In 1983, I sat in the backseat of a rental next to a rather large athlete as we inched toward the U.S. border after a drug run to Tijuana, Mexico.
Outside the window, dark-haired hawkers displayed the ubiquitous velvet paintings of Jesus and Elvis. Inside the wheel well were vials of oral anabolic steroids popular among athletes in those days. On the radio, Sting sang about illegal immigrants.
A palpable sense of anxiety grew the closer we got to U.S. customs. Although I was part of a reporting team investigating the rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs ahead of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, I encountered the kind of apprehension an athlete would when carting illegal substances across borders.
Memories of that experience awakened as I read former pro cycling champion Tyler Hamilton's account of traveling to obscure hotels in Europe to undergo blood transfusions in order to outperform competitors at the Tour de France and other prestigious races.
Hamilton lays bare the lengths some of the world's most revered cyclists have gone to earn the all mighty yellow jersey in "The Secret Race, Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-Ups, and Winning at All Costs."
A disgraced Olympic champion and one-time comrade with Lance Armstrong, Hamilton offers an insider's perspective that punctures a hole in the denials of cycling's most ardent and vociferous defenders. Its target is clear: destroying the Armstrong myth.
Many of the book's contentions now are supported by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's lengthy report, which included testimony from 11 former Armstrong teammates, including Hamilton. The report provides stunning material in the agency's case to ban Armstrong, who won an unprecedented seven Tour de France titles from 1999 to 2005 and became one of America's most beloved sports figures as a cancer survivor.
The fallout has been decisive. Nike and Trek bicycles terminated their contracts with Armstrong, while Anheuser-Busch announced it would end an endorsement deal this year. Armstrong resigned as chairman of his cancer-fighting foundation, Livestrong.
In the past, Armstrong adamantly denied virtually every accusation of drug use. One of his lawyers has characterized Hamilton as a serial liar and perjurer.
Hamilton, indeed, has lied in the past about his own drug use. In "The Secret Race," he glosses over his fight against a positive drug test in 2004 that found someone else's blood in Hamilton's system. His attorney tried to sell the idea that the situation was the result of a "vanishing twin," sharing the womb when Hamilton was a fetus. A better explanation is that Hamilton's clumsy Spanish physician gave the cyclist the wrong blood transfusion, thus endangering his life.
One of the most likable fellows in the peloton, Hamilton had every reason to lie, he says, to protect the pristine image that helped make him a star. But living with the lie became too big of a burden. He voluntarily returned the Olympic gold medal he had won in 2004 and became a leading witness against cycling's ugly truths by breaking the conspiracy of silence.
In "The Secret Race," the New England native carefully recounts the bizarre details of how he joined the cycling elite. Hamilton's version sounds credible based on my reporting about drugs and sports since 1983 -- including especially the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative case that ensnared Barry Bonds, Marion Jones and other top athletes.
BALCO mastermind Victor Conte used "the cream" and "the clear" -- code names for testosterone cream and Tetrahydrogestrinone, or THG, a designer anabolic steroid that evaded drug testers for some time.
In Hamilton's world, cyclists used "red eggs," or testosterone pills, and "Edgar," or erythropoietin, a hormone that helps produce oxygen-rich red blood cells. Perhaps the most Frankenstein-like aspect of the methodology involved blood transfusions, which Hamilton calls "BBs" for blood bags. Blood boosting enhances the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood, which can increase endurance. The cyclist explains the systematic approach used to avoid detection from drug testers, including prepaid cellphones to arrange meeting with shadowy physicians.
Hamilton has worked with author Daniel Coyle, a gifted journalist who structured the book to provide well-researched corroborating material in footnotes. Coyle keeps the cadence of Hamilton's voice flowing from page to page while doing his journalistic due diligence.
Coyle knows this territory well. "The Secret Race" is a sequel to his exceptional 2005 book, "Lance Armstrong's War." While the first book leaves an impression that something is awry in the land of hero worship, "The Secret Race" tears off the veil.
Hamilton now lives in Missoula, Mont., where the retired cyclist must face his own truth and reconciliation commission every day: the mirror.
Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865 and follow him at Twitter.com/elliottalmond.
$28, 304 pages