The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in Pro Cycling Feb 16, 2013
by Stephen P
Professional cycling has a long history in the US and Europe, and that history encompasses legendary feats of endurance and perseverance, particularly in epic events like the Tour de France. But the sport also has its darker side, especially in the form of various types of doping, and evidently no period in the sport's history was more problematic on that front than the decade from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s. This book, along with several other high-profile publications in 2012, lays bare the bad and the ugly in pro cycling during that period. It is a breathless read, one I had to slow down at times in order to fully absorb.
Tyler Hamilton was one of the sport’s big stars, famous for his ability to suffer – he placed high in both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France despite riding injured, and in the process he ground his teeth so much from the pain that he needed dental work after those races. But as Hamilton admits in this book, that period in the history of racing also saw the rise of the blood-booster EPO. Hamilton lays it all out: how he and other riders doped, what they used, and how it improved their performances. But before anyone else joins the bandwagon blaming riders for their behavior on simple moralistic terms, Hamilton also sets those doping practices in their context: doping was necessary to remain competitive; teams expected doping and let riders go if they didn’t; doctors were there to provide doping products and regimens; drug testers could not keep up with doping products and practices, making dopers hard to catch; and governing bodies of the sport saw that the resulting performances were economically good for the sport and turned a blind eye. While riders like Hamilton were hardly innocent, it is also the case that they only had bad options: dope or retire from the sport they love.
This book resulted from a collaboration between Hamilton and Daniel Coyle, who has written previously on cycling and other sports. Coyle meticulously conducted additional research seeking to confirm Hamilton’s story. While the text is Hamilton’s, the footnotes are Coyle’s, and together they provide a useful set of reflections. The result is a detailed and fact-checked narrative, and one that basically squares with other tell-all sources now available, such as the depositions from numerous American cyclists to the USADA in the Lance Armstrong case. In all cases, the parade of dirty laundry from these and other riders is intended as a means of saving the sport. And there are encouraging signs: sponsors are dropping teams with new doping problems, the UCI’s biological passport provides a more complete baseline to test against, Tour de France speeds are down, and riders are talking ever more openly about doping. Hamilton’s book is an important document in encouraging the clean-up to stick this time. While some have taken Hamilton’s book and Armstrong’s admissions as proof that cycling is a sporting farce, cycling has done rather more than other sports to address doping. Whether the concrete measures will save the sport’s image remains however an open question.