Hamilton: Doping hid in plain sight
Book by former Lance Armstrong teammate and friend is detailed, very ugly
There are dozens of head-shaking, disturbing, even gruesome passages in Tyler Hamilton's firsthand account of doping in professional cycling, "The Secret Race." Some involve his eyewitness accounts of alleged cheating by his former team leader, Lance Armstrong. Those understandably will draw the most public lightning given Armstrong's stature and recent decision not to continue fighting the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's charges against him, resulting in a lifetime ban and the stripping of his seven Tour de France titles.
In the autobiography, co-written with Daniel Coyle and obtained by ESPN.com this week, Hamilton restates in narrative form what he said he told a grand jury and federal investigators under oath in the summer of 2010 in the early stages of a criminal probe into the Armstrong-led U.S. Postal Service teams; Hamilton summarized his account in an interview with "60 Minutes'' last year. Hamilton describes his initiation into a doping fraternity that operated in both reckless and sophisticated ways, and portrays Armstrong as an athlete whose will to win was matched by his drive to use performance-enhancing drugs more effectively than anyone else in the peloton.
Over and over, Hamilton's message comes through: Doping hid in plain sight during that era. Cheating occurred on such a massive scale, in such mundane packaging, that it receded into the landscape and became almost invisible. Riders stored their drugs and blood bags nestled up against the veggies in the fridge.
At the 1999 Tour de France, Hamilton writes, the riders received erythropoietin (EPO) injections in a camper van, slipped the used syringes into a Coke can, crushed it and gave it to the team doctor, who carried it away in his knapsack unnoticed through crowds straining for a glimpse of Armstrong. A man on a motorcycle delivered EPO to the team during the race and was rewarded with the gift of a Rolex watch from Hamilton, Armstrong and another teammate.
The book will be officially released next week, eight years to the month since Hamilton, 41, was busted for an illicit transfusion. He staunchly maintained his innocence for most of that time and spent more than $1 million trying to tear apart USADA's case against him before an about-face that was first prompted by a federal subpoena. Armstrong has yet to give an inch in his denials. Initial reaction to "The Secret Race" is apt to focus on Tyler versus Lance, a credibility war between two men who were teammates, friends and finally rivals.
This week, Hamilton told me he is prepared to deal with doubt about his motives and skepticism based on his previous dishonesty.
"Before we move forward, we have to address the past,'' Hamilton said. "It's been addressed to a point, but people only wanted to go so far. The whole truth needs to be told. Cycling needs to be weeded out from the top.
"I know there's going to be a backlash. I decided to go this route, and I'm not going to hide from it.''
"The Secret Race" is the first major aftershock following Armstrong's non-concession concession regarding the USADA charges. Hamilton said he was surprised when he learned Armstrong had opted not to contest the case against him. "I've never seen Lance throw in the towel before,'' he said. "I expect there will be plenty more fighting. He's not done, trust me. The day he puts up the white flag is the day he dies.''
But there's a greater sweep to the book, one that will be more difficult to digest than proofs offered by either side in the ongoing tug-of-war over Armstrong's legacy. As Hamilton told me last year, "We all went into the casino with $10,000. All of us. Some people lost all their money. Some people doubled or tripled their money.''
In other words, Hamilton -- likely joined by most of the top riders of his time -- viewed Armstrong's morality as no different than that of other riders. In Hamilton's telling, Armstrong just executed better, on the bike, in the pharmaceutical realm, and in securing protected status from the governing body of his sport: He trained hard, stayed on the leading edge of the curve of doping expertise, succeeded in having a positive test covered up. He profited hugely where others went broke.
For those peering in to make up their minds for themselves or those predisposed to believe him, Hamilton's book lifts the curtain, names scores of names, and permits a more thorough look at the subculture than any past contribution to the nascent field of doping literature. What he details is by turns banal and very ugly, and the devil is in the minutiae.
