Friday, 14 September 2012

The Secret Race

This book, subtitled "Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-Ups and Winning at All Costs", written by Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle, gives a fascinating insight into the life of professional cyclists from the mid 1990's. Reading the book you get some idea of the pressure on riders to perform and why some may have chosen to take performance enhancing drugs.

According to the book, up until about 1998 or 1999, the pro-teams managed their own doping programmes. However, in the 1998 TdF a Festina team car was stopped by customs on the French border and a massive stash of performance enhancing drugs were found. Since taking performance enhancing drugs is illegal in France (unlike many other countries including the UK, USA, Italy and Spain) the police were involved and criminal charges were levelled.

From 1999 onwards, according to the book, riders had to organise their own supplies, and many riders had links to specialist doctors, such as Dr Ferrari and Dr Fuentes. Quite apart from EPO, testosterone and cortisone, according to the book, the donation of blood bags, and the re-infusion just before a race was common. Much later on, when Dr Fuentes' lab was raided, a large number of blood bags were found belonging to many riders in the peloton (at the time). Tyler Hamilton himself failed a doping test because the testers found he had had a blood transfusion from someone else (this was clearly a mix-up since he was supposed to have had his own blood put back in). In addition, Tyler Hamilton recounts how some riders had "echo positives", whereby when the transfused blood was put back in, any doping products that were in there at the time of donation could result in a positive test.

Clearly, a large part of the book implicates other riders at Tyler's own team and others, and of course, Lance Armstrong is mentioned many times.

It is difficult to know how much of the book is true, but the co-author Daniel Coyle said he made sure to corroborate Tyler Hamilton's claims. However the book comes across as more than just plausible, and since I assume this is also what Tyler Hamilton told the US legal and USADA authorities in sworn testimony, it is pretty convincing.

Hopefully, things have changed somewhat now that testing is better, and it seems to be true that times for some of the key mountain stages in major tours are quite a bit slower now than they were in late 90's/early 2000's.

I have to say this is one of the best books I've read on cycling, albeit rather depressing. 

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