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.
Expanded Table of Contents
1. In the Hotel
I stare at the blood in the bag. It’s as if it isn’t mine. As if it isn’t even real. I thought it would be different, the first time, that I would be excited, nervous—like a kid stealing sweets from the corner shop. But there is no thrill, no jangling nerves. This is a simple transaction. Doping is business, only a business you need to hide from as many people as possible.
2. Dead Ordinary
I went to school in Dirkshorn. There were only eight children in my class all the way through primary school. Our favorite playground game was marbles. I was determined to have more than anyone else. Sometimes I sold my marbles to the other kids—and then proceeded to win them back again. I must have earned hundreds of guilders that way.
3. Love at First Sight
Cycling was a magnet and I was a paper clip. It tugged at me. The sheen of the bikes as they sped past when I went to see a criterium race with Dad, the smell of the massage oil. This was different from skating or football. It was more heroic, guts and glory. I looked on breathless as these grown men pushed themselves to the limit, biting back the pain, snot hanging off their chin. Compared to cycling, other sports were child’s play.
4. First Call
At the end of my first year with the novices, a letter landed on the doormat. The Rabobank logo on the envelope was enough to get my pulse racing. It was an invitation to take part in the Rabo Ardennen Proef—a mini-training camp organized to give the team a closer look at the talented young riders on the circuit. The aim was to handpick the best early on with a view to propelling them to elite level in three stages: through the juniors (Under 18s) to the Under 23s and on to the pro circuit. I could hardly believe it—an invitation from Rabobank addressed to me!
5. Junior Camp
We were out training with the Dutch national selection for the World Championships in Zolder when I failed to spot a post. I collided with it at full speed and went flying head over heels. I felt my teeth crunch; in the few seconds before I spat them out I could feel them rattling around my mouth like marbles in an empty washing machine.
6. The Commitment
I looked over my shoulder, saw daylight between me and the rest, and shifted up a gear. No one could touch me. I came home that evening to find the street festooned with flags. Half of Dirkshorn had turned out to welcome me. It was a heartfelt celebration and many a beer was downed. Late that evening I sat on the couch, face to face with my parents. Dad spoke first. “If you don’t want to go back to school and you’re determined to give cycling the full 100 percent, then so be it.” Mum nodded and resigned herself to the inevitable.
7. First Shot
A few stages into the race, I receive my first injection from the team doctor one evening. His name is Geert Leinders, a Belgian who’s been working for Rabobank for years. He is a smart, reserved man who calmly explains what he is injecting into my body. It’s Actovegin, an extract obtained from calf blood. It’s not on the doping list but contains amino acids that aid recovery. Leinders asks if I understand. “Of course,” I say. To be honest, it’s a bit of a kick, a medical man sticking a needle in my arm like that. It all feels very professional.
8. Jacques the Manager
As my manager, Jacques sparks a raging fire. He and I have our own way of counting: 1 + 1 = 3. I want money and he wants money. And we are not ones to bide our time. With Jacques it’s not about long-term strategy. We never talk about where I will be in five or ten years’ time. Patience is for losers. Waiting is for duds. We don’t have the time to sit back and see how my first few years as a pro pan out. We want the spoils and we want them now.
There’s a bunch of us at the bar, all of us riders. We knock back beer and Bacardis and discuss who’s going to have which girl. It’s my first ever trip to a brothel. The name of the club is Sauna Diana, not far from the hotel where we’re stationed for our first winter training camp. It’s early December 2004—not long now till my first pro season. It hasn’t taken me long to work out that training with the Rabobank pros is a world away from the Under 23s or the juniors.
10. A Boost for the Worlds
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 towards 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.”
11. The Coach
Luigi Cecchini is around sixty at the time and looks every inch the Italian aristocrat, class oozing from every pore. His grey hair is trimmed to perfection and his clothes are just as immaculate: inconspicuous but expensive. The glasses he wears subtly accentuate his authority. He speaks calmly, never once raises his voice. He doesn’t have to. He speaks and everyone in the room listens. He has taken an interest in me. He has noted my results and sees the fire in my eyes. But he is only willing to train me if I am good enough, if my engine packs enough power.
