When Paul Kimmage’s book “Rough Ride” came out in 1991 the story he told was one that not many people wanted to hear. It was a reality of cycling to which many of us were unaware. Indeed, many of us would have preferred to keep it that way. The story he wove was one few were clamoring to hear, one that contained truths many of us had never guessed, truths that were at odds with what we believed cycling was at minimum, what cycling should be at worst.
When Kimmage was ostracized from most of the cycling world, few who had taken the time to read the book could have been surprised. Not only was his story a shocking one, it was bitter and left little room for nuanced responses. It’s hard to imagine that anyone could have danced a diplomatic waltz that backed him up while not simultaneously giving the finger to the entire peloton. He was in a no-win situation, one that has sealed his fate as less a journalist than an antagonist because his work so rarely contains anything approaching compassion. Journalists live and die by friends; you may call them contacts or sources, but to those who ply the trade, one always thinks of making friends.
“Rough Ride” could be summed up as the first survey of an iceberg. Like those early Lewis and Clark maps that look familiar but clearly lack the precise reflection of satellite photographs, Kimmage came to us and announced that most of the iceberg was underwater, that there was—incredibly—twice the ice below the waterline as above it. His was as fantastic a tale as we’d heard.
Yet his was a necessary initial step. First into the breach. Without him leading the charge, shattering myths, we’d think of Tyler Hamilton’s and Daniel Coyle’s “The Secret Race” (Bantam, $28) as one elaborate delusion. But Hamilton and Coyle have undertaken as specific a survey of an iceberg as we’ve seen. This is National Geographic: photos, measurements, months spent in sea ice. It’s one thing to claim a two-bit domestique is full of shit; harder to do when it’s someone who reached the top.
That the book is meticulously researched is unsurprising, at least to me. I’ve been reading (and respecting) Coyle’s work since I first read him in Outside Magazine in the 1990s. His work thorough, his storytelling perfectly paced—efficient and brief when necessary, while rich and layered when things get heavy. If Jeff Novitzky and Travis Tygart are storming the bastille, Hamilton has taken Coyle in the back entrance, showed him where everything is kept: sleeping quarters here, provisions here, armory and magazine there.
While the book is as compelling a read as can be found in cycling, one must embark with a taste for tragedy. I was reminded of William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” and Annie Proulx’s “The Shipping News.”
Of course, many readers will find exactly what they seek. People who believe that dopers should be chased from the sport with pitchforks will find the yard-sale of Hamilton’s personal life satisfying rather than heart-rending. Lance’s would-be lynch mob will find even more reason to want him eviscerated as publicly as possible. Those who don’t like Armstrong are unlikely to wince at Hamilton’s most compassionate insights into him, his motivations. Armstrong’s still legions of fans are unlikely to read the book, which will make for an unfortunate miss in potential sales, and even bigger miss in dispensing reality.
Hamilton and Coyle perceptively call out the incident that ultimately leads to the investigation culminating in Armstrong’s downfall. It is, of course, Floyd Landis’ email to USA Cycling, the confession that was called everything short of J.R.R. Tolkein’s greatest fantasy. They point out how the entire investigation would never have taken place had Armstrong possessed the charity to give Landis a spot on his team. Simply mend a fence.
However, I think the more telling event took place a few years before, an event few of us could ever have guessed. The scrutiny that resulted in Hamilton’s positive tests that destroyed his career came as a result of a tip, a tip allegedly given to the UCI by Armstrong. One can infer that no length was too great in Armstrong’s mind, no effort too outlandish, not when defeating an opponent was at stake. For me, that felt like a real turning point for Armstrong, a selling out of the omerta in the most cynical way possible.
This book weighs on me. It has infected my dreams, putting me in rooms with Hamilton and Armstrong, their sponsors, causing bicycles to float through my nights, and resulting in mornings that lack the refreshed satisfaction of a night’s rest. The question on my mind is that after cycling is burned down in the United States, what, if anything, will come in Europe. Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid have been less leaders than shopkeepers. They are the competent employees left to mind the store while the owner runs to the bank. The problem: There’s no owner. No one has taken responsibility for the mess the sport is in and perhaps the one thing everyone can agree upon is that the UCI has done a terrible job of governing. McQuaid can’t be trusted to get the reform accomplished that cycling desperately needs if only for a simple reason—it’s virtually impossible to amputate yourself.
Hamilton cheated and lied about cheating. He sinned against cycling. There’s no getting around that. But in as much as anyone can ever repent a sin, “The Secret Race” makes amends by taking responsibility for his part and giving up everything he knows. He’s done his time, served his sentence. As a culture we profess to stand against cruel and unusual punishment. I can’t say I believe the punishment fit the crime, not when you consider the way we punish violent crimes, white-collar crimes.
Hamilton has done more to expose cycling’s flaws than all the anti-doping crusaders combined. From the way the book closes, it sounds like he wants little to do with cycling other than his coaching business and something in that makes my heart ache for him. He is our Prodigal Son. I’d like to think that he’s got more to contribute to this sport, something positive. If I had an olive branch—a job—I’d extend it; somehow “thanks” and “I’m sorry for your loss” don’t seem enough. This may be the most important book ever written on cycling.