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.
From Chapter 20 Trickier Than You’d Think
THERE’S A POOL OF BLOOD ON THE BATHROOM FLOOR, and I am sitting in it. I stick the thick needle in my arm. Again and again and again. It won’t stay put. It won’t fucking stay put. I thought I’d be able to do this job myself, empty a bag of blood into my veins, but it’s trickier than I thought. The needle is thicker than I’m used to, and I can’t get the fucking thing into a vein. My arm is turning into a pincushion. It’s four in the morning, and I’m so tired I can hardly see straight. I curse myself. I curse that jerkoff Matschiner and the clueless sidekick he sent to deliver the blood bag to my apartment in Lucca. Why couldn’t he have sent someone who actually knows how to hook up a drip?
I’m over the edge. I’ve crossed every line. I’m using blood bags, injecting Dynepo, asking the team for cortisone shots. If this is poker, I’m all in. The team no longer has a hold on me. At the first training camp in Spain I meet the Rabobank team’s new director, Harold Knebel. For a banker he’s a nice guy, but he knows zip about cycling. He has no idea what’s going on in the team, past or present.
I keep my mouth shut with Knebel, but I do confide in Jean-Paul van Mantgem about my latest blood doping connection. He seems happy; by using blood bags, I run the least risk of getting caught. “But,” he adds immediately, “we have to make sure your hematocrit is no higher than 45 percent, 46 tops. Otherwise your blood profile will attract attention.” I nod, but his words go straight through my head, in one ear and out the other.
At the start of 2008, I’m still having hip trouble, and I start to fall behind with my training. The cavalry comes in the shape of Brabant-based masseur Cor van Wanroy. Under his expert care my hip improves. Ahead of the Vuelta a Castilla y León I use a few shots of Dynepo—signed, sealed, and delivered to me by DHL courtesy of Michael Boogerd’s Slovenian connection. Michael pays the Slovenian, and I pay Michael. On Dynepo and with my hip fixed, I sail through my races and end up third overall in Castilla y León, finishing top three in just about every stage.
For the Tour of the Basque Country I want to chuck a blood bag into the mix. Matschiner was supposed to deliver it in person, but something must have come up. Instead, a pal of his brings it to my door in Lucca in the middle of the night. He doesn’t have the know-how to take care of the transfusion, and besides, he’s in a hurry. He has to rush on to Rome with a car full of dope for a bunch of Italian athletes.
So here I am with my own blood all over the bathroom floor. Somewhere in the back of my mind a voice is screaming at me to throw the bag away, to finally start thinking clearly about what the hell I’m doing. But I refuse to listen. I will get that blood into my veins. I have to. And thank Christ, I manage it at last. Shortly before six, as the day begins to dawn, the blood is where it should be—pumping through my body. I rinse out the empty bag, cut it into pieces, and throw it in the garbage.
In the Tour of the Basque Country, I finish third in the general classification behind Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans. I fly back to Holland and head for Kees and Karien’s place in Luyksgestel, where Matschiner is due to arrive to give me another blood bag as a boost ahead of the spring classics. It’s as if he’s delivering pizza. At home he packs a blood bag into his suitcase, flies to Dusseldorf, rents a car, and drives to my home away from home. He takes a painting off the bedroom wall, hangs the bag on the nail, hooks me up, and watches the blood flow into my veins. I pay him €15,000 in cash, and off he goes.
I feel invincible, untouchable, and I tell anyone who will listen that I am going to ride like a rocket in the spring classics. In an interview with Dutch TV, I assure the crew that they will be able to count the guys that finish ahead of me in the Amstel Gold Race on the fingers of one hand.
My blood is in great shape. One day before the race, a woman from the lab in Amstelveen comes to the hotel in Maastricht where the team is staying. Her test reveals that my hematocrit is 48.2, high enough to arouse the UCI’s suspicions if they check me. I’m not the least bit worried, feeling fully prepped and happy as Larry. The same cannot be said of the team. The doctors go ballistic again, and it starts to dawn on them that I’m a loose cannon. The monster they have helped create is no longer theirs to control. They penalize me, tell me I’ll have to ride the spring classics without a single cortisone injection, insisting that a doctor’s note for a fake injury might make the UCI even more suspicious. To me, it’s a ridiculous sanction. I whine and I wheedle to get cortisone from Van Mantgem and Van Bommel, but they don’t give an inch.
The team doctors are also refusing to help me manage my hematocrit. On the morning of the Amstel Gold Race, I have to get a bag of fluid into my system all by myself. That’s okay; I’ve already bought a couple of IV bags of saline at the pharmacy.
My roommate is Laurens ten Dam. I’ve known him for years. We both started cycling at the same little club in northern Holland. Laurens is one of the few riders I can vouch for with my hand on my heart: He is clean as a new whistle. He says doping just isn’t his style. He rides for the fun of it and has gradually improved his performance over the years. He doesn’t feel under any pressure to win the major races. Not from the team and not from within.
When the alarm goes off at 6:00, I get up as quietly as possible so as not to wake Laurens and set up a drip for myself in the bathroom. But I make a complete mess of it again. I jab the needle in my arm repeatedly, blood shooting everywhere. I look up to see Laurens peer sleepily around the bathroom door and then jump as he gets the shock of his life. By this time, there’s blood spattered on the walls. When I finally manage to get my act together and the solution into my bloodstream, Laurens helps me clean the place up, shaking his head all the while.
My televised prediction comes true: One hand is all you need to count the guys who beat me. I finish fifth in the Amstel Gold Race, six seconds behind the winner, Damiano Cunego. Then it’s off to Belgium and fifth place in La Fleche Wallonne road race, where Kim Kirchen wins, followed by sixth in Liege–Bastogne–Liege, behind Alejandro Valverde. I’m up there with the biggest names in cycling, but I’m riding on a cocktail of dope, stress, and insane ambition, way beyond the team’s limits and my own.
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.