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Exclusive: Q&A with ‘The Secret Race’ authors

Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle discuss the significance of their new book and Hamilton's journey through confession to relief

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For years, there had been whispers within the bike racing community that Tyler Hamilton, a former U.S. Postal Service rider-turned-Olympic gold medalist-turned-suspended drug cheat, would write a tell-all book detailing what went on inside both the USPS team of Lance Armstrong, and more generally, inside the sport of pro cycling.

That day arrived on Wednesday with the publication of “The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups and Winning at All Costs,” written by Hamilton and co-author Daniel Coyle, who in 2004 wrote “Lance Armstrong’s War,” a book widely viewed as perhaps the most complete, objective portrait of Armstrong’s universe at the height of his Tour de France domination.

The 290-page book is is loaded with bombshells and revelations — that Armstrong and Postal team manager Johan Bruyneel oversaw and encouraged extensive systematic doping with the USPS team; that Armstrong failed a 2001 doping test, which was covered up by the UCI; that Armstrong reported Hamilton’s doping to the UCI in 2004.

“The Secret Race” is a story full of sordid details of gruesome blood transfusions, clandestine drug networks, advanced measures taken to evade anti-doping testers and a pharmaceutical arms race that spiraled out of control, so graphically detailed and carefully explained — and verified by 10 former Armstrong teammates — that it is difficult to dismiss as fiction. It’s also a story of decisions made, and the consequences one pays for their actions, whether external or internal.

More than anything, however, “The Secret Race” is Hamilton’s overdue admission of nearly 15 years of lies.

On Wednesday morning, following an appearance on NBC’s “The Today Show,” Hamilton and Coyle spoke for 30 minutes with VeloNews editor-in-chief Neal Rogers. That conversation is presented below, in its entirety.

VeloNews: The book was just released today, but there has already been a week’s worth of excerpts published via advance copies. How would you characterize the reception of the book thus far?

Tyler Hamilton: I didn’t know what to expect. It’s been a really pleasant surprise. It seems like people like it. It’s a tragic story, but people seem to have liked the way we covered our bases, we made sure we had every piece of evidence backed up. Dan and I spent over two years working on this, and it’s nice to have a good reaction. I think in the coming days we’ll have a lot better feel for how it is received.

Daniel Coyle: I think people were ready to hear the truth. There have been so many questions, there have been so many people wondering, and I think, as Chris Keyes wrote in Outside, this is the holy grail for people who want to know more about what happened in those years, and what is the truth about those years. I think validating is the word to use. But I think it has less to do with us, and more about the world, and the natural questions people have. This is now an opportunity for people to look at the facts and make up their own mind. That’s a good moment, because it’s a healthy moment.

VN: Dan, you walked a delicate line in “Lance Armstrong’s War,” playing it right down the middle in terms of whether Armstrong was doping at the time, based on the information you had in front of you. Did working on this book validate any suspicions from back in 2004?

DC: These books are sort of a pair. One was written from outside the inner circle, and one was written very much from the inside. At the time I did my level best to show people both sides of the story, and I’m just continuing to do that. As a journalist I can’t operate on hunches, I can’t operate on what I guess. When I wrote “Lance Armstrong’s War,” I did the best with the material I had in front of me, and laid it out there for people to make their own decisions. And now that I’m inside omerta, and Tyler has given us sort of an all-access, backstage pass to the life of a pro racer, I’m doing the exact same thing, which is laying all the facts out there, and letting people make up their own minds. In this case the material is obviously a lot more explosive, but the process never changes.

VN: Was there anything that was left out of the book, either because it was too explosive or controversial, or because it was simply cut for length?

DC: The cutting room floor on this book is a fascinating place, no question. But our task with the book was to put in what could be validated, what could be verified, what could be corroborated. And we stuck to that. We were never cut for length. We made the book the length it needed to be. And over time, there are going to be many more stories coming out — that are even already coming out since this book has been published — but I think we got the key things in there.

TH: Maybe in the future some of these stories will come out, but since we didn’t have validation, we did have to cut a few things out. But that’s ok.

VN: What has been the response from the Armstrong camp?

