I almost felt sorry for Tyler Hamilton. Almost. Of course, I knew this would happen.
It was why I had refrained from buying his book, The Secret Race, in the first place.
I had no interest in reading about his excuses and warped justifications for becoming a drug cheat, but more than that, I didn’t want to ‘humanise’ Hamilton. I didn’t want to learn about his background, or the pressures he was under, or his hopes and dreams.
I wanted him to remain ‘just’ a drug cheat. After all, it is easier to maintain the rage against a name. It becomes harder when that name becomes a person.
But deep down I guess I was curious, so when on a recent holiday I spied his book reduced to some ridiculously low price in the window of a discount book shop, I could resist temptation no longer.
I almost felt dirty buying it. I didn’t want to be seen funding a drug cheat, so when the girl asked me if I would like a bag for my purchase I was thinking, “yes please, and make it a brown paper one!”
I went back to my room and threw the book on a bedside table and there it sat for a day, two days, and then three, with Hamilton’s grimacing face staring up at me from the cover as he sat hunched over his bike, with the steely eyed Armstrong hovering menacingly just behind his right shoulder.
On the fourth day I succumbed, dipping in a toe. Minutes turned to hours.
I was enjoying the read despite myself, but worse than that, I was beginning to like this Hamilton character, beginning to identify with him. He was, horror of horrors, becoming a person.
He even made me understand why he doped and made me seriously question what I would do under the same set of circumstances. I am ashamed to admit that I can’t categorically deny that I wouldn’t have done the same thing.
But then he lost me. Just like that. As easily as he had gained my sympathies, he blew them away and it only took half a paragraph.
After dodging drug testers and sticky situations for years Hamilton was finally busted and forced to sit out of the sport that he loved.
Lesson learned, one would have thought. But what did he do when he finally returned to the sport? I’d give you one guess, but I know that you’re already there.
“During my career, I’d looked like a boyscout and doped,” Hamilton wrote. “Now, in my comeback, I looked like a rock-and-roller and raced mostly clean, without Edgar (EPO). I did take testosterone a couple of times. Be assured: it (not taking EPO) wasn’t some sort of moral stand.
“I’m sure that if somebody had offered me Edgar, I would have taken it, no questions asked.”
Yes, I know that Hamilton is not the only serial doper out there but after reading his book and getting to know him over several hundred pages of candid revelations, I expected more.
He no more learned his lesson than Danilo Di Luca did, or Riccardo Ricco for the matter, although the less said about him the better.
And so, after flirting briefly on the side of the dopers, I’ve returned to my previous stance of having absolutely no tolerance whatsoever for those who try and cheat the cycling system.
After all, Hamilton and the others did have a choice, and they chose poorly. Australia’s Bradley McGee is an excellent example of someone who made the right choices, despite being under pressure to go down the doping path throughout his distinguished career.
In an article that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald soon after Armstrong’s world began crashing down thanks to a direct hit by the now infamous Reasoned Decision, McGee spoke openly about his experiences as a rider in what was perhaps the pro-peloton’s most ‘juiced up’ era.
Of course, he was mad as hell.
“I was competing not just against Armstrong, but against the Armstrong years. I feel my professional years – my Tour de France years – have been stolen.
“The more I think about it, the more it makes me mad as hell. But I have to move on from the fact that I have, more than likely, missed out on results and revenue, plus more, because of others doping.”
Missing out on results after busting a gut was Hamilton’s main reason for exploring ‘other avenues’ and one wouldn’t have blamed McGee for also straying from the straight and narrow. But unlike Hamilton, he didn’t.
“During 11 years as a professional, I was confronted by doping several times by people from all walks of cycling life – including riders, support staff and doctors. Each time I was able to say, ‘no’.
“Over time, and never faltering on this stance, the confrontations became less frequent, then non-existent.”
So it could have been for Hamilton, who like McGee, enjoyed an honest and solid upbringing with a strong belief in what was right and wrong.
I know I’ve used this quote by acclaimed women’s cyclist Nicole Cooke in my articles before, but it is worth revisiting again here.
“I do despair that the sport will never clean itself up when rewards of stealing are greater than riding clean. If that remains the case, the temptation for those with no morals will always be too great.
“I have been robbed by drug cheats, but am fortunate… but for many people out there who do ride clean – people with morals – many of these people have had to leave the sport with nothing after a lifetime of hard work, some going through horrific financial turmoil.
“Spare a thought for all those genuine people who walk away with no rewards – just shattered dreams. Each of them is worth a thousand Lances.”
Or Hamiltons, or Riccos, or Di Lucas, or… you get the picture.
These heartfelt words were spoken by Cooke on her retirement and offer a powerful reminder of what dopers did, and continue to do, to our sport.
Don’t be sucked in by tearful confessions. The true victims of doping – those who rode (and continue to ride) clean – are the ones who should have our sympathies, even if they haven’t written a ‘best seller’.