A Boost for the Worlds, a Chapter from Thomas Dekker’s DESCENT

DESCENT by Thomas Dekker

No one had more fun being bad than Thomas Dekker. In his award-winning, international best-seller DESCENT, Dekker spares no one as he tells the story of a yearslong bender that exposes the brutal truth of his life as a professional cyclist. Enjoy this selection from the book.

Chapter 10: A Boost for the Worlds

THE FRIDAY BEFORE MY FIRST PARIS–NICE, I stay at Erik Dekker’s  house in Meerle. Same surname, no relation. The team thinks he might make a good mentor for his up-and-coming namesake. Like me, he’s a time trialist, and he rides fast in the classics—just like I want to. At the training camps and after races, he can sometimes be a bit boisterous, but he seldom gives much away. It makes me all the more interested in what he has to say.

I sleep in the spare room. Erik’s wife hands me the bedclothes and says goodnight. I make up the bed and climb in, but as I pull the covers over me, the edge of the sheet catches between my little toe and the one next to it. I tear open the skin, and immediately the blood starts flowing. It won’t stop. Red stains spread across the clean white sheets. I don’t know what to do. I can hardly wake the great Erik Dekker whining like a kid that I’ve cut my toe. Thank Christ I find a little plastic bag in the room. I slip it around my bleeding foot and manage to get some sleep. The next day I have to explain the bloodbath to Erik and his wife. Luckily they see the funny side. My relief is tangible.

The team picks us up at Erik’s place, and we room together for the whole week. I natter away to him, but he’s a good bit less talkative in return. His main focus is on himself. One night after we’ve settled down in our beds, I ask Erik what the deal is with doping. I wasn’t born yesterday, I read the papers, and I know fellow riders are using. I also know that Erik was barred from competing in the world championships a few years earlier because his hematocrit— the percentage of blood that contains red blood cells—was too high, a standard indicator of blood doping. But apart from that it’s just hearsay, a world away from my own cycling experience. “Doping” is a magic word from a parallel universe, far away yet very close at the same time.

Erik refuses to discuss it. “Listen, Thomas, you’re a nice guy, and I’m happy to share a room with you, but we are not going to talk about doping. Not now, not ever. You will never hear a word on that subject from me.” As statements go, this one is pretty damn clear.

DESCENT by Thomas DekkerThat week I take sleeping pills for the first time. What was unthinkable for the Under-23s turns out to be common practice for the pros. On race days the doctor does two rounds: one round after the stage to administer a drip with vitamins, minerals, and other perfectly legal substances to boost recovery, and one round in the evening to hand out sleeping pills. A few riders pass them up, but most of us take them. Michael Boogerd pops a pill on a daily basis, says he can’t sleep without them. Knowing he takes them, and because I like the idea of dropping off to sleep straightaway, I take them too.

Where Erik Dekker is a closed book, Michael Boogerd is much more open. While Dekker slams the door to the dark side of cycling resolutely in my face, Boogerd leaves it ajar. It’s not like Michael starts reeling off the names of every substance he’s ever used, but he doesn’t shy away from talk of pills or even injections. Michael and I have hit it off by this time. We laugh at the same things, listen to the same music, eye up the same women, and we both love cycling with the same intensity. Ask him who came sixth in the Giro dell’Emilia five years ago, and he doesn’t even have to think before he answers. Like me, he does things to excess. When he trains, he goes deep. And when he drinks, he drinks hard.

I hold my own in the races. I muddle through Paris–Nice with a heavy cold, but one week later, in the Critérium International, I’m up there with the best of them. In the second stage, a morning ride of 90 kilometers, the race is on from the very start. The weather is filthy—wet roads under darkened skies. Before I know where I am, a group of favorites have made a break for it: Jens Voigt, Jörg Jaksche, Bobby Julich, and Ivan Basso. In the peloton, a small space opens up on the right of the road. I seize my chance, put in a solitary spurt, and latch on to the leaders. The peloton sets off in pursuit, but they don’t stand a chance. Our break is the equivalent of a team time trial, and my legs don’t protest once. It’s a modest uphill finish. Jaksche makes his play, but he’s much too early. I wait till the right moment and sprint past him to take the stage. It’s my first big-time victory, but again it hardly makes a dent on my consciousness. After the finish, I’m more concerned about the actual time trial later the same day. I want to be top of the general classification too, but that’s out of reach. I finish fourth in the time trial—behind Jens Voigt, but well up on the likes of Bradley Wiggins and Floyd Landis. It’s enough for second overall, but for me that’s one place too low. I’m pissed off about my time trial, pissed off that I didn’t win.