TH: It’s just been that quote that was shown on “The Today Show” this morning. That’s all we’ve heard.
[Armstrong’s September 5 statement: “Writing a book today about events that allegedly took place more than 10 years ago is not about setting the record straight or righting a wrong. It is greedy, opportunistic and self-serving.” — Ed.]

DC: Of course we reached out to them, and we reached out to them during the reporting process as well. And they’ve chosen not to respond.

VN: For years, journalists who have dug deep into doping in cycling, writers like Paul Kimmage and David Walsh, have seen their access to riders and teams cut off and have been told they were harming the sport. Now that you’ve written this book, what do you say about their efforts of a decade ago?

TH: Back in the day when I was doping and racing, yeah, I disliked those people. Any time myself, or my team, were put into question that made me really angry. Now that I’m on the other side of the fence, I feel like I’m able to look outside the box more now than I used to, and I have a lot of respect for those guys. In my defense, back then it was tough, you’re trying to make a career out of it, and these are stumbling blocks in your way.

DC: I think the larger picture is one of culture — the culture of the sport at the time, and the culture of journalism. I included Kimmage and Walsh in my acknowledgements for the book, because I appreciated the efforts they made, to be brave, and to be pioneers, to tell the truth, which is extraordinarily difficult in the sports climate and in the journalism climate. I think it’s a measure of how far we’ve all come, and the sport has come. I know Walsh was asked, and he said he doesn’t feel vindicated. I thought that was interesting. I don’t think anyone feels triumphant over this. It’s more about facing the truth with strength and grace. That is the quality I think Tyler is appreciating in them then, and appreciating in them now, and what I think everyone is now tuning in to.

VN: In the book you wrote about your time with Phonak. Floyd Landis has stated that team owner Andy Rihs supported his doping. Yet you never mentioned anything about Rihs being involved in any way.

TH: Andy Rihs and I never spoke of that topic (doping) at all. I was actually surprised when Floyd came out and said that Andy had been involved to some degree. We had never gone there.

VN: Andy Rihs and American Jim Ochowicz ran Phonak; they now run BMC Racing, the team of young Americans like Taylor Phinney and Tejay van Garderen. (Ochowicz is the godfather to Armstrong’s first son.) Given this, what do you say to American racing fans that desperately want to put the past behind them and believe in the next generation? Or, in a general sense, what are your thoughts regarding young riders who are in the hands of team management that may have been involved in doping in the past?

TH: My biggest hope here is that the young riders don’t have to make the same decision that I was put in. There are still some bad apples in the sport, and either they need to leave, or they need to change their mindset, and I think this book is going to help address this.

DC: The question to ask — is there a villain in the book? Lance is a human being, making choices. This is a story of the culture of the time, the culture of bike racing. It’s a bit like the culture of Wall Street in some ways. There was a “win at all costs” culture, and some good people did bad things. I don’t think Tyler, or anybody, is saying it’s time to punish people for committing sins. But I do think what he is saying is that culture is a powerful force. The culture is changing, and it’s worth applauding that change. I think Tyler believes in the future of the sport, like a lot of us do. When people read the book I think they will come away with a picture of a culture, and a picture of a time, when it was “win at all costs,” and that time has changed, as we see from the times on the road, and through improved testing.

TH: It’s changing, yes. I have an 11-year-old nephew who told me about a year ago that he wants to be a pro cyclist. When I heard that I felt like I had a big rock in my stomach. It was a little bit unsettling. Hopefully with this book… say this kid goes on to be a professional cyclist, hopefully he doesn’t have to make the choice that I had to make, that Darren Baker had to make, that Scott Mercier had to make. Some guys chose to continue, like myself; other guys chose to head back to San Francisco and go into the banking industry.

VN: In the book you disclose that Saxo Bank team manger Bjarne Riis put you in touch with notorious Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes when you rode at Team CSC expressly for you to undertake a doping regimen. Riis has denied this. Will this turn into a war of words in the media, or is there a way to prove this?

TH: People can either believe me or not believe me. I understand Bjarne. I lied for years and years, and I got pretty damn good at it. I understand that’s the first reaction. Whether he comes clean some day, that’s up to him. I’m not going to get into a pissing match with him, so to speak. I told the truth and it feels great. I understand that he’s lying for a lot of different reasons. He’s trying to save his team.