12. The Territory
Mum and Dad are sitting at one side of the table, Jacques Hanegraaf and I at the other. It’s all small talk at first: the weather, their jobs, my latest races. Then, between one forkful and the next, he puts his cards on the table. “There’s something I want to talk to you about.” He says it casually, as if he’s about to recommend a film or the special offers at the supermarket that’s just opened around the corner. Instead, Jacques tells them I’m brimming with talent and have put in a fantastic first pro season but that it takes more than that to reach the top. He explains that all the top riders are playing a grown-up game and that it’s time for me to join in. “Everyone’s in on it,” he says. “It comes with the territory.” Rather than use the word “doping” he dishes up one cryptic description after another.
13. Your Blood Is Your Blood
Jacques knows his dope. And he knows what kind of doping offers the least chance of getting caught: blood transfusion. He tells me the big names in the pro peloton have been doing it for years and that he even experimented with it himself in his days as a rider. EPO, CERA, Aranesp are all traceable to a greater or lesser degree, but your own blood is your own blood.
14. No Worries
The Tirreno starts on a Wednesday. The morning before the first stage, there’s a UCI doping check and they test my hematocrit: it’s 44.5—no worries. My score is always there or thereabouts. In the race itself I can feel how much I have left to give on every climb. I sail through the opening stages. I feel unbeatable. And no, guilt doesn’t come into it. I tell myself that I’m not cheating, that everyone else is doing the same. I convince myself that I’ve only done what needs to be done to keep up with the big boys—nothing more, nothing less.
15. One Is Not Enough
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 up at times. It’s not like I haven’t been warned: The peloton has dubbed the Basque Tour a “scooter race” because at times the Spaniards seem to be doing 30 mph all day without breaking into a sweat. On one stage, I’m struggling my way up a mountain, lactic acid coming out of my ears, when Riccardo Riccò and Ángel Gómez Marchante stop to take a piss 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.
16. Stepping Up
In August, after coming in ninth in the Eneco Tour, I decide to go in search of alternative means of doping. With my blood bags in the hands of the Spanish police, I opt for a less sophisticated approach: I want EPO. I ask the Rabobank team doctors, Geert Leinders and Jean-Paul van Mantgem. Van Mantgem says he’s prepared to help me. He’s not out to earn money by helping me dope—to him it’s a way of controlling what I do. He knows I’ll only look elsewhere if he turns me down. On a little white square of paper, he draws up a schedule for me in the lead-up to the Tour of Poland: 2,000 units, every evening and every morning, five days in a row.
17. A Hippie in Love
Six days before we’re due to race I go into a pharmacy with teammate Max van Heeswijk and buy testosterone patches. On his advice I cut the patches open and rub the gel onto my skin so that it will be absorbed better. Max has also brought some GHB—the “date rape” drug—with him in a couple of miniature shampoo bottles, the kind you find in hotel rooms. After dinner, we mix the GHB with a little soft drink and swallow it down. Once it kicks in, I float around the hotel for a while like a hippie in love, feeling out of this world. The moment I flop onto my bed I’m out for the count.
I wake up the next morning fully dressed. I rub my eyes, drag myself to the bathroom and pull on my cycling gear. A few hours later I’m crossing the finish line with my hands held high: I win the most prestigious stage of the Vuelta a Mallorca.
