Daniel Coyle on 'The Secret Race,' Tyler Hamilton, and Lance Armstrong

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.

Was there a feeling of guilt, or just needing to know more, or...
I didn’t feel any guilt. I felt like there was just more. In the rules of being a journalist, you just go where the light is. You go where the light is. At the time I was there, in 2004 and 2005, I went everywhere where the light was, and some places where it was kind of shadowy. I hung out with Ferrari back then. I spent time trying to cross that borderland, but at the end of the day, there were some places you can’t go without a guide. That’s who Tyler was. He was able to take me to those places. I felt in those cases that I fulfilled my job as a journalist, to get the facts, make sure they are right, and lay them out so that people can decide for themselves. Which seems to be what’s happened.

Which story did Tyler have the toughest time telling?
That’s a great question. Tyler approached this project kind of like he approached his bike riding. He kind of gritted his teeth and went right in. There was stuff where he was pretty fearless from the get go, in terms of revealing things with kind of a wholeheartedness or a forthrightness, because he was kind of enjoying this process. As uncomfortable as it was to go back to some of these places, it was also a feeling of relief. He was looking at himself as he was back then, so he had a little distance. I think some of the stuff about, I mean, he lost a marriage over this. That was a pretty painful area to go to. And some of the stuff involved with the first time, the first experience with it. We went back to that a few times. It’s a simple story, but each time he told it there would be another dimension and it would get more complicated. Throughout, though, he had a real athlete’s attitude toward the pain of telling the story, which is to say he kind of leaned into it. There wasn’t anything where I got the feeling, Oh my God. This is radioactive. Because the whole point was to go where it was radioactive. The whole point was to rip the scab off.

One of the things I liked best about the book was the footnotes. There’s that section where Hamilton first mentions EPO and you go into the history and science behind EPO in cycling. Why did you decide to use footnotes in the book?
The reader needed an advocate. The reader needed a guide. Figuring out the voice of this book was one of the harder problems I’ve ever faced. In some variations, it was going to be me telling it. In other variations, it was going to be Tyler’s voice. We kind of settled on Tyler as the main guide of this thing and me as the verifier, the guy who can pull the camera back and give a little context, or give a little bit of corroborating or contradictory material. Where Tyler sort of says one thing and I might come in and shine a different dimension on it. It felt like, sort of, a reflection. I tried to imagine what I would like as a reader, and it ended up sort of evolving. It wasn’t where we started. It was an adaptation that seems to have worked.

Because his voice, he’s got this way of talking, I tried to capture it on the page, where he’s very warm and simple. He uses straightforward, very forthright language to tell kind of these astonishing things. And he says it like, Oh yeah, I just ground 11 teeth down and I had to get them recapped. And the way it comes out of his mouth it doesn’t sound like anything until you stop to listen to it and until you really get it. And there’s something very powerful about telling this story in a non-heated, very matter of fact, honest, sitting next to him at the bar sort of way, that really, really works. Once we figured out that was the right music for the book, it became, like anything, obvious in retrospect.

What was the hardest thing for you to report or confirm?
The hardest stuff for me to report was where Tyler was alone in the room with only a few other people, and a lot of the other people weren’t responding to our requests for interviews, or because of their situation, were not interested in talking. The room in Valencia at the hotel. That’s one of the reasons we went there, so he would show it to me. So then I had to go to contemperaneous conversations Tyler might have had with other people who can vouch for that. That was kind of a reporting challenge. How can we find people you talked with back then that can say, Yes, we had that conversation. Yes, this fits a larger pattern. Yes, I drove him to the airport that day. That kind of stuff was difficult.

A lot of this was just the standard issue shovel and spade journalism, making calls trying to find out. A lot of the more interesting conversations I had were with other ex-teammates and other ex-professional riders who had gone through similar, although slightly different, experiences. Having conversations with them was sort of tricky in certain ways, because a lot of these guys are sort of navigating their own confessions, their own stories. That becomes sort of complicated.

It was nice to have a clean rule: Look, if we can’t corroborate it, if we can’t verify it, it’s out. It’s not in the book. It was sort of painful to exclude things from the book, a few stories in particular, but having that rule made us feel much better about the book, and definite.

Was there any one other person that made a huge a difference in reporting the book other than Hamilton?
I would put Jonathan Vaughters on that list. He was smart, insightful, had great quotes, and great recall of these very intense situations for a lot of important moments. That was massive. There were other conversations with people who chose to remain off the record, but who stepped forward enough to offer their verification of the material. Those people were hugely useful.