I want the leaders of the sport to know what we went through. We all did this ourselves and made our choices ...” -- Tyler Hamilton on "The Secret Race"
Hamilton's career, which began in the mid-1990s and continued, interrupted by his doping suspension, through 2008, coincided with a breathtakingly rapid evolution in the science and subterfuge of performance enhancement. It began the moment he accepted a "red egg'' -- a testosterone pill handed to him by a team doctor in early 1997. It progressed through his initiation to the inner circle of Armstrong's mountain helpers, who boosted their hematocrit levels with EPO and transfusions and worked under the guidance of his trainer, Michele Ferrari. Hamilton describes those days with a certain nostalgia, freely admitting there was camaraderie and honor among thieves.
He and his peers also perfected the art of rationalization, lying even to their own families or conscripting them to help keep their double lives separate. Hamilton's ex-wife, Haven Parchinski, was his full partner in all things, including beating the drug testers. When one showed up unannounced outside their home in Marblehead, Mass., after the 2000 season, Hamilton writes, their eyes met, hers questioning whether he was safe to be tested, his expression telling her he wasn't. Simultaneously, they dropped to the floor and hid.
Once a pure domestique or support rider, Hamilton improved during his tenure at Postal thanks in part to refining dovetailed training and doping regimes. Predictably, his relationship with Armstrong soured, and he left to seek his fortune as a leader with two European teams, CSC and Phonak. That is when Hamilton spiraled downward into a literal bloody hell.
In 2002, Hamilton began undergoing regular blood extractions and re-transfusions at the Madrid clinic of Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes, the central figure in the Operacion Puerto scandal who performed that service for dozens of athletes, including many top cyclists. Hamilton traveled with a ballcap pulled low over his face and a secret phone. Asked to provide a code name for the blood bags stored at the clinic, he summoned up the last four digits of a childhood friend's phone number -- the kind of hard-drive information no brain ever jettisons.
Hamilton and Haven rented an apartment in Monaco for the sole purpose of storing a blood bag to be transfused during the Giro d'Italia; she babysat the refrigerator to make sure there were no power outages. The blood bag itself fit neatly into a soy milk container, emptied, opened from the bottom and resealed. No one would suspect what was inside if they squeezed the sides.
The evening of the first rest day in the 2004 Tour de France, Hamilton found himself alone in his room in an austere chain hotel outside Limoges, France, after doctors for his Switzerland-based Phonak team had aided him with a transfusion, a by-then routine oxygen-processing boost to help him through the upcoming mountains. He was nursing a serious back injury caused by a crash. His then-wife was on her way to meet him, ferrying their aged golden retriever, who was sick and soon to be put to sleep. Hamilton was shaky with a fever, suffering from a skull-cracking headache and urinating blood -- not a mere rosy tinge of it, but "dark, dark red, almost black'' blood.
He knew exactly why. "I'd transfused a bag full of dead blood cells,'' he writes in the matter-of-fact manner the rest of us might use to describe ingesting a bad oyster. "My body felt toxic ... I got my phone and set it next to me on the bed, in case I had to call for an ambulance.''
Instead, Hamilton took aspirin and drank water and said goodbye to his dog. The next day, he got back on his bike and rode a 100-mile flat stage. "That's the horrible, beautiful thing about bike racing,'' he writes. "You keep going.''
How did he get there in the first place? How did a smart, perceptive, talented athlete make deliberate choice after choice to turn himself into a guinea pig on wheels? How could Armstrong possibly have gotten away with it? How did cycling fishtail into a ghoulish arms race on a scope that makes baseball's steroid booty-shot gang look as if they were playing patty-cake by comparison?
Hamilton said this week he has done his best to answer what he knows about those questions.
"I want the leaders of the sport to know what we went through,'' he said. "We all did this ourselves and made our choices, and I don't want people to feel bad for me personally ...
"It all happened so slowly and organically. You start out tiptoeing through a little bit of mud and before you know it, you're up to your neck. If I had known where it would end up, I would have been on the first plane back to Boston.''