Sportsthoughts (76) – Three stories about cycling

This year I’ve read three excellent books about the lives of professional cyclists. All of them are about brilliant achievements and struggle to get to the top. And in different ways, they are all about the scourge of doping. The unavoidable story.

After reading all three you cannot ever be in denial about what has happened in the past. All you can do is hope that the present, and the future, is better.

These are the books: ” My Time” by Bradley Wiggins; “Racing  Through The Dark” by David Millar” and “The Secret Race” by Tyler Hamilton.

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I read the books in that sequence. I’ve reviewed Sir Brad’s before. With each book I sank deeper into a kind of fascinated despair for the sport. Admiring the heroism, but resigning myself to the reality. The inescapable reality.

“My Time’ is a celebration of Wiggo’s Tour de France and Olympics triumphs. It sets out the gruelling work, in the shed at home, on the road, and at altitude, that prepared him for victory. The shadow of doping is there, because inevitably people have questioned his success, in the light of past winners. Bradley is angry about this and is eloquent about why he hasn’t taken the drugs route. You either believe him or you don’t. I do. I want to. 2012 was British cycling’s greatest year and Wiggo was at the centre of it.

David Millar’s book is superb. it’s a rise and fall and rise. It is deeply personal and beautifully written. It’s a Shakespearean tragedy. The young, rather reckless man, resisting the drugs, wanting to win clean, but slowly succumbing. Encouraged by his team, but in code. There’s a moment when he struggles badly in a big race and realises that’s it. If he wants to compete he has to start doping. To be like the rest.

He’s caught out, after a member of the support team is stopped at a border and discovered to be carrying drugs. David’s house in Biarritz is raided. Some old syringes are found. He’s treated pretty severely by the French police. His saviour is Dave Brailsford, head of British cycling, who happened to be with him at the time.

Millar’s tale is powerful, affecting and ultimately optimistic. He’s very fortunate in his friends, including the British cycling establishment. They help him through the ban, help him with his rehabilitation. The story is very emotional. There are a lot of tears and self disgust. But in the end there is redemption. Millar returns, successfully, to top level cycling. He was actually the captain of the men’s Olympic road racing team in 2012.

If you are hard line on drugs, in favour of life time bans, then you won’t be happy about Millar’s story. If you believe in forgiveness, lessons learnt, understanding about the circumstances which lead to transgression, then this is an uplifting story. Take your pick. Either way, it’s a very good read.

And then there is Tyler Hamilton. Blimey! “The Secret Race” blows the lid right off. After you have read this book it is hard to believe that anyone at the very top of professional road racing wasn’t doping. EPO and then blood tranfusions. All about increasing the proportion of red blood cells, the oxygen carriers. The more you have, the better your endurance.

Hematocrit readings become everything. The obsession.

Hamilton’s book is a good read again, written in cooperation with journalist Daniel Coyle. It’s a bit more prosaic than Millar’s, but again very personal, and utterly convincing. Part of it is about the relationship with Lance Armstrong and his place in the world of doping. Suffice to say he was placed in the epicentre, and the recent confessions bear that out. And according to Hamilton, Lance wasn’t a nice man. To say the least. Well, that’s not a crime… he was a winner. Sport often excuses bad behaviour when the result is victory. Rightly or wrongly.

What I found most striking about Hamilton’s book was the inevitabilty of doping and mechanical and rather gruesome nature of it. And the subterfuge. The flamboyant doctors, the secret and rather grubby rendezvous. And just the idea of sticking needles in your arms, sucking blood into bags which are put in fridges and reinjected into you later. Horrible. David Millar’s book described some of the same things. You can’t help thinking, why did you agree to this? Why did you even agree to inject vitamins after a race (which was legal)? Injections…ugh!

And the risks. There’s a gruesome description in Hamilton’s book when a reinfusion went wrong because the blood had become contaminated.

Just to do a bit better in a stage of the Tour?….

