The Unlevel Playing Field
With the release of his new tell-all about the doping culture of professional cycling, The Secret Race, Tyler Hamilton has been blamed for cashing in on the celebrity of one-time teammate and brother-like figure Lance Armstrong. But what he's really saying—to Armstrong and everyone else—is this: Come clean with me. You'll feel better, and it's not too la
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For longtime cycling fans, it was startling to see Tyler Hamilton sitting on the Today Show couch on the morning of September 5, talking to Matt Lauer about Lance Armstrong and the hidden history of cheating on the U.S Postal Service cycling team. He was there, of course, to promote his new book, The Secret Race, a confessional co-authored with Daniel Coyle. Just three years ago, it seemed unlikely that such revelations would ever come—and especially unlikely that Hamilton would be the messenger.
For much of the past eight years, since Hamilton tested positive in September 2004 for having someone else’s blood in his system, he has been a ghostlike figure, shunned by his sport, roaming the wilderness of denial. Now here he was on national television, saying shocking things not just about Armstrong but about himself.
Between TV appearances, Hamilton sat down with Bill Gifford to discuss his journey from “delinquent” to truth teller. He looked much older but also more comfortable, smiling and making eye contact. And you couldn’t help but notice his hair: the cropped look of Hamilton’s youth has given way to a Spicoli shag that made him seem almost too relaxed. (In fairness, Wednesday was a bad hair day in New York—humid, oppressive, and frizz inducing.)
The Secret Race is going to be tough for the public to digest: the details it reveals are horrific, even to veteran sports reporters. (At one point in the book, Hamilton transfuses a bag of blood that has somehow gone bad and experiences a severe toxic reaction, urinating bright red blood but continuing to race.) The Secret Race demolishes the idea that, because an athlete passed hundreds of drug tests, he or she must have been clean. Lauer had trouble with that notion, and so will many readers. He also swats down the familiar idea that doping creates a “level playing field.”
As Hamilton suggests in his interview, cycling is about to go through a purge the likes of which it has never seen. Though it took Hamilton eight years to confront his own hard truth, The Secret Race is just the beginning.
If you’re a professional bike racer and you’re doping at a pretty high level, what do you have to tell yourself that makes it OK?
You tell yourself that everybody else is doing it, to some degree. I wasn’t thinking about the whole peloton. I was thinking about rider X, rider Y, rider Z, who I considered my competition. They’re doing this and I gotta keep pace—and they probably said the same thing about me. I never felt comfortable with it. Never. Never, never, never. I was never 100 percent OK with it, but at that time it was the culture of the sport.
Did you seek it out, or did it find you?
The first time I doped was in the spring of 1997. I started with a little “red egg,” which was testosterone. I’d done a big block of racing, and I had another block coming up. The team doctor [Pedro Celaya, also charged by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for drug offenses] said, “It’s just for recovery; it’s testosterone. It will be out of your system in three days. It’s OK.” I started out very slowly, and the next time I took anything was a few months later. That was my first shot of EPO. That’s how it started.
There’s a line in The Secret Race where you tell yourself, “I could see the gap between who I was and who I could be. Who I was supposed to be.” Is that how you thought about it—that, in a way, doping brought you to the level where you belonged?
I don’t think I thought about it that way. If you look at my career, I kind of got progressively better and better and better. I came closer to the top. And that’s what came along with it: doping. More doping, and more sophisticated doping. In 2002, blood doping became a part of my routine. I had done it once before, in 2000. I did it in June and July of 2000 and didn’t do it again until 2002.
Was blood doping better than EPO?
They say it’s more effective. It’s your own blood. It’s not detectable—still, to this day. The only thing they can test for is the plastic that the blood comes in.
And back then, not even that.
Blood doping meant less stress. In 1999, we took EPO during the Tour de France. We had the guy Philippe, who’s called Motoman in the book. But then, in 2000, the testers were coming out with an EPO test. We heard it was coming out in time for the Olympics, but there were rumors it was coming out earlier. There was no way we were going to risk taking EPO during the 2000 Tour.
The book also makes it clear that, even with all the doping, you still have to work very hard as a Tour racer.
Oh, yeah. So hard. So hard. With doping, there’s a big spectrum of what makes you good. I could dope to the gills right now and I would go backward. And if I had to take one thing out, the doping or the training or the diet, it would be the doping. Hands down. No question. You can’t take out training and diet. Would you rather be 10 pounds heavier or dope? For sure, take out the dope.
You also talk about how, basically, the choice was to do it or go home.
Yeah. It wasn’t said, but it was made pretty clear. The guys who didn’t dope went home within a year or two. Like [U.S. Postal teammate] Darren Baker. He was great. A really good rider. And [teammate] Scott Mercier, who also quit.