18. The 2007 Tour de France
We’re sitting in our room bored senseless. We’ve cracked open a bottle of wine but it’s going to take more than that to put a smile on our faces. Booze is fine, but girls are finer. No sooner said than done: I go online to hook us up with a couple of escorts, and at one a.m. a couple of Eastern European hookers arrive at the door to our room. We each take our pick and finally get to sleep around three. Three hours later the alarm goes off: Michael has to get an IV bag of fluid into his system. For the first few days Van Mantgem hooks Michael up to the drip, after that he says he can do it himself. The alarm wakes me up at first but after a few days I get used to it. At six a.m. Michael gets up to stick an IV drip in his arm and I roll over and go back to sleep. If there’s such a thing as a normal life, we’re about as far removed from it as you can get.
19. It’s You, Not Me
It’s the first time the team has reined me in. Doping is not the problem; it’s running the risk of getting caught. I can use all the cortisone, blood bags, and EPO I like, as long as I don’t bring the team into discredit. And of course Rabobank has become ten times touchier since the whole Rasmussen affair. All I can see is the hypocrisy. I feel like they’re trying to put me down. It strikes me as a bit rich that the same doctors who are drawing up EPO schedules for me are now telling me to ease back on the throttle.
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 it 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 jerk-off 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?
21. Doing Without
On Wednesday, July 1, I’m knocking about my apartment in Lucca, whistling a merry tune. It’s 12:20 and I’m packing my bags for the Tour de France. I am raring to go, feeling no pressure, not a cloud on the horizon. No worries about prepaid mobiles and blood bags. It’s finally starting to feel like I’ve turned the corner. Like the past is the past. Then my phone rings. One glance at the display is enough. It’s a call from Switzerland.
22. Positively Positive
“Hello, I am speaking to Thomas Dekker?”
“Hello, Thomas. This is Ann Gripper of the UCI’s anti-doping commission. I’m calling to let you know that you have tested positive.”
“What? Positive? What for?”
“Dynepo? But that’s impossible.”
“We have carried out a retrospective test and found Dynepo in a urine sample from eighteen months ago.”
“24 December 2007.”
“. . .”
“You have until four o’clock this afternoon to inform your team, your family, and your friends. After that there will be a public announcement.”
23. Give Them Nothing
I am summoned to a hearing in Monaco, where I am expected to give a full account of my actions to representatives of the Monegasque cycling association, who are in fact employees of the French cycling association. They ask me if I acted alone. I lie and tell them I had no help from anyone. They ask me if I have seen other riders doping. I lie and tell them that I have seen nothing. I give them no details, no names, I give them nothing at all.
Falling is different every time. Sometimes you’re face down on the tarmac before you know where you are. Sometimes it takes forever to hit the ground. After the phone call, weeks pass before I realize I’m falling. And there’s no stopping it. On and on I tumble, deeper and deeper. World without end, amen. I’m used to hitting the ground, feeling the pain, scrambling to my feet—but now there is no ground to hit. This pit is bottomless.
In October, my ban is announced: two full years with no reductions.
25. Wiped Out
I have no prospect of a new team: There are no offers, not even the faintest flicker of interest. I thought I would get a second chance if I kept my mouth shut, like the generations of busted dopers before me. But cycling has changed.
I receive an invitation to join Garmin’s pro team for their first training camp in Boulder, Colorado. Jonathan Vaughters, the team president, wants to see how I fit in. After dinner there’s a team meeting. “And now I think Thomas would like to say a few words.” I clear my throat and have no idea what I’m supposed to say. “Hello, everyone,” I stammer, hoping my English won’t fail me. “I’m Thomas Dekker. I was banned for two years for doping. And uh . . . uh . . . I want to try and make a new future for myself in the world of cycling. And Garmin is a fine team.” There’s a lump in my throat. I stand there sweating and speechless in front of a roomful of cyclists and have no idea what else to say. My reward is a one-year contract with a salary of €35,000, elite cycling’s equivalent of the minimum wage. I couldn’t care less; for a chance like this I would have ridden for free. I sign my name and heave a sigh of relief. I am back to being a pro cyclist.