Tyler Hamilton’s 1000 days explains it all. ‘Paniagua” means bread and water – no drugs.

Here’s an interesting number; one thousand days…. first year, neo-pro, excited to be there, young pup, hopeful. Second year realization. Third year, clarity – the fork in the road. yes or no. In or out…. One thousand mornings of waking up with hope; a thousand afternoons of being crushed. A thousand days of paniagua, bumping painfully against the wall at the edge of your limits, trying to find a way past. A thousand days of getting signals that doping is okay, signals from powerful people you trust and admire, signals that say It’ll be fine and Everybody’s doing it…. and once you cross the line, there’s no going back.

Everybody’s doing it. It’s normal. You don’t even feel it’s wrong, except for the fact that you have to hide it, comply with the Omerta, get your transfusions in grubby hotels in the outskirts of town, the night before a big mountain stage.

Staggering stuff.

So what to conclude now? Have the revelations of the last couple of years blown the drug culture away? Is the British Olympic/ Sky Procycling approach – making much more use of sports science, altitude training and so on – an effective substitute for the drugs and tranfusions? Good enough to persuade others that it’s the way forward?

I’ve no idea. But I’ve been reminded in the past couple of weeks how brutally hard professional cycling is. The Giro d’Italia has been merciless. Beautiful settings, utterly cruel passages. So many harsh climbs and frightening descents.  Exacerbated by the weather, which has made some of the descents truly perilous. Top riders, including the two pre-race favourites, Bradley Wiggins and Ryder Hesjedal, wiped out by the conditions.

It’s so tough. Drugs and doping appear to have been the answer in the past. Maybe a more scientific and rigorous approach to training could replace the easy options in future. But there is always going to be someone who thinks they can steal a march through a new and undetectable drug. It’s human nature.

I want to finish on an optimistic note though. Cycling may have been riddled with drugs, but I don’t think it stops any of the three authors of the books here from being sporting heroes. Their achievements have been immense. They have found different ways of meeting the awesome challenges.  Where they have transgressed they have come clean. They have been honest about their personalities. And they have addressed their weaknesses. They have all been winners at the very highest level. All three books are inspiring.

So I’d recommend them all and say they are well worth reading one after the other. Different perspectives on the sport and the problems it has faced. Fascinating, moving and, ultimately, proof of the soul at the heart of cycling. Despite everything.

About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love outside work: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. And anything else that I happen to think is worth writing about!
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5 Responses to Sportsthoughts (76) – Three stories about cycling

  1. DyingNote says:

    I’ve become weary and wary of competitive sport – this asinine win-at-all-cost culture and the obscene amount of money that rides on sport. One of the reasons that I no longer am a fan of anyone or any team. I love sport and the joy I get out of it is largely due to my own participation in it – cycling, running, table tennis, badminton – whenever I can. We’ve got a pretty good amateur cycling ‘championship’ in my city that runs through the year for 10 months on the 3rd Sunday with different events each month – downhill, cross-country, criterium, road race, TT. And the only prize is, as the organisers happily proclaim, is bragging rights. Beautiful, joyous sport far, far away from the filth of pro sport.

    BTW, did I ever mention Amy Snyder’s “Hell On 2 Wheels” to you? If you haven’t read it, please do. I think you’ll enjoy it.

  2. I’ll probably not get the time to read these books, but I’m glad you have reviewed them here.
    Lance Armstrong’s successes were my first glimpses into the sport of cycling and doping in the sport. I was already aware of doping from Baseball, mostly. Of course Canada had the Ben Johnson embarrassment forever ago so I know runners have been doing it for quite awhile.
    I was sure cycling was a “clean” sport. Until reading this I thought Lance was the only cheater.
    I wonder if there was a drug that would make me a better Designer, and guarantee financial success ….. would I take it?

    • John S says:

      Lance sure wasn’t alone, but according to Tyler Hamilton he was the best. If you ever have time, the best of the three books as a read is David Millar. It’s the best written, the most wide-ranging and the most moving.

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