In the spring I spend €600 on vitamins and fish oil. They arrive in a big cardboard box. Michael Boogerd and Steven de Jongh see me lugging it down the hotel corridor and ask me what’s in it. When I tell them vitamins and fish oil, they nearly piss themselves laughing. I don’t get it. There’s me thinking I’m making a wise investment in my physical fitness, and Boogerd and De Jongh are splitting their sides. When they finally catch their breath, Michael says, “For that kind of money you could have ridden a whole lot faster.” A sheepish chuckle is all I can muster.

The Giro d’Italia is my first major tour. I am going there to learn, to gain wisdom and experience for the years ahead. On the two long time trials I want to pit myself against the best in the world. On the other stages I decide to play it day by day and take my chances as they come. Rabobank has no clear-cut leading rider at this point. Before the start in Reggio Calabria, deep in the south of Italy, the team is buzzing with a rumor that one of our Russians, Alexandr Kolobnev, has had a sky-high hematocrit test. From then on he has to fly back to Holland before every race to have it checked by the team. There are also whispers that the Italian police plan to raid the riders’ hotels in search of doping. The Rabobank team managers decide to play it safe and confiscate all our supplements, even my expensive vitamins. Instead we have to make do with a single Supradyn multivitamin a day.

As the stages progress, I feel a world of difference between the Giro and the races earlier in the season. The pace is so quick it’s unreal, especially on the climbs. For the first time in years, I’m cut right down to size, reduced to making up the numbers in the peloton. In the lesser races I have the measure of the best riders, but in the Giro those same guys leave me choking in their dust. I hang on and hang on, but as soon as the real contenders put their foot on the accelerator, I’m blown away like a daisy in a mountain gale. At mealtimes and in the team bus we talk about the speed on display. The hints being dropped about the top riders aren’t exactly subtle. The cynical way senior teammates remark that Ivan Basso is “in really good form” speaks volumes. I see Basso in the races but only from a distance, way, way ahead of me. I see his sister at much closer quarters; after two weeks of texting, Elisa pays me a visit. By this time I’ve spent time with quite a few women, but Elisa’s company is confirmation of my newfound status, and I’m flattered.

In the final week of the Giro, I’m hanging on for grim death with nothing but a mouthful of ulcers to show for my pain. After three punishing mountain stages in succession, I stand there weeping in the shower, barely able to stand. Suddenly I feel like a very little boy in a big man’s world. The years leading up to this point were so easy. Not once did I have to settle for a place in the grupetto— my career path was heading straight for glory. Here in the Giro is where it grinds to a halt.

In hindsight I know it all made sense; you can’t expect a pro in his first year to withstand the rigors of a major tour. And it could have been a whole lot worse. I can’t keep up with the best on the climbs, but I never have trouble coming in on time, and I don’t struggle nearly as much as the half of the peloton that finishes behind me. But as an eager young gun of 20, I have trouble seeing the bright side.

Bitterly disappointed, I go in search of explanations, and I hit upon doping as one of the main reasons the leading climbers are leaving me for dead. That experience in the Giro lays the foundations for my conviction that without resorting to banned substances, the prizes that matter will always be out of reach. After one of the toughest mountain stages yet, I collapse into a seat on the team bus and pour my heart out to Frans Maassen, one of the team managers. I complain fiercely that it’s doping that’s making the pace so ruthless. “I mean, it’s humanly impossible, isn’t it?” The conversation turns sour within seconds. Maassen snaps that I’ve no right to make unfounded doping accusations and that I should stop whimpering.

I don’t have a bad word to say about Frans Maassen. In all the years I’ve known him, I’ve never heard him say a word about doping, and the story goes that he cut short his own cycling career rather than resort to the blood-boosting drug EPO. Looking back, part of me understands why he didn’t want to talk to me about doping, but at the time I can’t just pretend it doesn’t exist. I’m too curious. I need to talk to people about it, people who are on my side. And there are no such people on the Rabobank pro team. There is no policy. There is no guidance. The managers act as if doping doesn’t exist while most of the riders make their own arrangements. I take orders from the team managers in the race, but I don’t look up to them. They don’t seem to understand what I’m going through, what I need.

And so I go in search of other role models, other points of reference. And I find them in the riders around me, especially the leading riders who are pushing the pace. Allowing myself to be drawn to the wrong examples is my own fault, my own weakness. But from the vantage point I have today, I would have killed for a big name in my own team who had the backbone to look me in the eye and tell me to keep my fucking paws off the dope.