VN: What’s your relationship with the sport of cycling now?

TH: I love cycling. What happened in my career, it really made me miss the good old days, riding on the (University of Colorado) cycling team, doing it for the pure fun of it, for the enjoyment. Now I am working with my coaching company, that’s been going well. I will continue doing that. I love working with the weekend warrior types and the kids, that’s been a lot of fun, they are just really passionate about it, they do it for the fun of it. I’ve tried to stay away from the more serious type of cyclist.

VN: Even after everything you’ve put yourself through, do you still have passion for the sport?

TH: I do. I don’t ride nearly what I used to, but it’s a beautiful sport, and I still follow it.

VN: Your 2004 Olympic time trial gold medal goes to your former Postal teammate Viatcheslav Ekimov. How do you feel about that?

TH: It is what it is. I happily gave it up, and I thought it was the right thing to do. When I gave it back to USADA, at the time they didn’t know what was going to happen to it. If he believes he earned it, then that’s great for him. Obviously I have my opinion. I’m at peace with my decision. To have all this off my back, I feel like a million bucks — a lot better even than when I won that gold medal.

VN: In the book you allege that the UCI covered up Lance Armstrong’s positive drug test from the 2001 Tour de Suisse. There’s been a lot of discussion that in order for real change to come to the sport, there first needs to be a regime change at the UCI. Given the current power structure of the sport, do you believe that can happen?

TH: If we can get the support to do it. We need more than a few. There’s not one rider in the peloton today who can make the change, it has to be a large group of people standing up for what’s right. They need to do some weeding out, if not a full clearing house, at the UCI. They need a whole new structure, and I think this book is the beginning of that.

DC: I think the conversation has started, and people can now have access to the facts, they can look at them all, and they can decide about their relationship to the sport, they can decide about their relationship to the past, and they can decide about the future. All of that is a conversation that seems to me is desperately needed, and is ready to happen.

VN: What do you say to those who will defend Armstrong no matter how much evidence is presented before them? Why do you think that is the case?

DC: The human brain is a complicated place. Lance Armstrong clearly means a lot, and has inspired a lot of people, and I don’t think anyone is trying to denigrate that in any way. He has a relationship that really matters, and that’s great, but I think it’s clear, as these facts come out, people are going to have the chance to make up their own minds. I think people are smart. They can disentangle the cancer positives from the truth, it’s going to be complicated to do that, but in the end, it’s a good moment. People have a chance to do that fully, and honestly, and make up their own minds. I don’t think Tyler is making a case for anything other than that people have the right to know the truth.

TH: Like I said on “The Today Show,” Lance is one of the best athletes in the world. You can’t take that away from him. He got caught up in it, just like I did. I guarantee you that when he started riding a bike, he didn’t plan on doing what he did. None of us did. You got put in that situation, you worked so hard to get there, and then you are thrown for a loop.

DC: And that’s the exciting thing about the book. People will have the opportunity to ask the question — what would have I done in that situation? What would I have done? And I think when people honestly ask themselves that question, and honestly look at what these guys went through, people will be surprised when they ponder that question, and they will have a lot more empathy for guys in that situation — and a lot more determination to not make it happen in the future. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t right.

VN: Tyler, you said Armstrong was one of the best athletes in the world. But given how much you write about what a brilliant doctor Michele Ferrari was, and that he was forbidden from working with Tour de France contenders other than Armstrong, could an argument be made that he won because, at least in part, he had the best doping doctor in the world?

DC: I’d like to take that on, because you’re getting into the question of a level playing field — that if everyone is doping, then it’s a level playing field. I think this book explodes that myth. And it is a myth. When everyone can dope, it becomes a contest of who has the best information, who has the best access, who has the best doctor, and who has the most money. That’s what this contest is — it’s a chess game of information, connections and money. And whoever wins that chess game has the better chance of winning the Tour. What happens when you have a situation when there aren’t strong regulations, and people can dope, it’s the opposite of a level field, it’s a hugely distorted playing field, and it’s tilted toward people with access, with information and with money. And that’s the game you want to avoid playing. The level playing field of doping is a total myth.