And Andy Hampsten?
Yeah. He was retiring, but he probably retired a little bit early. There’s plenty of them.
And then there are some, like Jonathan Vaughters—who rode with Postal in 1998 and 1999—who you suggest did it reluctantly.
What, like he was a clean doper? No, it’s black or white. Once you started, there was no halfway. Either you did dope or you didn’t. Some of us took it to extreme levels. I’m not saying every cyclist went out there and blood doped. But when you’re a team leader, you have an obligation to the team. They pay you the money to do well and get it done. I remember, after my suspension ended in 2007, I rode for Tinkoff Credit Systems. One day, right in front of the whole team, the subject of doping came up. I remember [team owner Oleg Tinkoff] said, “I don’t care what you guys do, just don’t get caught.” That was my first experience, coming back after two-and-a-half years of not racing.
What was your reaction?
To me that was bullshit. There were some young kids on that team. They don’t need to hear that. Here we go again. And since then—it’s not like I follow bike racing religiously, but I keep my eye on it—a couple of those guys, my old teammates, have tested positive. It’s just sad. It’s obvious that there’s still some of that old-school mentality in cycling today, and that needs to be addressed.
As far as Postal goes, who was the driving force behind the doping? Did that come from Johan Bruyneel or Lance or who?
I started doping [on Postal] in 1997. Lance wasn’t even on the team then. He came in ’98. I don’t know where the doping came from, just that the team doctor came to me. I’m not saying my decision to start doping was right, and I’ve never tried to justify it. Whenever I was on the podium, it felt weird. I was obviously happy to have done well, but it wasn’t truly happy from the bottom of my heart.
In the book, you say it’s like living on two planets at once.
Yeah, a secret life. And then your normal life. It’s awful, because you’re constantly having to lie. But you think it’s for the best. Lying to my parents, brother and sister, and friends.
Because you think it’s worse to tell them?
Well, where do you draw the line? I was super nervous about it as it was. The fewer people who knew about it, the better. I didn’t talk about it with my teammates. Most stuff happened behind closed doors. Over time you could kind of figure out who’s doping and who’s not. It’s not something you want to do in front of other people. It’s kind of gross.
One thing that’s been coming up from Lance’s defenders is the idea that, if everybody did it, then it’s somehow fair. That doping itself resulted in a level playing field.
It’s not fair. For one thing, it all depends on each individual. It depends on what your natural hematocrit is. If Jonathan Vaughters’ is 48, he can only take a little bit of EPO, because it would be too dangerous for him, with testers, to raise his level any higher. Mine was in the lower forties, so EPO could help me more. It’s harder to measure how much growth hormone helps you. For me, growth hormone, when I tried it, felt awful. My legs felt sluggish. But some riders loved it, and that was their thing. Anyway, without doping, I think the race results would have been similar but not exactly the same. So no, it’s not a level playing field.
You talk about 2001, when you were cut out of the U.S. Postal doping loop for that year’s Tour. And you suddenly go from being in the first group to 94th place.
That’s when I was working super hard in the middle of the race, and then sitting up—I wasn’t saved for the last mountains. In 2001, don’t forget, Postal brought on replacements for Kevin Livingston and me. They brought in Roberto Heras, Chechu Rubiera, Victor Hugo Peña. People who were proven climbers. Heras was like fourth or fifth in the Tour the year before. It was also clear that I wasn’t on the same drug program as in prior years. The year before, it had been blood transfusions, and the year before that it was EPO. Then 2001 came around and nobody told me anything. So basically, I hadn’t done any major doping prep since early June. I wasn’t officially clean, but it was probably the cleanest Tour I ever did.
What did you do wrong in 2001 to end up out of the loop?
Things just changed, and I’m not sure exactly why. I decided to leave the team at the end of that season, and things changed drastically after that.
Did Lance feel challenged by you?
I guess. He shouldn’t have, but sure. I remember, just before the 2001 Tour, we were flying in his jet at 9:30 in the morning. I had gotten a call the night before about some article [in VeloNews]. I had said the wrong thing, something about how a guy like me can be dangerous if we have an early breakaway. After Lance won the previous two Tours, most teams were going to look at us to do the work. But if you put a guy who can ride the GC in a breakaway, it’s perfect. I can sit on the breakaway, the team can sit on the peloton and save our energy.
Lance somehow took that as a threat. And if I hadn’t apologized to Johan and Lance, I wouldn’t have gone to the Tour. It was that bad. It shows, looking back, that they didn’t trust us. Nobody else could be a threat to them.
