You gotta wonder how Tyler Hamilton feels right now. He's either incredibly frustrated, happily vindicated or else some roiling combination of the two that probably changes every day. He won an Olympic gold medal in the 2004 time trial (link: all-time list of Olympic time trial medalists) then saw it stripped due to a failed drug test. He was a teammate of Lance Armstrong on the U.S. Postal Service team including riding with him the first three years (1999-2001)that Armstrong won the Tour de France.
But then after competing at the sport's highest levels, Hamilton saw his career go into free-fall, finding himself essentially blackballed from the sport when he (along with former teammate and fellow convicted drug cheat Floyd Landis) became one of the first cyclists to speak out about the drug culture that permeated professional cycling in the 1990s and 2000s. After years of denials, when called before a U.S. federal grand jury in 2010, Hamilton finally admitted his own participation in doping activity. He then repeated his story publicly in a May, 2011 interview on the TV show 60 Minutes, implicating Armstrong in doping as well.
All this put him in the spotlight as the main rider willing to break an apparent code of secrecy among pro cyclists as it relates to doping, and made the promised release of his tell-all book one that people absolutely couldn't wait for, particularly since Hamilton had both been in the inner circle of cycling's biggest hero and greatest enigma, Lance Armstrong, and had proved that he wasn't afraid to tell what he knew about the seven-time Tour de France winner.
Timing for Tyler? Blessing or Curse
When Hamilton's book was released in early September, it was indeed the blockbuster that everyone hoped for, systematically laying bare the inner workings of cycling's drug culture, including Lance Armstrong's role in developing using these performance-enhancing drugs in a scheme that kept Armstrong personally and the U.S. Postal Service team at the top of the competitive cycling world. The book describes a win-at-all costs atmosphere, where teams that didn't dope couldn't be competitive, and cyclists who chose to stay clean did so with the knowledge that they jeopardized their career and livelihood, due to the simple fact that they couldn't keep up with their chemically enhanced counterparts.
In addition to details about Hamilton's life as a racer of course, the book describes the pharmaceutical facts on how doping works and how it changed over time. Most prevalent early on during the late 1990s the use of EPO to enhance the blood's ability to carry oxygen gave racers an edge. Then as tests grew more sophisticated, team doctors turned to the use of testosterone and then finally began reinjecting racers with their own fresh blood, pulled out in the weeks ahead of a big race, then reinjecting it later, replacing the tired blood that otherwise ran in their system. A whole supporting cast of characters was needed to support this, and the book describes wives passing out pills, drug couriers weaving through Tour traffic on motorbike and seedy hotel rooms with blood bags taped to the walls and plastic tubing feeding cyclists' veins.
It's astounding and disturbing and fascinating all at once, and its revelations opened the eyes of cycling fans around the world to a long-hidden secret. And Hamilton was selling a lot of books.
Stunner: USADA Evidence Against Armstrong Reveled
But then came the bombshell, just six weeks after tbe book's release. Even after Armstrong announced that he would not contest the charges against him, The United States Anti-Doping Agency released the evidence it had compiled in its investigation against him, over a 1,000 pages of testimony and corroborating details, and suddenly Hamilton's book was just a few drops of water engulfed by a much greater wave battering the beach of professional cycling.
Did Hamilton feel vindicated? You bet. Suddenly he was no longer just a voice crying out in the wilderness - virtually alone and outcast in his claims. Now his assertions were backed up by a mountain of official evidence. But his moment in the sun, this book that he had worked on with writer Daniel Coyle -- painstakingly documented and painfully soul-baring -- was now being pushed aside.
Thoughts on the Book Itself
Casual cycling fans and passionate followers very knowledgeable about pro racing will find interest and enjoyment alike in this book. It details Hamilton's start in bike racing and traces the path he took that finally had him at the absolute top of the cycling world, winning an Olympic gold medal and racing on a Tour de France champion team. He talks about the training, life in Europe, what it's like being in the peloton with the world's best riders. Hamilton discusses the arduous life of a pro racer, where the constant push for improvement and the measurement of every aspect of one's performance and physiology would suck every bit of fun and relaxation that you and I enjoy when we ride our bikes.
Much of this book is about Lance Armstrong, and in these depictions, Tyler Hamilton paints a picture of an absolutely ruthless individual who would do pretty much anything to keep his deathgrip on the top position in cycling. The USADA report accuses Armstrong of threatening and intimidating witnesses, and Hamilton backs this up in one of the book's most fascinating and frightening sections, describing how he was followed, how his phone and computer were bugged by people he believes were associated with Armstrong.
However, I did have two complaints about this book. One is with the book itself; the other is with Hamilton and his portrayal of things.
First, author Daniel Coyle is very careful to assure us in the introduction that at first he wasn't even 100% willing to take on this challenge of writing Hamilton's story. The biggest reason for that, Coyle says, is that he wasn't sure what he could believe from Hamilton, who had been lying consistently for at least the last decade, maybe longer about his use of performance enhancing drugs. So Coyle finally agreed to write the book if only he was able to independently verify dates, locations, incidents and other allegations that Hamilton made, to validate through his own sources and research that which Hamilton was telling him. However, while Coyle tells us he did that; he never really shows how this took place. I really would have preferred that the book be footnoted, much like an academic work or non-fiction, where we ourselves could, where possible, also validate these claims that Hamilton makes through outside facts.
Second, Hamilton portrays himself in a lot of ways as the victim here. He tries desperately to justify his cheating by showing 1) how he had to cheat to stay competive 2) how everybody else was doing it at the same time, like a great big syringe party club and 3) how just about any other person in his shoes would have done the same thing. Now maybe that's all true, but what Hamilton glosses over is that fact that even after he was busted twice for doping in 2004 after winning the Olympic gold medal and in the Tour of Spain (Vuelta a Espana), he still fought the charges, continuing to lie to family and friends, even going so far as to set up a website to solicit funds for his legal defense. In all of Hamilton's writing about the aftermath of his positive drug tests, I did not see any real contrition for this and that saddens me. I believe the only thing Tyler Hamilton was sorry for is that he got caught.
Read the Book (But Not if You Want to Continue to Admire Your Heroes)
So, would I recommend reading this book? For fans of cycling who want to understand the sport as it has operated the last two decades, this is a wonderful inside look at the life of a pro cyclist and especially for the context to things that it provides relating to everything going on now as the Lance Armstong stuff continues to unfold.
However I would certainly recommend that you NOT read this book if you want to continue to hold onto to the increasingly untenable belief that your heroes in the bike world, pretty much all the top cyclists during this period, weren't using EPO, testosterone and doing blood doping pretty much without exception, just to stay in the game. It just paints an ugly, ugly picture at what people were doing to themselves and to others to live life as a professional cyclist.