Michael Ashenden, I had long conversations with him in terms of laying out the landscape of this from a scientific perspective that were really insightful. There’s a quote from him, and I’m not going to get this exactly right, but he says, You know, I used to think these guys were bad guys, but now that I basically understand their situation. If I would have been a cyclist? Maybe I would have done it too. That was a cool moment. There was this sense of understanding and empathy that exists between riders, even between some of the anti-doping people and the riders. The people are realizing this isn’t a story about bad guys and good guys. This isn’t a story about the evil dopers and non-dopers. It’s really a story about the culture and about the way that human beings behave under certain stresses and the weight of having to survive. That’s really what it’s about.

Aside from truth, one of the other themes of the book is power, and there are moments when Armstrong comes off as a bully. A lot of people see him as a do-gooder or a hero. What do you think is going to happen with his reputation over the next year?
That’s a good question. I don’t know if I, or anybody, has the answer. The information is still coming out. USADA has yet to release the finding of facts, which will likely make front page news, maybe in the world. So we can’t predict the forecast, but we can say for sure that he’s been a tremendous inspiration to a community, and by all rights. It’s almost like you look at it through a political lens. He’s got a constituency, and it’s pretty strong. It’s probably shrinking a little bit from previous years, but I think he’ll continue to do his work.

But a lot of Americans are going to look at him a little bit differently, and the reason is, his core appeal was not just that he competed, but that he dominated. That he won, and that he won over and over again—beating cancer, winning the Tour de France—is so compelling. Now we have facts about how he went about winning the Tour de France. People are able to make up there minds, and they are free to say, Look, I don’t care how he did it. Everybody was cheating. If he won, he won, period. He’s still an inspiration. And that’s fine if people want to say that. But on the whole, I think that people are smart and they will want to sort what part of him they can still find inspiration from, and try to see him more through the lens of.... The Greeks had this figured out a long time ago, the story of the hero, the guy whose most powerful characteristic ends up being his fatal flaw. Lance had a monomaniacal focus for winning, and that really fueled him, especially in this world. And yet, especially when you look at this through the long lens, that may have turned out to be his fatal flaw.

What sort of reaction have you gotten since the book has come out?
It’s been really gratifying, the number of people who have kind of found inspiration that Tyler is telling the truth. What he told me at the beginning of this was that he believed the truth would set him free and I think a lot of people have responded to that message. A lot of people have appreciated it. I guess the place I see it the most is in the Amazon reviews for the book. There’s a real heartfelt reaction and appreciation for him. I don’t want to overplay it. Tyler is obviously the first one to admit he ain’t no saint. But I think people are responding after this long period of secrecy and silence and double lives. People are seeing this as a breath of fresh air and long overdue, and the community seems to be using this book as a platform for conversation. This idea of truth and reconciliation is being batted around in various circles. It’s an interesting idea, and if Tyler and the book can help fuel that moment, then cycling still has to reconnect with its past and find a path forward. It has been gratifying to see that people are choosing to see the book in the spirit it was offered, and not seeing it as a takedown, not seeing its portrayal that Lance Armstrong is anything but a human being in a complicated situation.

What did you learn from the writing of this book?
It reminded me that for some stories it’s best to get out of the way, and not try to over-structure or overwrite them. That the real power of a story is in the simplicity of its telling.

Of course, the relationship with Tyler was a big part of this project. It's been work, for sure, but it's also been really enjoyable. He really is a fun person to spend time with, and an incredibly kind person. And, he’s really good at being a friend, and making connections, and keeping relationships. So, part of it has been, kind of a reminder, that, yeah, this is a book project, but it’s also life. It’s fun to be able to walk out of it with good relationships that are going to last a lifetime.

Was there anything in the writing of the book that you guys clashed on?
He was really pretty good. For as low key as he is, he has a real writer’s sensibility. He understands a good turn of phrase. There was a point where we were writing about, I think Bjarne Riis. He suggested to Tyler that you come back from a ride, you take two sleeping pills, you drink a bottle of seltzer water, and you try to sleep, and, if you’re lucky, you’ll wake up at dinner. Tyler changed it slightly and said, or, if you’re lucky, breakfast. There were a lot of moments like that where he had a really good sensibility, really good timing, and even when it came to the rhythm of certain passages he was really strong.

The hard thing was partly the size of scope and the story. Tyler ended up being in a position where he needed to go over the whole book in a short period of time. We had one Skype session that ended up being 10 hours and 45 minutes, just going through the manuscript. When he gets his teeth into something, he just keeps going. I kind of responded to that. We both treated this like our little Tour de France, and we both kind of got it.

He took a real care and love with each word. There’s one moment in the end where he started talking about his empathy for Lance. The original draft said, Lance can be a huge jerk, but in the end he’s just a human being and he’s a nice guy and has a great smile. And I remember Tyler changed it to, Lance can be “a bona fide jerk, a huge tool.” And Tyler was right, huge tool was better. It’s funnier. It has a little more alliteration.

The Secret Race is available for purchase on Amazon.

For more on the evolving story of Lance Armstrong and doping, Outside is collecting stories here.

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