27. Cards on the Table
My interview with the Doping Authority takes place on February 4, 2013. I lay it all out: About Hanegraaf, about Fuentes, about Matschiner, about Leinders and Van Mantgem, about the therapeutic use exemptions for cortisone approved by Jan Mathieu. I tell him about Boogerd, not about his own pills and injections but about what he taught me, how he helped me obtain Dynepo and gave me Matschiner’s number.
When the new cycling season begins, I feel exhausted but liberated at the same time. I’ve thrown the weight off my shoulders, the ugly truth is out in the open at last. But it also feels like a farewell. A farewell to the past but maybe the start of a farewell to cycling itself.
28. Ashes and Embers
In my first years as a cyclist, I had a sacred flame burning inside, a flame that erupted into a raging fire. But in 2013 the fire is all but gone. A sacred flame is a flame like any other: Without fuel, without oxygen it flickers and dies. You have to stoke the fire. And that’s something I have failed to do. There’s nothing left inside but ashes and embers.
Now that I’m sinking ever deeper into a rut with my cycling, I go in search of other things to excite me. And the things that excite me most tend to wear short skirts and high heels. I know it’s stupid and I know I’ll regret it, but I do it anyway. One woman is not enough. I’m excessive and destructive to the core.
The night before my flight to Italy, Linda happens to see a text message on my phone. It leaves little to the imagination; I’ve been up to my old tricks again.
There was only one problem with our relationship: the fact that I was in it.
30. The Stupidest Idea Ever
Garmin merges with Cannondale and Vaughters finds himself with too many riders to fill too few places. I’m out. A few days later, Martijn, my manager, calls. “Thomas, we have a plan. A way to prove you can still ride fast. To other teams and to yourself.” I frown. “Well, what is it?” Martijn answers, “An attempt on the Hour Record.”
It’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard.
31. The Attempt
The pressure builds and builds. My tongue is hanging further and further out of my mouth. With every bend, I wobble more. My heart rate is climbing towards 200 bpm. Everything hurts. Back, legs, and most of all my lungs. I am gasping for breath like a stranded goldfish. I ask myself when have I suffered this much and there’s no answer. This is torture. I dig in and squeeze every last drop of effort from my body. If I’m going down, I’m going down with guns blazing. I taste blood. My lungs are about to explode, my legs are screaming for mercy.
32. Big Talk, Small Talk, No Talk
I get a phone call at around seven in the evening. “They’re not going to do it, Thomas.”
The morning after the phone call with Boogerd, I call my father. “Dad, I’m quitting.” It’s quiet for a moment. Then he says, “Okay, son.”
I can hear the relief in his voice.
33. A Turn of the Tables
I let the UCI know that I’m not going to sign their statement. A few weeks after, I receive a contrite e-mail from Simon Geinoz. He writes that he went too far in threatening to ban me and concedes that his tone was far from appropriate. He goes on to convey the UCI’s sincere thanks for my commendable assistance in the fight for clean athletes. I read his e-mail with a mixture of pleasure and amazement.
Apologies and a thank-you from the UCI. I never thought I’d see the day.
34. The Story of My Descent
In the spring of 2016, I’m asked to be part of a theatre show. It’s called Sport Monologues: six very different athletes take the stage one by one. I’ll be up there on my own for twenty minutes, telling an audience how I killed my own cycling career. I agree to do it. In the weeks before opening night, anxiety starts to take hold. I wonder if I’ll be able to do this, if I have the guts, if I’ll remember my lines and, most of all, if I’ll be able to stand there with a couple of thousand people staring back at me and show my weaknesses. Ten years earlier I was lying in a darkened hotel room watching as my blood filled a bag supplied by Eufemiano Fuentes. In the theatre I’ll be out there on my own, describing that moment with all eyes fixed on me.
I take a deep breath and step into a thousand colors of light.
About the Author
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Descent is Dekker’s unflinching look at the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle of the Euro peloton as it roared through the EPO era. What we see is shocking, yet no one’s story reveals more about professional sports than Dekker’s page-turning fall.