This one’s for you if you’d like to get inside the head of a cyclist who took performance enhancing drugs alongside teammate Lance Armstrong.
I originally wanted to read David Walsh’s book Lance to Landis but having watched the cinematic version, The Programme, I decided to cast my net a little wider to learn something different.
It is easy to see things in black and white. Good and evil. Cheats and non cheats. People who lie and people who tell the truth.It is much harder to appreciate the nuances of the complexity of human nature, which are beautifully revealed in this honest account from Hamilton. I am not for one second excusing anyone who takes performance enhancing drugs, but I am saying that it is imperative to at least try to appreciate the circumstances which surround an athletes decision to take that step. And the question that stays with you long after reading this book is: What would you have done? Many of you will assume you would have said no, but in the instance of Tour de France cycling, to say no would be to end your career in a sport you love. Some did that, but most did not.
Athletics has seen more than its fair share of doping controversy in recent months, and the reports of government involvement in doping in Russia have been more shocking than I can describe. But I think there is one significant difference that must be highlighted between cycling and athletics- in cycling, riding “panigua” literally bread and water but used to describe someone racing clean, “was so rare that it was worth pointing out”. Whereas I firmly believe in athletics that the majority of athletes are clean. Of course there is much work to be done, particularly as testing standards in several countries are a far cry from the rigorous procedures that British athletes are subjected to.
Finally to summarise what made it possible for the cyclists to get away with such extensive cheating for so long: the involvement of wives/girlfriends able to stall a tester if their partner was “glowing”, the involvement of doctors, the lack of rigour in testers- if one athlete was tested, several in that area were, allowing the first athlete to warn the others, the testers only came between certain hours, and athletes were able to put them off for a few days if you weren’t in- compare to athletics where that would count as a missed test (in GB), ability to self monitor haematocrit levels, and therefore keeping just within the legal limit, corruption between Lance and officials, an environment which tolerated doping- Spain, and a nofficiating time before a test which was enough time for athletes to infuse saline to lower their haematocrit by 3 points.
“the real doping breakthrough happened when the focus shifted to the blood” p49 Daniel Coyle
Andy Hampsten “In the mid-eighties, when I came up, riders were doping but it was still possible to compete with them. It was either amphetamines or anabolics- both were powerful, but they had downsides. Amphetamines made riders stupid, they’d launch these crazy attacks, use up all their energy. Anabolics made people bloated, heavy, gave them injuries in the long run” p50
“From 1980 to 1990, the average speed of the Tour de France was 37.5 kph; from 1995 to 2005, it increased to an average of 41.6 kilometres per hour. When you accounted for air resistance, that translates to a 22 per cent increase in overall power.” p51 Daniel Coyle
In 1997 the decision was made by UCI president to enforce a new rule that haematocrit levels (the proportion of red blood cells in your blood, which is boosted by using EPO) had to be kept below 50 and if they were tested to be above that level, the rider would have to sit out for 15 days. “as one Italian race director put it, the new rule was the equivalent of allowing everyone to go into a bank and steal as long as they kept it under $1,000” p62 This demonstrates the lack of commitment to clamping down on doping.
On the decision to start doping “For me the only fact that mattered was that for a thousand days I had been cheated out of my livelihood, and there was no sign things were going to get better.” p68 Perhaps if the authorities had decided to be serious about doping at this stage, athletes like Hamilton would have stayed clean in the belief that they would start to be competitive again.
“And if anybody on the team got too high, they could always lower their haematocrit by taking a speed bag- an IV bag of saline- or simply chugging a couple of litres of water and some salt tablets” p85
In response to the description of the battle between dopers and testers as an arms race:”It was more like a big game of hide-and-seek played in a forest with lots of good places to hide, and lots of rules that favor the hiders.” Drug tests were “more like discipline tests, IQ tests. If you were careful and paid attention, you could dope and be 99 per cent certain that you would not get caught.” p173/4
On how far behind the testers were “Dr Michael Ashenden, the hematologist who helped develop the EPO and transfusion tests, was not aware of the in-the-vein microdosing strategy until Floyd Landis explained it to him in 2010” p178 This was about 10 years after athletes started doing it.
“Lance had the team do a brutal five-hour ride, to burn off the cake only he had eaten. When he sinned, the whole team had to pay the price.” p182
“racers used to say you could tape EPO syringes to your forehead and you wouldn’t get busted in Spain.” p200
“Lance is Donald Trump. He might own all of Manhattan but if there’s one tiny corner grocery store out there without his name on it, it drives him crazy.” p214
“If I were given a choice between being three pounds lighter or having three more haematocrit points, I would take the lighter weight every time.” p232 but are three pounds and three haematocrit points a good comparison?
“In a way, it felt fair to have all four of us together being advised by the same doctor, our blood kept in the same freezer- a level playing field.” p254 When blood transfusions started taking place.
“Lance had called the UCI on June 10, the day I’d beaten him on Ventoux” p266 Lance gets beaten so reports Tyler Hamilton to the UCI saying he was on new drugs.
Dr Ashenden “Before, I saw them as weak people, bad people,” he said. “Now I see that they’re put in an impossible situation. If I had been put in their situation, I would do what they did.” p288
“I’ve come to learn that truth is a living thing. It has a force inside it, an inner springiness. The truth can’t be denied or locked away, because when that happens, the pressure builds. When a door gets closed, the truth seeks a window, and blows the glass clean out.” p340
“I realised that’s my story. Not a shiny, pretty myth about superheroes who win every time, but a human truth about one normal guy who tried to compete in a messed-up world and did his best; who made big mistakes and survived.” p345