At the end of my first pro year, I travel from the Eneco Tour, where I finish fourth, to the Tour de Pologne. The accommodation’s top-notch, five-star comfort every night. The Polish hotel near Karpacz where we find ourselves after one of the mountain stages is no exception. I’m rooming with Joost Posthuma, and we’re both bored out of our skulls. I suggest nipping down to the bar for a Coke.

DESCENT by Thomas DekkerThere turns out to be a half-decent attempt at a nightclub in the basement. I can’t believe my eyes: gorgeous women wall to wall. It’s like we’ve gate-crashed a Victoria’s Secret convention. The supermodels turn out to be hookers. I signal to a girl to see if she’s up for it. She gives me the nod. I warn Joost that he’ll have to put off his beauty sleep for a while, and I take her up in the elevator and down the long corridor to our room. We’re almost in the door when I spot Erik Breukink in the distance. He’s a key figure on the management team and the man in charge during the Tour de Pologne. I hope he has somehow missed the sight of me shoving a leggy blonde into the room ahead of me. Fat chance; a minute later I hear a knock at the door. I peer through the peephole and swear under my breath. Of course, Breukink is standing at the door. I nudge the Polish girl and put my finger to my lips. “Shhh!” I bundle her into the toilet and open the door to the room. Breukink storms in. “I know you have a girl in here! Where the hell is she?” I act as if I haven’t a clue what he’s talking about. He takes a look on the balcony, peers under the bed, then he checks the toilet and finds my hidden treasure. His face turns bright red, and blotches appear on his neck. Just short of foaming at the mouth, he shoves the girl out into the hallway and climbs on his soapbox. “For fuck’s sake, Thomas! Who do you think you are? You have a race tomorrow.” It goes in one ear and out the other. I have to bite my lip not to laugh when he adds, “And at your age too. When you still have everything to prove. Michael Boogerd and Erik Dekker would never pull a stunt like this.” Maybe he honestly doesn’t know. But I take it as proof that he has no idea what’s going on in his own team. Either that or he doesn’t want to know. And why should I pay any heed to a guy like that?

The next day there’s a time trial on the menu, an early start. I avoid looking Breukink in the eye at breakfast. He’s clearly still mad at me. I don’t dare look at my teammates either, for fear I’ll burst out laughing. It’s a bit like being back at school, playing dumb when the teacher’s been hit on the back of the head by a spitball.

DESCENT by Thomas DekkerAs a kind of disciplinary measure I have to ride the time trial without a manager in the team car. With no expert guidance, I’m left to rely on the encouragement of one of the soigneurs, Ton van Engelen. It’s all the same to me. I’ll ride till my lungs are ready to burst anyway. I outpace them all and win the time trial—ahead of Bobby Julich—and end up third in the general classification, my first podium placing in a ProTour race.

I have to take a doping test, and Breukink accompanies me. We sit there next to each other in the cubicle till it’s my turn. I say nothing. Breukink says nothing. A good 10 minutes pass before he mutters, “If you’d behaved yourself last night, you could’ve won the whole damned thing.” I let my silence do the talking.

That year’s world championships are held in Madrid. It’s hot and dusty. I am riding for the national squad, but a Rabobank doctor is part of the delegation: Geert Leinders. The day before the road race he comes to my room carrying a syringe and a small bottle. It says Synacthen on the label. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve heard the word before, in conversations at the dinner table. Leinders explains that it boosts the body’s own cortisone production. He tells me I might feel a little inhibited to begin with, but it can give me a surge of euphoria toward the end of a long race and help me dig deeper. It’s not a miracle drug, but it might help. As part of his spiel, he drops in the fact that it’s on the list of banned substances, adding immediately that it’s untraceable. The drawback with cortisone is water retention, so I need to make sure I wrap up well for my warm-up. “That’ll give you the chance to sweat it out.”

The cortisone injection doesn’t feel like doping. I don’t feel like I’m crossing any kind of line. During the race, I don’t notice much of a difference. I stick to the back of the peloton all day, work my way through in the final stages, and I’m the only one who can go with Alejandro Valverde when he bridges the gap to the leading group. I end up 15th, a result I’m only moderately pleased with.

DESCENT by Thomas Dekker English Edition DES

Later on a whole peloton of cyclists hits the nightlife in Madrid. I drink so much that the entire night is a blur, except for Tom Boonen managing to lose his newly won rainbow jersey in some club or other.

I arrive back at the hotel completely shitfaced.

No one had more fun being bad than Thomas Dekker. In his award-winning, international best-seller DESCENT, Dekker spares no one as he tells the story of a yearslong bender that exposes the brutal truth of his life as a professional cyclist.