Eleven of Lance Armstrong’s former team-mates have told their stories of doping with the US Postal Service cycling team, but none in such detail as Tyler Hamilton.
Tyler Hamilton’s book, The Secret Race, published in September, provides minute detail on how the drugs were obtained, how they were stored, delivered to the riders and injected, and how the syringes were carried away in a Coke can.
Most astonishingly, Tyler Hamilton explains how easy it was to beat the testers.
Lance Armstrong has rejected Tyler Hamilton’s allegations, while his lawyer described the latest condemnation from the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) as a “one-sided hatchet job”.
Tyler Hamilton started off on testosterone, a “red egg” as the cyclists referred to the pill, but soon graduated on to the more powerful EPO – erythropoietin – which he and his US Postal Service team-mates dubbed Edgar, after Edgar Allen Poe.
This stimulates the creation of red blood cells, boosting performance by about 5%, or, as Tyler Hamilton puts it “roughly the difference between first place in the Tour de France and the middle of the pack”.
EPO can be detected in the body for a number of hours after it has been taken – the “glowtime”. During this time, the cyclist needs to avoid a meeting with the dope tester.
So, during the months of training, they kept track of when they had taken the drug, and tipped each other off by phone whenever a tester appeared in Girona, the town in northern Spain where the cyclists were based. In The Secret Race, co-authored by journalist Daniel Coyle, he lists three tips:
“Tip one: Wear a watch. Tip Two: Keep your cellphone handy. Tip three: Know your glowtime, how long you’ll test positive after you take the substance. What you’ll notice is that none of these things is particularly difficult to do.”
They were more like “discipline tests, IQ tests” than drug tests, he says.
“If you were careful and paid attention, you could dope and be 99% certain that you would not get caught.”
On one occasion Tyler Hamilton heard a knock on the door when he was glowing, and simply hid inside the house in silence until the tester gave up and went away.
They never came during the night, making late evening the best time for doping. One elderly tester even called in advance to let the cyclists know when he was coming.
USADA describes Lance Armstrong as the enforcer of US Postal’s “massive and pervasive” doping programme.
“It was not enough that his team-mates give maximum effort on the bike,” Wednesday’s USADA report on Armstrong says.
“He also required that they adhere to the doping programme outlined for them or be replaced.”
It wasn’t only US Postal that was doping, of course. More than half the Tour de France winners since 1980 have either tested positive, been sanctioned for doping, or admitted it.
Tyler Hamilton said this week that it was “a dark period of cycling that we all went through”.
“None of us when we were 15 or 16 years old were planning on doing that, but we all kind of rode our way up the ranks and came into this world. It was a world that already existed, when we got there. The doctors, the riders had been doing these things for years.”
George Hincapie, US Postal team captain from 1999-2005, admitted doping for the first time on Wednesday, saying that early in his professional career it became clear to him “that given the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs by cyclists at the top of the profession, it was not possible to compete at the highest level without them”.
Tyler Hamilton writes in The Secret Race that he visited Lance Armstrong at his home in Nice some time before the 1999 Tour de France, and finding himself without EPO, asked if he could use some of Armstrong’s.
“Lance pointed casually to the fridge. I opened it and there, on the door, next to a carton of milk, was a carton of EPO, each stoppered vial standing upright, little soldiers in their cardboard cells.”
In 1998, the team had distributed the EPO in white lunch bags. But this was the year the Festina and TVM teams were caught with large quantities of steroids, EPO and syringes. So in 1999 greater care was needed. According to Tyler Hamilton, Lance Armstrong arranged for his gardener to follow the Tour on a motorbike, carrying a thermos flask full of EPO tubes.
“When we needed <<Edgar>>, Philippe would zip through the Tour’s traffic and make a drop-off,” he writes in The Secret Race.
By the following year, they had begun blood doping, flying to Spain to have their blood drawn by the team doctor, Tyler Hamilton says.
This blood, rich in red blood cells, was then delivered back to the tired riders, to help boost their red blood cell count during the race.
Riders found blood bags, still cold from the refrigerator, taped to the wall next to their beds in their hotel rooms. Hamilton describes the sensation of goosebumps as the chilled blood circulated around his body.
One of the doctors used by US Postal, Michele Ferrari – nicknamed Doctor Death by reporters – found ways of helping to reduce the EPO glowtime by using small “microdoses” injected into the vein.
The cyclists could also drink large amounts of water, or inject themselves with saline solution, in order to accelerate the fading of the glow.
“They’ve got their doctors, and we’ve got ours, and ours are better,” writes Tyler Hamilton.
After Dr. Michele Ferrari was convicted of sporting fraud by an Italian court in 2004, Lance Armstrong issued a statement, in which he said: “I have always said that I have zero tolerance for anyone convicted of using or facilitating the use of performance-enhancing drugs. As a result of today’s developments, the USPS team and I have suspended our professional affiliation with Dr. Ferrari.”
Lance Armstrong contests that he took 500 drug tests worldwide and never failed one. This is disputed. Tyler Hamilton says he failed tests, but managed to explain it away, or hush it up.
Tyler Hamilton himself kept a clear record for several years. He first tested positive just as he reached the peak of his career – a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics – when by mistake he was given another man’s blood.
Blood transfusions are potentially risky. Badly stored blood can poison an athlete when transfused. Tyler Hamilton never had this problem, but he did suffer from one botched transfusion, which left him urinating a fluid “dark, dark red, almost black”.