Ever read a Clive Cussler novel? There was a summer somewhere in the 1990s when I read quite a few of them, probably a dozen or so. Over the last fifteen years or so I have dabbled occasionally with Dirk Pitt but without the same level of interest or intensity, generic satisfaction doesn’t require their repetition once you’ve got the architecture in place. Anyway, in Clive Cussler novels the hero, Dirk Pitt, is provided by a combination of historical curiosity and bureaucratic obstinacy with a quest. Find the Inca gold; retrieve the original Mona Lisa from a sunken submarine; follow the underground river to the fountain of youth; refloating a shipwreck with Spanish doubloons in order to prevent the gold being used for the subversion of something terribly good. You know what I’m talking about: the ridiculous validates the incredible and the world is put to rights. For instance in Sahara, made into a movie with Matthew McConaughey, a Civil War ironclad with the mummified body of Abraham Lincoln on board is discovered in the desert whilst nearby an evil French toxic waste dump is busily plotting global doom on behalf of the profit motive before Pitt destroys it thus saving the global ecosystem from terminal toxicity.
More than this though, in each and every Clive Cussler novel the putative quest is counter balanced by Dirk Pitt’s real quest: sometimes it’s love, sometimes it’s friendship, sometimes it’s his car, sometimes it’s self respect, sometimes it’s his job. Assisted by his entourage Dirk Pitt is just about able to save the world and then, slightly under the radar, achieve the object of his personal quest. The confluence of these two narratives is usually found in the final chapter where Pitt is able to keep his promises (discreetly flagged in the first hundred pages or so) and finally just be Dirk Pitt: on a beach, in a boat, diving on a reef, driving his cars.
Reading Tyler Hamilton’s The Secret Race I was repeatedly reminded of Clive Cussler novels. Not because it was as crooningly ludicrous as Sahara or Atlantis Found but because it mirrored the dual quest model. Hamilton is a good guy and it comes through in every sentence he and Daniel Coyle put together. Like Dirk Pitt, Hamilton is put in difficult position time after time and does the only thing he can, what he’s forced to do. Hamilton is not evasive and not self absolving but the quest is the thing he keeps putting front and centre because the quest is the reason he’s in the position he’s in and everything derives from the quest.
As with Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt there’s a lot to like about Hamilton and The Secret Race. The book isn’t defensive, it isn’t written with either defamation or traducement in mind, it isn’t disingenuous, and it isn’t obfuscatory. The Drugs, Lance, Michele Ferrari, Johan Bruyneel, Eufemiano Fuentes, blood bags, George Hincapie, his divorce, Bjarne Riis, his broken back and collarbone: all these are the narrative tics and twitches of his struggle to win, his struggle to be Tyler Hamilton the professional cyclist, and to finally just be Tyler Hamilton.
The story is rich with detail, quite moving in parts: there’s some good cycling bits, some jaw-dropping performance enhancement, some down and dirty underhandedness, some staggering acts of self-harm, and a golden retriever named Tugboat. The central defence of he offers, and it is suitably modest, is how much fun it was to be a professional cyclist, real woofuckinghoo! fun. How could you not want to go all the way when this is huge fun? How could you say no?
But there’s another thing in there. It is the sense that promises have been broken. It’s the sense that not only has the culture of dopage broken a trust between competitors and the consumers who provide the cash for cyclists’ professionalism but that the cyclists themselves were cornered and tamed into being performing seals, betrayed. That the quest they were on was nothing but a set up, that the whole shebang was devised for nothing but sofa-borne transient thrills and multinational cash flows and that it wasn’t their quest. Hamilton and Coyle don’t spell this out, never say it, and Hamilton wouldn’t be so hapless as to sell himself as victim. But gracefully and generously he shares with us the knowledge that, for all the Lance-centric conversations, cycling is all about the losers. It’s about those who were never going to win the Tour de France but doped anyway for the team, for the chance to be there. It’s about those who spent themselves without recompense. With the dopage out there now, unequivocally in the public domain, those cyclists have become nothing: just cheaters, dopers, and liars. Hamilton carries with him the broken spirits of all of those who have lost.
This seems to me like a worthy burden, Dirk Pitt never had to carry so much.