Hamilton paints honest picture about cycling

Published: Thursday, Sept. 20 2012 11:13 p.m. MDT

FILE - At left, in a July 19, 2009 file photo Lance Armstrong competes during the 15th stage of the Tour de France cycling race between Pontarlier, France and Verbier, Switzerland. At right, in an Aug. 18, 2004 file photo, Tyler Hamilton competes in the men's road individual time trial at the 2004 Olympic games on the outskirts of Athens. Shortly after Hamilton beat Armstrong in a race in 2004, he found himself in the offices of the international cycling federation, asked to explain himself.

File, Associated Press

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There's a new book out about bike racing and doping that even people who couldn't care less about bike racing and doping might want to take a look at.

Because at its core the book is about a universal topic: the complicated business of telling the truth.

"The Secret Race, Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs" is Tyler Hamilton's confessional about the years he enjoyed great success in the upper echelons of cycling, all the while fueled by considerably more oxygen-carrying red blood cells than he should have had in his system.

The book is co-written by Daniel Coyle, who in 2005 authored "Lance Armstrong's War," a book that sought to probe the mesmerizing personality of a person who could survive cancer and go on to win the Tour de France seven straight times (six when the book was published) and raise over a half-billion dollars for cancer research.

Coyle's book was critically acclaimed because it came off as an objective attempt to explain the phenomenon known as Lance, with no apparent preconceived agenda to either glorify or vilify. To research the book, Coyle embedded himself, as it were, with Team Armstrong, living next door to Lance in Europe, interviewing friends and foes alike, all in an effort to peel off the layers and determine just what, exactly, went into making this ultimate alpha male.

At the end of it, for all his efforts and despite the rumors circling that Armstrong doped, Coyle could no more provide a verdict than you or I about whether he was clean. Maybe he was. Maybe he wasn't.

Now comes Hamilton's tell-all, which not only paints Armstrong as dirtier than them all, but, even more chilling, shows how even those who are constantly in the public spotlight can cheat all they want, in plain sight, with a journalist next door, and get away with it.

Only an insider knows for sure, and in an account that should have the peloton shaking in every corner, Hamilton spells out the sordid truth — how he started small, taking a capsule of testosterone "for health," then a shot of EPO, the red-blood-cell enhancer, then ultimately undergoing full-on blood transfusions. All because the cycling culture didn't just encourage it, the cycling culture demanded it.

He explains how small the margins are, how infinitesimal the difference between the podium and 40th place, how the performance-enhancing drugs close those margins.

He writes about "omerta," the unspoken code of silence among riders.

And he describes how everybody does it because everybody does it.

It's the culture that's the cause; the cheating is the symptom.

In that way, it's like illegal immigration. First, businesses encourage people to cross the border for better pay; next, authorities don't enforce the laws prohibiting such behavior; very soon, you have plenty of people ready and willing to cross the line and play by the new unwritten rules.

Professional cycling followed a similar, and very rapid, evolution in the 1990s when Sir Lance came along. Before you knew it, the top riders were either doping or retiring, and not always of their own volitions.

Proof of that: all those Tour de France podium spots that have been vacated in the past 15 years.

Just six months older than Armstrong, Tyler Hamilton's timing couldn't have been better, or worse. He was there for the secret ride's prime time.

For years he lied, straight-faced as a puppy dog, about doping. Before and after he finished as high as fourth in the Tour de France and won a gold medal in the Olympics, he denied everything to everyone, his parents, his friends, the media, the world.

And now? If he could do it all over again?

"I wish with all my heart that I'd been stronger," he writes. "I wish I'd quit the sport, come back to Colorado, finished college, maybe gone to business school, had a different life. But I didn't. I took the pill, and it worked — I rode faster."

The unabashed, patently unflattering indictment of Lance Armstrong is the fuel that will sell "The Secret Race." It's juicy reading. Here's how Lance comes off: If you were to line up all 7 billion people on the planet, he would do whatever it took to be lead dog.

But to me the most compelling part of Tyler Hamilton's story isn't about Lance Armstrong, it's about how quickly honest people can start doing dishonest things.

In the journey from telling the truth to living a lie, look out for that first step.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. Email: benson@desnews.com

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