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Tour de Farce

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Hey dude, you got any Poe I can borrow?” The scene was Lance Armstrong’s villa in Nice, in 1999, the year that he first won the Tour de France, and the speaker was his teammate Tyler Hamilton. Or again: “Gonna visit Edgar. My old buddy Edgar.” These seemingly obscure allusions to the author of The Raven are explained as the plot – in more than one sense – unfolds in The Secret Race, Mr Hamilton’s confessional memoir, written with Daniel Coyle. With its faults, the book is riveting enough, although today, some weeks after its publication, it reads like a trailer to the 200-page report from the United States Anti-Doping Agency released last month. This devastating indictment of the worst doping scandal – and the greatest conspiracy – yet seen in competitive sport led to the decision by the International Cycling Union, the cycling governing body, to strip Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles and bar him from the sport for life.

Forced by injury to give up ski racing, which was his first love, Mr Hamilton turned to cycling, showing enough flair to join the team that became the United States Postal Service. As the world knows, Mr Armstrong not only recovered from testicular cancer to race again as leader of “the Posties” but won the greatest bike race. For his first three Tour victories he had no more loyal and hard-working team rider than Mr Hamilton, and Mr Hamilton seemed to many of us covering the race one of the true heroes of the Tour: he finished the 2003 race after fracturing his collar bone near the start and riding for three weeks in acute pain.

From the time Mr Armstrong won his first Tour, his domination was breathtaking — or disturbing. He passed the field as if everyone else were standing still and he were on a motorbike. Some commentators called it “extraterrestrial,” and L’Équipe, the splendid French sports paper, wrote that Mr Armstrong was “sur une autre planète,” oblique hints that there was something suspicious. “Not normal” was Mr Armstrong’s own murmured phrase for other riders who surpassed themselves, and he surely knew what he was talking about.

Having for years denied that a decent New England guy like him would ever do anything wrong, Mr Hamilton now tells us that he and the rest of the team were indeed from another planet, doping all along. They began with little “red eggs” of testosterone before graduating to injected erythropoietin, which enhances red blood cells and decisively increases energy: known for short as EPO, or “Edgar Allan Poe” to the American riders, their old buddy Edgar. And then Mr Hamilton went to Spain to be introduced to the ghoulish practice of blood doping, in which a rider’s blood is taken from him, kept cool and reinjected before racing.

When the Tour de France began in 1903, cyclists drank copiously, before turning to cocaine and then la bomba, as Italians called amphetamines. But a change of kind came with the advent of anabolic steroids, and then EPO.

Whereas booze, coke and bomba aren’t actually normal components of our body chemistry, these new drugs are synthetic versions of natural metabolic products, making them difficult to detect as well as very powerful. What was happening might have been deduced merely from observation. From 1980-90 to 1995-2005, the average speed of the Tour increased from 37.5 kilometres per hour to 41.6 kph. How come? Ross Tucker of the Sports Science Institute in Cape Town, mentioned in passing by Mr Hamilton, looked carefully at Mr Armstrong’s astounding speed on such famous climbs as the Alpe d’Huez and calculated a sharp increase in the power-to-weight ratio. “There is,” Mr Tucker told the BBC recently, “no human being alive who has ever been measured capable of doing this in a lab.”

In 2004 Mr Hamilton won an Olympic gold medal, and then he was popped, as cyclists say when busted for failing a test. He scarcely comes out of his own story well, for all the mawkish passages about his mom and his dog, or his insistence that “most of us aren’t bad people”. He kept quiet, “playing the game, telling myself that I wasn’t a cheater, that everybody did it,” until 2010, when he received a shattering text message from Jeff Novitzky, the Eliot Ness of federal doping investigation, and the man who had exposed Barry Bonds and Marion Jones. With little choice, Mr Hamilton sang like a canary, as did most of the former Posties.

We are left with Mr Armstrong, who increasingly looks like the sporting answer to Alger Hiss: he will go to his grave protesting an innocence in which nobody else apart from his family any longer pretends to believe. And we look back on an astounding imposture — which calls for some penitence, not just from the dopers. A political journalist by trade, I moonlighted covering the Tour, and wrote a history of the race for the centenary. Of course I mentioned the rumours about doping, but I also wrote passages about Mr Armstrong’s brilliant victories that now make me shudder.


©2012 The New York Times News Service

THE SECRET RACE
Inside the Hidden World of the Tour
de France: Doping, Cover-Ups, and Winning
at All Costs
and Daniel Coyle
Bantam Books; 290 pages; $28

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