What’s Your Hematocrit Edgar?

secret-race-book-daniel-coyle-tyler-hamilton_mediumHematocrit =  The oxygen carrying capacity of blood.  Increased oxygen carrying capacity can lead to performance gains and using synthetic EPO, boosts the (hematocrit) red blood cell count.

‘Edgar’ = US Postal Team‘s code name for EPO.

On a recent visit to the Lakes I took a wander round a book store. I asked if they had a copy of Tyler Hamilton‘s controversial expose of race doping, The Secret Race which covered his time with US Postal (up until 2001) and then as team leader on CSC Tiscali then Phonak. The lady told me she had one copy left. It was in hardback. No. I wasn’t going to shell out hardback prices for Tyler Hamilton.

On Christmas morning after unwrapping six pairs of socks (brown, light brown, dark brown etc) I opened my next gift; The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle. Ah so Mrs McG does listen to me after all!

I have been unable to put this book down since. What an absorbing read it is and one of the most memorable books about cycling I’ve picked up. I don’t hesitate to say ‘about cycling’ even though you could argue it’s about doping, deceit, arrogance and ambition. Despite these powerful themes, the book also reveals a lot about pro-cycling whether it be training, diet, racing or team work.Lance_Armstrong_Tyler_Hamilton_153551555

Of course it also tells you a lot about Lance Armstrong who is the distant yet central character of the piece. However there are a whole range of other colourful characters in here such as Bruyneel, Landis, Dr Michele Ferrari, Hincapie, Pantani, Vaughters and the narrator himself, Hamilton, who illuminate the 300 or so pages.

Hamilton is clever and subtle in his portrayal of both Armstrong and himself. He goes to great lengths to portray his team leader as a personal hero and an inspiring, determined athlete, hungry for success. At the same time he provides a steady flow of damning details and anecdotes about Armstrong’s brutish arrogance and deception. It is a devastating character assassination which makes for a gripping read.

Ferrari - the key player behind Armstrong's success?

Ferrari – the key player behind Armstrong’s success?

Although Hamilton presents himself as a doper, obsessed with hematocrit levels, he also seems a victim of the EPO culture and the need to succeed at all costs. In the book the lowering of Armstrong’s reputation somehow elevates Hamilton as a man of truth. The worse Armstrong is portrayed, the better Hamilton appears even when he describes his shuttle flights to Madrid for ‘Edgar’ or a hotel rendezvous for BBs (Blood Transfusions).

Ullrich - feared by Postal

Ullrich – feared by Postal

For those of us who remember the pro-tour 90s, this book is a startling insider account of those times. Riis, Pantani, Ullrich, Virenque, ONCE, all seem caught up in the dark arts but the master was Armstrong who, according to Hamilton, earned millions of dollars from a sustained doping regime.image9

Despite the book’s whistleblower perspective I found lots of other aspects of cycling equally intriguing. Hamilton’s turbo drills and diet were a revelation as was his attitude towards lactic acid.

Also the book reveals how success on the Tour de France was all about numbers. If you had the right numbers you should win; the right level of hematocrit (high 40s), 5 extra heartbeats, the right weight, the right stats on hill climbs, the extra 3 -4 percent of watts etc…etc.

A great read – pick up a copy where you can. No doubt a film is in the pipeline!

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4 thoughts on “What’s Your Hematocrit Edgar?

  1. What a great Christmas present and appetite whetting review : a book I’ve often wondered about but never got round to reading so will do so now. Thanks for that Steve.
    My other half bought me a large black and white picture of a dripping wet Jessica Ennis astride a hurdle which , for reasons I can not understand , I have not been allowed to put up on the bedroom wall and which is now mounted ,tantalizingly out of reach, in front of my turbo trainer.
    I only mention this to introduce the subject of her book ” Unbelievable” which one of the kids bought me for Christmas. I must admit I wouldn’t have picked this of the shelf myself, seeing it as a too quick response to cash in on Olympic fame .However, it really is an inspirational account of a slightly built young girl with all the odds stacked against her , becomming the world beating heptathlete she is today through sheer guts, hard training and single minded determination. A reaffirmation of “no pain , no gain” which all of us cyclists know only too well !
    Told in her own words, this is an enjoyable book and an easy read. Worth looking out for .
    Same thoughts on the £20 price as you though Steve.
    Are all cyclists tight ?
    I’m off for another turbo session!

  2. I thought an important sentence the Tyler’s book was when he talked about the importance of losing weight. ” given the choice of 3 less ponds or 3 more hematocrit points, I would take the 3 pounds every time”.

    In other words, losing weight is cheating, only those cyclists carrying obvious signs of flab can hold their heads high as being beyond reproach. Next time I am dropped on a climb I will be proud of the fact that I am riding clean and fat.

    One worrying aspect of the account of EPO use and effects is how easy it sounds, and apparently with few side effects. It almost sounds like it would be a good idea to use EPO for a cycle touring holiday where there are no competition rules to worry about. I think, though, that without the knowledge there would be a high risk of overdoing it with serious consequences, like death; so I will stick with the jaffa cakes which seem to do the same job and taste better.

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