training. Most of this stuff had been reported, in some form, in the press. Then it had disappeared.
My friend tends to write about quirky heroes of mainstream sports, with a sideline in damaged celebrities; he knows a thing or two about messed-up lives. We talked for more than an hour. Later he sent an email that said, “Cycling is CRAZY! Who knew?”
AS OF THIS WEEK we know a lot more, thanks to the publication of Tyler Hamilton’s memoir, The Secret Race, written with former Outside editor Daniel Coyle. (Coyle was my first editor at Outside, before leaving the magazine in early 1990s.) Guarded for months with Manhattan Project–level rigor, The Secret Race is going to hit cycling—and the still unresolved Armstrong saga—like a bomb.
The Secret Race is not simply a rehash of Hamilton’s 2011 interview with 60 Minutes, as the initial Associated Press newsbreak suggested on Thursday. (The book’s release date is September 5, moved up from September 18, which awkwardly coincided with Armstrong’s birthday. The AP obtained a copy and wrote about it.) In fact, it’s the most comprehensive, detailed account to date of the culture of doping that prevailed in cycling during the Armstrong era. It’s a big, hot, steaming enema bag filled with purifying truth for a sport that has dodged it for far too long.
In 287 pages, Hamilton confirms most of the “allegations” that have “dogged” Armstrong over the years but could never be proven beyond a doubt. For instance: Have you wondered why Armstrong’s urine samples from the 1999 Tour tested positive for EPO? According to Hamilton, it was because Armstrong and his top lieutenants, Hamilton and Kevin Livingston, were all using EPO, the banned blood-booster drug (for which, incidentally, no direct test existed in 1999).