Well, what do you think of Lance Armstrong now?
That question will be asked all over the country (and Europe) this week with the release of a tell-all book that is as damning as it is thorough. It's difficult to read "The Secret Race" by former Armstrong teammate Tyler Hamilton and come away with anything but a sense that an intricate (and brainy) plot allowed the seven-time Tour de France winner (and others) to cheat to win.
Asked Wednesday by phone what he felt was the biggest myth exploded in "The Secret Race," Hamilton told Yahoo! Sports, "That only a few bad eggs were doping. Every rider I knew – knew well enough – [doped]. It was a choice that most young professional riders had to make a decision on, including me."
Hamilton isn't shy about that point, either in the book or over the phone. "It starts with just a small red pill," he explains. "Then a shot of EPO. Then the next year you do a little bit more. Then it becomes a part of your routine. Then they expect you to go to the best doctors; they expect you to be flying on all cylinders. It's a tough spot to be in."
So if everyone was doping and everyone knew everyone was doping, that doesn't leave Armstrong's plea of innocence much wiggle room. As Outside magazine declares, "No one can read this book with an open mind and still credibly believe that Armstrong didn't dope."
One of the many eyebrow-raising passages in "The Secret Race" is when Armstrong is said to have conversed with leaders of the sport after an alleged failed drug test during the 2001 Tour of Switzerland. In the book Hamilton implies that the cycling hierarchy helped Armstrong get away with something.
Lance had a strange smile on his face. He was kind of chuckling, like someone had told him a good joke.
"You won't [expletive] believe this," he said. "I got popped for EPO."
It took me a second to absorb. My stomach hit the floor. If that was true, Lance was done. The team was done. I was done. He laughed that dry laugh again.
"No worries dude. We're gonna have a meeting with them. It's all taken care of."
Hamilton does more than hint that cycling had all the incentive in the world for Armstrong to keep clean and keep winning. He writes simply: "The UCI didn't want to catch Lance."
Hamilton doesn't exactly gloat about his findings. He calls the book "a sad story" and, when asked if he would have pursued cycling if he knew at the start of his career what he knows now, he says, "I don't think so." He insists he wants very much to help clean up the sport, but he quietly offers an anecdote about when he asked his 10-year-old nephew what he wanted to be when he grows up. The boy told Hamilton he wanted to be a cyclist.
"That made me feel sick," he says.
One would think reading this book would make Armstrong's supporters feel sick, too. But don't expect many minds to change.
Armstrong's detractors will point to this book as the ultimate prosecution of cycling's greatest American hero. In fact, you can expect many to conclude Armstrong recently dropped his fight with anti-doping authorities because a mountain of witness "evidence" like this was about to surface. And Hamilton enlists more than a few credible witnesses to take the stand in this book – teammates, rivals, friends. The result is overwhelming: testimony not only about when and how the alleged doping was done, but how many layers it took. "It was sort of a Russian doll," says co-author Dan Coyle, also interviewed by phone Wednesday. "Compartments and compartments and compartments. At the end of the day, though, all the stuff is happening behind closed doors. It was a community of secrets."
This wasn't Jose Canseco going into a bathroom stall with a syringe; this was an entire network of codes and informants, including wives as sentries, leaving the testers in the dust like a fallen rider writhing in pain behind the peloton. Performance enhancing drugs were wrapped in foil, in Coke cans, even in a vacuum cleaner. "If you were careful and paid attention," writes Hamilton, "you could dope and be 99 percent certain that you would not get caught."
In other words, although the subterfuge reads like a screenplay for an episode of "24," evading the drug police wasn't all that difficult. In one of the more clandestine anecdotes, Hamilton writes that a courier nicknamed "Motoman" would ride up to Armstrong with prepaid cell phones and thermoses of EPO.
So the most significant aspect from Hamilton's work is not that he has evidence Armstrong doped – we knew that already from his "60 Minutes" interview – but rather it's the undermining of Armstrong's famous PR crutch, namely that he never failed a drug test. That claim is getting more and more meaningless by the day, it seems.
"The Secret Race" attacks all the Armstrong arguments like the great rider himself attacked mountains. How about the idea that if everyone's doping, the playing field is level? Sorry: Hamilton has a quote from a doctor insisting that "the winner in a doped race is not the one who trained the hardest, but the one who trained the hardest and whose physiology responded best to the drugs." And then, it's Hamilton himself who writes, "Once you get past a one-week race, it quickly becomes impossible for clean riders to compete with riders using [EPO], because [EPO] is too big an advantage. The longer the race, the bigger the advantage becomes – hence the power of [EPO] in the Tour de France." And then there are the issues with Armstrong's personality, including one instance in which Hamilton recalls the American hero racing to track down a driver who'd yelled at him, pulling him out of his car, pummeling him and leaving him in a heap.
The evidence against Armstrong in this book is staggering, but it could have included a photo of Armstrong attaching a V-12 engine to his bike and it wouldn't sway the believers.
That's because a lot of the believers don't care a lick about cycling.
Example: A man named Matt Taylor wore a "Livestrong" T-shirt around Orlando over the holiday weekend. Asked about the allegations of Armstrong cheating, Taylor shrugged and said that didn't matter to him. He even volunteered that he heard Armstrong wasn't a very good husband, either.
Taylor has no idea how many Tours his hero won. He doesn't follow cycling much at all. He's hardly offended that Armstrong may have done something improper in the course of winning.
Why? Because when he was sick with testicular cancer eight years ago, a friend gave him Armstrong's book. He read it and was inspired. Case closed.
See, this isn't your usual sports debate, where fans disagree about, say, whether Derek Jeter is overrated. This is a debate that has very little to do with sports. It's about the worth of a man. And how that man conducted himself in a field about which so few care, well, the details of his behavior in the mountains of France don't really compare to the details of how he behaved when lying on his deathbed. Doing anything to win is actually commendable when winning means living to see age 40.
Even Coyle acknowledges this when he says of Armstrong, "The world is a different and better place because of the work he's done."
Some will say Armstrong used his cancer as both a shield and a lever for his rise to fame and fortune. Again, supporters don't care. Millions of dollars were raised for cancer research and so what if the guy in the lead may have been unethical during his races? Investment bankers on Wall Street are some of the most charitable people in the world, and also some of the most corrupt. The ends justifying the means is up for debate when bickering about the SEC's recruiting tactics, but not nearly as much when lives are on the line.
The only finish line Matt Taylor ever cared about was the one lingering at the end of his cancer treatment. Taylor is healthy now, at age 41, and Lance Armstrong helped him get there. That's all that matters to him.
Whatever side of the Lance Armstrong debate you're on, this book will probably not change it no matter how convincing it may be. That's because this debate is not a sports debate. Far from it. This is a debate between belief and non-belief. Believers and non-believers tend to remain that way. As Hamilton writes about his own dual mindset, he had to "live on two planets at once" – the life he lived, and the one he forced himself to believe he lived. Those two planets still exist, whether or not Hamilton still lives on both. And whatever you think of Lance Armstrong the cyclist, Lance Armstrong the brand will likely remain one of the most convincing on the planet we're all living on.
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