In 2011, bicycling champion Lance Armstrong demanded an apology from “60 Minutes” after the program alleged that he used banned drugs to ride faster. Then he shut up, and then the truth came out, and Armstrong will now forever have one of those dreaded “asterisks” attached to his name and professional record. Other famous athletes — the list is too long, but America's National Pastime of baseball has been increasingly tainted of late — resort to silence or lawsuits when suspected of the same thing. But it is almost assumed now that many champions have cheated via pharmaceuticals at least sometime in their careers.
Andrew Tilin, on the other hand, denies nothing in his book, “The Doper Next Door”; if anything, he tells too much. But it's a stimulating ride. Tilin, raised in San Francisco and a veteran sports journalist who has long been a competitive road cyclist, acknowledges, “If there's any sport that's synonymous with hormones, steroids, and performance-enhancing drugs, it's professional bike racing.” He also came to realize that non-pros were into the stuff too, and decided to write a book about it. But he could not find anybody to talk on the record, and as a last resort decided to be his own subject. His wife, quite reluctantly, agreed to the experiment.
The decision takes Tilin into the shady world of the “anti-aging” industry, populated with past-their-prime jocks and fading beauties, sleazy “Dr. Iffys,” hucksters, and much confusing and contradictory information on the effects, positive and dangerous, of rubbing testosterone cream on one's private parts and injecting other drugs in search of better performance on the road, in bed and in the mirror.
Tilin is an engaging writer, and even though he wades into an arena ripe for mockery, he provides mostly gentle portrayals of the people he meets during his testosterone-boosted year. Too gentle, some would say; the profiteering from unproven, potentially dangerous and often illegal doping he encounters is hardly admirable, and the widespread insecurity about normal aging, fueled by the relentless media, is mostly just sad. And some would say he does not explore the health risks sufficiently, accelerated cancer plausibly associated with human growth hormone being one worst-case impact reported.
However, the main target of Tilin's skepticism is himself. His book begins as an adventure into doping but becomes his emotional autobiography. His family life has had much tragedy; his father died of AIDS and his mother of cancer, both too young, leaving him with “a lifetime of self-criticism and anxiety about masculinity.” Now in his 40s, he admits to looking for succor, even salvation, in “syringes that promise to help forget growing up too fast and keeping everything under control, and to help you remember your youth and strength.”
It doesn't quite work out that way. Tilin does get stronger and faster on his bike; his sex life improves. But the drugs bring more questioning, paranoia and outbursts of aggression. Then there are the considerable expense and encounters with pseudo-experts — as exemplified by faded actress Suzanne Somers — and unnervingly aggressive older hormone-using women who might be called “cougars” on television. “These mature women are freaking me out,” Tilin notes. “They look like they belong at a Goldman Sachs Christmas party. But they have total potty mouth.”
Beyond such circles, however, Tilin has to keep his doping secret — from most of his friends, certainly from the cyclists he competes with in “the strange little world of road racing,” and even from his cycling coach.
The whole experience leads him to question the point of “the vain athletes, the obsessions over gear and threshold numbers, the money invested in coaches and equipment, the endless hours spent training and then racing the same people, repeatedly, on roads that lead to nowhere.”
But first he rides his best races ever, and vividly describes the rush and intensity of the experience: “Psychologists, coaches, and drug dealers have all made livings promising consistent ways to deliver this beautiful moment.” Yet for Tilin, besting the better riders means more than winning than the race itself; it's long-delayed revenge. “They are not just today's competition but yesteryear's bullies.”
This is a sad and brave confession, but as he finally realizes, “I'm ready to let someone else be a guinea pig.” Too bad a few other more famous athletes haven't come to that realization sooner — or even moreso, that they did not feel they had to resort to such chemicals to compete. But professional sports, of course, are just another form of business these days, drugs and all.
The Doper Next Door: My Strange and Scandalous Year on Performance-Enhancing Drugs. By Andrew Tilin (Counterpoint; 371 pages; $25)