TH: As I became more experienced and I moved up the totem pole, and became a team leader, your responsibilities as a rider, they expect you to… it wasn’t like I was blood doping my whole career, but when you’re making enough money, it’s the next step. You’re expected to make that happen.

VN: In terms of the timing of the book, with everything going on with Armstrong’s federal case, the USADA investigation, Jonathan Vaughters’ public admission — how able were you to orchestrate the publication date?

DC: We’re very fortunate, but we started this project more than two years ago, and what you realize when you start having these conversations is that this truth is too big not to come out at some point. And it might be a federal investigation, it might be a USADA investigation, it might be this or that, but gravity was going to take hold at some point. The physics of this was too big. We started working on the book with the trust, and the faith, that the truth would be told at some point. The timing has worked out, as luck would have it, that the book is coming out right as this other stuff is going down, but it’s not like we knew, going into it, that things would work out in this way.

VN: Vaughters provided several passages in the book, and we saw his doping admission in The New York Times about a month ago. Was that a coordinated effort?

DC: No, I just think it’s all related, it’s just the truth is bubbling up. We saw the federal investigation, the USADA investigation, and the conversations are being had. It’s a natural percolation; it’s not something that was orchestrated on our part.

TH: I’m sure [Vaughters] knew this book was coming out, and he wanted a certain amount of security.

DC: It’s kind of a cool element of the story — these are guys who were teammates years ago, who shared some of the most intense experiences you could in life, racing together, and they have been divided by this secret for a long time, and now, in a weird way, they are sort of teammates again, in telling the truth.

VN: The book is out, and the story is still unfolding. We don’t yet know how the UCI will treat USADA’s sanction, and even today we see that California legislators are asking to have USADA’s funding scrutinized. Once publicity for the book is done, is it over for you two? Or where do you go from here?

DC: The conversation has started. There are a lot of elements to this story — personal elements, sporting elements, scientific elements, legal elements — that are going to spool forward. Let’s just keep the conversation going.

TH: We’ve opened a can of worms here. This book was written, for me, because I love the sport of cycling. In order to truly move forward, we need to clear out some of the questions of the past. I’m not just going to finish the book and disappear and live happily ever after… I’ll do whatever I can to help. I’m planning on going into schools and sharing my experience with younger kids, just to let them know that sometimes you make poor decisions when you are in tough places, but there really never is a point of no return. I felt like I lied so much, I was at the point of no return. Little did I know that testifying before a federal grand jury would be the first step to coming out of a dark cloud.

VN: In the book you wrote about feeling as though your phone and computer were bugged, or that you were being followed, following your interview on “60 Minutes.” You wrote that the feeling quickly went away once the federal investigation was shut down. Now that the book has come out, has that continued? Do you worry there could be recriminations?

TH: I hope you understand, but I probably shouldn’t comment on that right now. But at some point I will.

VN: Can you talk, in general terms about the toll your testimony, and this book, has taken on you?

TH: The last few years have been a great experience. In a way, Dan has been like my therapist. We’ve picked through my whole career, and I was able to have someone to talk to about it. It’s been a huge personal transformation for me. I feel great today. The book is a sad story — it’s tragic. I’m proud of what I did, but I’m not proud of the story.

DC: But there is a redemptive story built into it, as anyone who knows you can see. People are saying the Tyler we are seeing now is the Tyler we knew back in 1993, there is a real redemption at the core of this, which you feel when you read the book. I can testify, as a reporter, seeing the transformation that the story has had on Tyler as he has told it, as he has been open, and told his family. It’s been moving to see, and it’s been powerful. It’s a tragedy, but with a real comeback spirit.

TH: It’s just been a huge weight off my shoulders.

DC: I think the weight of the secret is so great that when you stop telling it, the act of writing the book is more of a catharsis than a stress. When Tyler and I first started talking, when he first started telling me his story, it was very halting. As a reporter I could effortlessly write down every word he said, by hand. But as we got into this, after three months, six months, a year, he started talking faster and faster, and I couldn’t keep up with him. He was just letting it go, and it was nice to see that looseness, and that comfort, it was nice to see this transformation, this guy coming out of this secret life he’d been living for a long time. The weight of the secret is great, and when you get out from under it, it changes you for the better.