Also in 2001, you talk about the Tour de Suisse, where you say Lance told you he tested positive for EPO. You were freaked out. But he sort of laughed it off and said he would have a meeting with the UCI and it would basically go away. Was there a sense that he had some sort of special protection?
There was a sense, yes.
Was there still fear? Did you guys live in fear of a positive test ruining everything?
Oh, I did. Yes. Out-of-competition testers would show up at the wrong moment, during glowtime—when drugs were still in your system—or when your back was turned. You’re caught with your pants down, more or less. It was constantly on my mind. It’s not a comfortable way to live.
Lance tested positive for cortisone during the first Tour he won, in 1999. Were you aware of that when it happened? Was there general panic?
Cortisone is legal to take if you have a doctor’s note [editor’s note: this is called a therapeutic-use exemption, or TUE], and back then every team played the game. You couldn’t have nine guys on cortisone, because it looks bad. Typically, it would be five or six. You were given a little booklet that you had to bring in to the doping controls, and on it would be the summary of what you could have.
So you had those as well—the TUEs?
Yes. And obviously, there was some miscommunication there, the doctor forgot to tell them, but they were luckily able to work it out with the UCI. And although Lance got semicaught there, we were all doing it. But it looked a little fishy.
That was a paperwork problem?
Basically, it’s as if Lance hadn’t filed his income taxes on time. Back then there were probably 40 or 50 other riders on cortisone. The only difference was, Lance didn’t have it in his little booklet. What I’m saying is, you know, we were all delinquents, more or less.
I expected you to come forward like this sooner, back when you tested positive for the blood transfusion. Did it cross your mind to come clean then and there?
Number one, I actually didn’t take somebody else’s blood during that incident, as far as I know. But it doesn’t matter, because I was blood doping anyway. It was like I was a bank robber, but they accused me of robbing that bank and I didn’t do it.
It wasn’t the right time to talk. I wanted to come back to the sport as quickly as possible. Even if I did have to wait two years, I couldn’t tell the truth, because I knew they’d never let me back in. If I had told more or less what’s in the book, at least 60 people would have lost their jobs. If you had asked me two and a half years ago if I would take these secrets to the grave, I was convinced I would. I felt like I was part of this fraternity, and I had to keep it inside the circle. They’re my old buddies. I’ll take it for the team.
And then, you know, Jeff Novitzky gives me a call, and that’s the turning point. Standing in front of a federal grand jury, telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It was a huge weight off my shoulders.
What do you think ought to be done with Lance’s tour titles? Do you think anyone else should get them?
No, I don’t think anyone else should get them, that’s for sure. Just leave it blank or delete 10 years of cycling, I don’t know.
During your 60 Minutes interview, you basically said that Lance did “what we all did” and that the doping on U.S. Postal started before he got there. You were almost leaving the door open for him to come out.
I wasn’t doing that intentionally. I was trying to make a point, because it’s not about Lance. Lance is just a rider in the peloton. Obviously, he has the biggest name, so he has the big X on his back. I just wanted to make that clear.
You talk about him almost like a brother.
At one point, it was kind of like that. Now it’s not. But that’s OK.
With so much evidence out there, is an admission by him a possibility?
I think he’d feel a lot better. I don’t think there’s ever a point of no return. It’s a difficult spot to be in. But now it’s clear as day. I feel so much better.
Meanwhile, I understand Lance’s denial. Once you start lying, you get kind of comfortable. You start believing it. Especially if you truly believe you didn’t really cheat because you were doing what everybody else was doing. But you don’t want to see the guy miserable for the rest of his life, and I cannot imagine that now is a very fun time for him. Maybe if he just did a general press conference. No details. Said he broke the rules a few times, shed a tear. I’d want to go give him a hug. He’s still Lance the champion.
Do you miss bike racing?
Once in a great while I miss the racing, the feeling of winning. That rush. That adrenaline. The rest of the bullshit—no, I don’t miss it. My nephew told me he wanted to be a pro bike racer a couple of years ago, and I felt sick to my stomach, knowing what I do. I hope this book will be the start of something. There needs to be some serious work done to the UCI. Some fresh faces. New blood.
What did you make of Lance’s statement today? He called you greedy and opportunistic. Then he said this does nothing to right any wrong, but he also didn’t deny anything.
I found that very interesting. When he confronted me in Aspen after my 60 Minutes interview, he didn’t say I was a liar then, either. He was pissed at me. He asked how much 60 Minutes paid me, which obviously was nothing. But he never said you’re a lying son of a bitch. That was pretty interesting.
So he was more pissed at you for breaking the code?
Yeah. I would have been pissed, too, if I were on the other side of the fence. But this is my story; I have the right to tell the truth. I feel like the sport of cycling needs to hear the truth. Nobody has ever told it like this. And it’s ugly.