… I started hearing the phrase “riding paniagua.” Sometimes it was delivered in a slightly depressed tone, as if the speaker were talking about riding a particularly slow and stubborn donkey. I might’ve finished higher, but I was riding paniagua. Other times, it was mentioned as a point of pride. I finished in the first group of thirty and I was paniagua. I came to discover that it was really pan y agua– “bread and water.” From that, I made the obvious conclusion: riding without chemical assistance in the pro peleton was so rare that it was worth pointing out. Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle – ‘The Secret Race’

I’ve recently finished reading Tyler Hamilton’s revelatory book ‘The Secret Race’ – the hidden world of the Tour de France. It’s well worth a quick read.


Like many cyclists, I’d lost faith in the pro peleton. Even to this day, I struggle to watch the near super-human achievements of the professional cyclists without a massive question of doubt in my mind. For all those that say the days of doping are over, I’m reminded of some that have only just returned from bans, and others that continue to fail drug tests. I can’t help but recognise the faces and names of past riders that now work on the team administration side of the sport whose performance was at best questionable in the past, and at worst proven to be performance-enhanced. The sound-bites of the present winners don’t help regain my confidence, either. Chris Froome (who I desperately want to believe rides the race clean) said in one interview “time will tell that I’m clean” – why will time tell? What will the future reveal that you can’t say now? You’re either clean or not…

I suspect I’d been duped by the question avoiding tactics of Lance Armstrong in the past – “Have you ever taken performance enhancing drugs?” – answer “I’ve never failed a drugs test” – isn’t technically the answer to the question posed, but left me with a shred of belief – if he wasn’t clean, how could he beat the drugs tests?

With all of this at the back of my mind, it was fascinating to read Tyler Hamilton’s story. How the sport was awash with drugs, but not talked about due to the cyclists ‘omerta’ – or code of silence. The systematic doping and transfusion programme the riders participated in, in order to beat the drug tests and maintain an artificially high advantage over their rivals. The underworld and suppression culture that presented to the world one image, whilst living a total lie underneath.

I was left wondering about the notion of ‘pan y agua’ – only on bread and water. I love the similarities to Occam’s razor that this brings out in my mind. If you were to strip back all the things we add on in life, to try to return to a simple way of life, could you manage it? In a competitive world, would you still be able to keep pace with your colleagues or competitors? Think about all the assistance you get to perform simple daily tasks. To do the things that you do on a regular daily basis – could you perform ‘pan y agua’?

You can get Tyler Hamilton’s book on Amazon – I’d recommend it as a good quick read.

Image credit: markb120.

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