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 15: One Is Not Enough
DON’T BELIEVE THEM, the riders who tell you they’ve tried doping but only once. Cross that line and there’s no way back. Using a little dope is like being a tiny bit pregnant. Doping is addictive—not the stuff itself but the success it brings. I’m not addicted to blood bags, but I am addicted to the feeling of invincibility that flowed through my veins during the Tirreno–Adriatico.
In the weeks after the Tirreno, I make several more trips to Madrid. It’s a logistical nightmare at times. Usually the team books all my flights, but I buy these tickets with my own credit card. I do it with a knot in my stomach, knowing the payments can be traced if Fuentes’s network is ever busted. I have to time things to perfection. I fob the team off with some excuse to get out of riding the Critérium International; the race coincides with a transfusion appointment.
On March 19, 2006, I give a bag of blood in Madrid. Less than two weeks later it’s reinfused, on March 30 to be precise, just ahead of the Tour of the Basque Country. Once again, the scene of the crime is the TRYP Hotel. The modus operandi is the same: disinfect arm, hang bag on nail, goose pimples inside my arm. When we’re finished, Fuentes says to me, “Stay in this room.” He makes it clear that he has a few other customers to attend to at the hotel that day, and he doesn’t want us bumping into one another. Of course, all this does is arouse my curiosity. As soon as Fuentes leaves the room, I head for the balcony, where I have a good view of the hotel entrance. I see plenty of businessmen and vacationers but no one I recognize. Then, just as I’m about to step back inside, I spot a familiar face hurrying through the crowd, a young guy with blond hair. It’s Remmert Wielinga, my teammate at Rabobank. A good time trialist, a good climber, and another rider managed by Jacques Hanegraaf.
A few days later, during the Tour of the Basque Country, I try to broach the subject with Remmert. He’s a bit of an odd character, a good rider but not big on social skills. And I don’t know him well enough to just drop the name Fuentes into the conversation. “And? In good shape?” I ask. “I mean, really, really good shape?” “Yes,” he nods, “I’m in really good shape.” “Good,” I say, “me too.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, he later denied any connection with Fuentes.
That one extra blood bag in my veins isn’t enough to keep me up there with the best on the roads of the Basque Country. The pace is so ruthless, it cracks me at times. It’s not like I haven’t been warned; the peloton has dubbed the Basque Tour a “scooter race” because there are days when the Spaniards seem to be doing 50 kilometers per hour (kph) from start to finish without breaking a sweat. On one stage, I’m struggling my way up a mountain, lactic acid coming out of my ears, when Riccardo Ricco and Ángel Gómez Marchante stop to take a leak like they’re out on a Sunday stroll. I draw my conclusion: If you want to be in the mix on the Basque Tour, you’d better take your dope to the next level.
After the spring classics, where I ride in the service of Boogerd and Freire to repay them for their efforts on my behalf at the Tirreno, I fly down to Madrid twice in quick succession to give blood—on April 26 and May 10. My aim is to build up a nice little stockpile in preparation for the Tour de France. These gifts to myself are to be stored away in the freezer.
The first date—April 26—is three days after Liege–Bastogne– Liege. I fly down to Madrid to find Fuentes waiting for me at the airport. We walk to his car. This time we skip the TRYP Hotel and head for an apartment somewhere in Madrid. He says it belongs to his parents and that they’re away. The place doesn’t exactly look lived in. As soon as we’re through the door I take an envelope from my inside pocket. It contains €10,000, withdrawn from my account at the Rabobank in Tuitjenhorn a few days earlier. Fuentes makes a dismissive gesture. “No, no, later, later,” he says. But I want rid of the dough, the sooner the better, and I shove the envelope into his hands. Not my smartest move in retrospect, but then I didn’t know that the Spanish police had been hot on Fuentes’s trail for months. He sits me down in an old brown leather armchair and taps two bags of blood. Then he drives me back to the airport.
When I return to Madrid on May 10, it’s not Fuentes but an assistant who is there to meet me. He introduces himself as Alberto Leon and explains that he’ll be filling in for Fuentes this time around. He strikes me as a friendly young guy, and with the help of hand gestures galore we chat away in the car. His plan is to take me to a hotel to withdraw the blood, but it’s conference season in Madrid, and we end up scouring the city in his little hatchback for hours without finding a vacancy. Eventually he gives up, and we drive out to his hometown, San Lorenzo de El Escorial, around 50 kilometers north of Madrid, where we check into a small hotel. Alberto taps a bag of blood and then makes himself scarce.
I go out in the evening for a bite to eat. Alone. I feel lost in this little town, and I can’t call anyone because my SIM card has to stay out of my phone. I have a bad night’s sleep in the hotel, and the next morning Alberto’s brother turns up to give me a lift back to the airport. Stuck in the rush-hour traffic, I sit there next to a stranger in a business suit on his way to work in Madrid. As the car radio blares away in Spanish, I think about his life and mine. I try to imagine what it must be like to hop into your family sedan every day and brave the morning traffic jam for the sake of the old nine-to-five. It’s beyond me.
Back home in Italy, I start a training block of a couple of weeks to get myself into shape for the Tour de France. Sometimes I train alone and sometimes I have company. Plenty of other riders live nearby, and I go out on regular training rides with Jörg Jaksche, who rides for Liberty Seguros. The more we ride together, the more we confide in each other. My eagerness to talk cracks him up sometimes. “Other riders are so difficult and secretive about it all,” he laughs. “And here you are almost boasting about how much dope you use.”
The Giro d’Italia comes to Lido di Camaiore that year, and we ride down together to soak up the atmosphere. After the race, we ride over to a hotel not far from the finish where Jörg’s former team, CSC, is staying. We hang around the parking lot and shoot the breeze with a few people he knows. I look around and spot a little rental car pulling into one of the parking spaces. The driver gets out, shoulders a backpack, and strolls into the hotel without looking at anyone. It’s Alberto Leon, Fuentes’s assistant. On the way back home, Jörg tells me Alberto has a nickname: Ali Baba.
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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.