The Secret Race deserves to be read alongside The Sports Gene, Malcolm Gladwell says:
“Lance and Ferrari showed me there were more variables than I’d ever imagined, and they all mattered: wattages, cadence, intervals, zones, joules, lactic acid, and, of course, hematocrit,” Hamilton writes. “Each ride was a math problem: a precisely mapped set of numbers for us to hit…. It’s one thing to go ride for six hours. It’s another to ride for six hours following a program of wattages and cadences, especially when those wattages and cadences are set to push you to the ragged edge of your abilities.”
Hematocrit, the last of those variables, was the number they cared about most. It refers to the percentage of the body’s blood that is made up of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. The higher the hematocrit, the more endurance you have. (Mäntyranta had a very high hematocrit.) The paradox of endurance sports is that an athlete can never work as hard as he wants, because if he pushes himself too far his hematocrit will fall. Hamilton had a natural hematocrit of forty-two per cent — which is on the low end of normal. By the third week of the Tour de France, he would be at thirty-six per cent, which meant a six-per-cent decrease in his power — in the force he could apply to his pedals. In a sport where power differentials of a tenth of a per cent can be decisive, this “qualifies as a deal breaker.”
For the members of the Postal Service squad, the solution was to use the hormone EPO and blood transfusions to boost their hematocrits as high as they could without raising suspicion. (Before 2000, there was no test for EPO itself, so riders were not allowed to exceed a hematocrit of fifty per cent.) Then they would add maintenance doses over time, to counteract the deterioration in their hematocrit caused by races and workouts. The procedures were precise and sophisticated. Testosterone capsules were added to the mix to aid recovery. They were referred to as “red eggs.” EPO (a.k.a. erythropoietin), a naturally occurring hormone that increases the production of red blood cells, was Edgar — short for Edgar Allan Poe. During the Tour de France, and other races, bags of each rider’s blood were collected in secret locations at predetermined intervals, then surreptitiously ferried from stage to stage in refrigerated containers for strategic transfusions. The window of vulnerability after taking a drug — the interval during which doping could be detected — was called “glowtime.” Most riders who doped (and in the Armstrong era, it now appears, nearly all the top riders did) would take two thousand units of Edgar subcutaneously every couple of days, which meant they “glowed” for a dangerously long time. Armstrong and his crew practiced microdosing, taking five hundred units of Edgar nightly and injecting the drug directly into the vein, where it was dispersed much more quickly.
“The Secret Race” is full of paragraphs like this:
The trick with getting Edgar in your vein, of course, is that you have to get it in the vein. Miss the vein — inject it in the surrounding tissue — and Edgar stays in your body far longer; you might test positive. Thus, microdosing requires a steady hand and a good sense of feel, and a lot of practice; you have to sense the tip of the needle piercing the wall of the vein, and draw back the plunger to get a little bit of blood so you know you’re in. In this, as in other things, Lance was blessed: he had veins like water mains. Mine were small, which was a recurring headache.
Hamilton was eventually caught and was suspended from professional cycling. He became one of the first in his circle to implicate Lance Armstrong, testifying before federal investigators and appearing on “60 Minutes.” He says that he regrets his years of using performance-enhancing drugs. The lies and duplicity became an unbearable burden. His marriage fell apart. He sank into a depression. His book is supposed to serve as his apology. At that task, it fails. Try as he might — and sometimes he doesn’t seem to be trying very hard — Hamilton cannot explain why a sport that has no problem with the voluntary induction of anorexia as a performance-enhancing measure is so upset about athletes infusing themselves with their own blood.
“Dope is not really a magical boost as much as it is a way to control against declines,” Hamilton writes. Doping meant that cyclists finally could train as hard as they wanted. It was the means by which pudgy underdogs could compete with natural wonders. “People think doping is for lazy people who want to avoid hard work,” Hamilton writes. For many riders, the opposite was true:
EPO granted the ability to suffer more; to push yourself farther and harder than you’d ever imagined, in both training and racing. It rewarded precisely what I was good at: having a great work ethic, pushing myself to the limit and past it. I felt almost giddy: this was a new landscape. I began to see races differently. They weren’t rolls of the genetic dice, or who happened to be on form that day. They didn’t depend on who you were. They depended on what you did — how hard you worked, how attentive and professional you were in your preparation.