Friday, May 10, 2013

The Secret Race

I became addicted to watching Le Tour de France many years ago, for several different reasons.

Firstly, I couldn't help being awed by the stamina, guts and athleticism of the riders.  I thought the format of the race was fascinating and demanding - the different disciplines of flat racing, sprints, time trials and stiff climbing stages means that the overall winner has to be an all-rounder, able to compete in ways that seem self-contradictory.  There's a lot of strategy involved around when to make a move, and how to conserve energy over a pounding month of competition.

And talk about guts!  These guys regularly ride with injuries.  Sometimes they seem barely able to stand off after a crash, but then off they go to catch up to the peleton, like Johnny Hoogerland last year who finished a stage after being driven into a barbed wire fence by an official car driven by a cretin.  Dripping with blood, he crossed the finish line and later required 33 stitches to repair the damage.  Perhaps the most riveting feat was Tyler Hamilton's stage win after breaking his collarbone.  Riding a bike.  Fast.  Over rough ground.  With a broken collarbone.

Secondly, I was fascinated by the team work.  The Tour looks like an individual's race, since there's only one winner, but you soon see the strategy of teams bringing their leader to the podium.  It's a great sight to see a team in a line smoothly alternating in the front position while the rest ride in their slipstream.  It's biomimicry in action: bikers as migrating geese!  It's the 'rule' that the team of the leader in the yellow jersey is responsible for leading out the peleton.  Other times, they're just resting their team leader until he can be slingshot into the lead.

But I think what most captured my heart was the sight of a leader, and indeed the whole peloton, slowing down when a contender fell or ran into a problem.  Such a tough competition, and yet there's this gentleman's agreement that you don't take advantage of a foe's misfortunes ( or even a stop for a 'besoin naturel').  In those early days, I remember the sight of Lance Armstrong waiting for Jan Ullrich, and Ullrich waiting for Armstrong.

Like many others, I saw Lance Armstrong as a hero - not just conquering Le Tour, but cancer as well.  He had the aura of a great leader with incredibly well-disciplined teams.

Then started the swirling rumours of doping, with accusations levelled at Armstrong and indeed most of the field.  At first, it seemed easy to dismiss them as applicable only to the notably 'dirty' Spanish riders.  Then, Tyler Hamilton is suspended for a couple of years, and Floyd Landis (former teammate of Lance) loses his Tour win.   As a consistent winner, Armstrong was getting tested more than any other rider - and testing clean.  So, was it just sour grapes when the French persistently pummelled him in the press for alleged doping?  I really wanted to believe he was clean.  His seven Tour wins against many others proved to have been doping made it unlikely he was clean, but then there were all those clean tests.

And then came the hero's fall.  Yes, Armstrong was doping with all the rest.  The dirty secrets of the whole cycling underworld started to unravel in public.  Tyler Hamilton's book The Secret Race tells the behind-the-scenes story of that world - the easy seduction of the racers into the drug scene, the incessant testing to stay just under the Hematocrit limit of 50 which would trigger elimination (49.5 was an ideal 'number' and coaches were constantly asking "What's your number today?"), the ease with which they evaded the testing strategies lulling them into a sense of invulnerability, and the arms race of developing new drugs and techniques as the testing agencies closed in on them.  Then there was the demonstrated futility of racing paniagua (on just bread and water - pan e agua from the Italian - without performance enhancing drugs).  And, just as Walter Isaacon's book Steve Jobs scraped the veneer off the tech idol Jobs revealing a personality more abusive than even the rumours had suggested, so this book scrapes the veneer off Armstrong's legend.  Not only did he dope, but Hamilton describes his leadership skills as founded more on fear and intimidation than on inspiration.

But Hamilton's tale also shows the incredible training - and diet - regimes these riders committed to.  I was surprised to hear that the energy output to weight ratio was such a dominant factor.  They justified to themselves that taking drugs was simply a case of levelling the playing field.  Then training and commitment were required to win.

So is Hamilton just trying to justify his own history of breaking the rules?  Is he trying to exact some vengeance on Armstrong for dropping Hamilton from his circle (which Hamilton attributes to Armstrong starting to feel Hamilton might be getting too good)? Is he trying to build a new livelihood after being booted from racing by writing a tell-all book?  Or is he truly showing readers both the heroic and dirty aspects of racing?  Hamilton comes across as an engaging character, and you feel there's a bit of all that in the book.  I think even those who are not fans of cycling and the Tour would find this a fascinating read.

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