I’m doing the 2017 Read Harder challenge from Book Riot. For each book I read in the challenge, I aim to write a short blog post about it
Read: The Secret Race Daniel Coyle and Tyler Hamilton
Task: Read a book about sports
Completed task 5/24
The best sports stories aren’t really about sport, are they. Sport is a great lens on something primal and tribal in people. For other sports, it’s the finesse, or the team unit, or the sheer bloody skill. Here though, it’s terminator like grit coupled with a shadowy conspiracy story coupled with physical horror, and that’s super interesting.
And the book is horrifying, it really is. There’s episodes here of pure body horror. Not just the race stuff- though Hamilton’s statement that he needed 11 crowns after grinding his teeth so much out of in-race pain from a broken collarbone is scary. It’s the out of race stuff. The injections. The blood bags. The testosterone pills. The training- Hamilton said he got down to a gaunt 60 kilos by fasting, and moved like an old man, and couldn’t walk very far. All to compete in the big races.
There’s a part of the book where he describes a bad blood bag. Halfway through the tour, he’s blood doping – getting transfusions of what should be his own blood. The doctor who runs the scheme is shonky as all hell, and his assistant keeps mixing up the code names they apply to each rider. Hamilton talks about getting a transfusion and becoming nauseous, and pissing blood. It’s ultimately how he got busted- tested positive for someone else’s blood.
I don’t know about you, but pissing blood signals to me that it’s time to probably stop doing what you’re doing. The sections where he describes all of this stuff are kinda terrifying the lengths that he and others went to to compete in an environment that was fundamentally warped by EPO and dodgy doctors.
Hamilton talks about clandestine meetings, and codenames, and smuggling blood and drugs through borders, and it’s almost spy-novel levels of subterfuge. Of getting secret transfusions in other countries during the Tour de France, and suddenly coming back, a couple of weeks into the biggest race in cycling fresh and full of energy. Riding rings around the competition. You can almost, almost feel why they do it.
And then there’s Armstrong. He comes off, in this book, as a petty narcissist. A bully. A colossal tool who uses people so he can achieve glory, leaving broken people in his wake. He feels he’s untouchable, and endlessly self justifies his behaviour. Winning at any cost and to hell with anyone he has to tread on to get there. I can’t really understand this mindset- I guess I’m just not driven enough, or competitive. Or sociopathic enough. There’s something operatic about all this- the champion with dark secrets, being undone by his own hubris. I don’t know what it’s like to be Lance Armstrong, but he’s really a wretched figure, now shunned by most.
So, the book itself. It’s super compelling- Hamilton is very candid, and the journalist he co-wrote it with has gone out of his way to verify everything he can. The writing is clear, and the text is interspersed with attributed quotes from other cyclists and figures providing context or extra information. For someone like me, that’s not necessarily a cycling fan, this was extremely helpful.
There’s a bit later on, after all the revelations have come out about doping, where Hamilton goes back to riding a bike casually after several years. A free man, unburdened of his guilt. Cruising around his home town, just riding for fun. That bit I get.