Title (UK): The Descent
Title (US): Descent - My Epic Fall from Cycling Superstardom to Doping Dead End
Author: Thomas Dekker (with Thijs Zonneveld, translated by David Doherty)
Publisher: Ebury Press (UK) | Velo Press (US)
Year: 2017 (originally published in Dutch in 2016 as Mijn Gevecht (My Fight))
Order: Penguin (UK) | Velo Press (US)
What it is: The autobiography of Thomas Dekker, one time Next Great Champion
Strengths: Dekker comes across as brutally honest and doesn't do as so many have done and blame others for what happened to him
Weaknesses: Dekker's rough edges have been sanded off
"Thomas, you're the complete package. You're a climber, a time triallist and I can see that you're willing to give your all. We haven't heard the last of you, boy."
It was the autumn of 2001 when Gerrie Knetemann said those words to Thomas Dekker, at the World Championships in Lisbon, Portugal. A stagiare with the Rabobank junior squad - the feeder team for the latest incarnation of the TI-Raleigh outfit Knetemann rode with back in the days before Jan Raas and Peter Post split up - the rising Dutch star was barely a month past his seventeenth birthday.
* * * * *
Cycling today is measured in numbers so these are the key ones marking Thomas Dekker's ascent: in 2003, with the Rabo juniors, he was on a salary of €5,000. For 2004 he was offered €15,000, demanded €20,000, settled for €17,500. When he stepped up to the Rabobank senior squad he was on €100,000 for 2005. That got negotiated up to €400,000 for 2006. And became €800,000 for 2007 and 2008.
They're not actually the key numbers, not in terms of income, as there's a lot goes on top of that in win bonuses and other income, but they're the ones that Dekker is willing to publicly admit to. Take off the taxman's slice, take of his manager's slice and, between the ages of 18 and 23, Dekker had still taken home more than either of his parents had earned in their lifetime. From a child who'd whizzed around on second-hand roller skates he'd grown into a kidult driving a Porsche 911 while wearing €600 sweat-pants.
* * * * *
Cycling is always either about the past or the future. The present is just something we're passing through, raw material for those who excavate our yesterdays or something that holds the promise of rich tomorrows. Thomas Dekker was always about the promise of jam tomorrow: the couple of national championship jerseys won, they held the promise of rainbow jerseys to come; winning Tirreno-Adriatico in 2006, that was a song about classics victories in the future; winning the Tour de Romandie in 2007 held out the promise of victory in the Giro d'Italia or even the Tour de France. The future was what made him seem so exciting. And then the past caught up with him.
* * * * *
- Hello, am I speaking to Thomas Dekker?
- Hello, Thomas. This is Anne Gripper of the UCI's anti-doping commission.
- I'm calling to let you know that you've tested positive.
- What? Positive? What for?
- Dynepo? But that's impossible.
- We have carried out what is known as a retrospective test and found Dynepo in a urine sample from 18 months ago.
- What? When?
- Twenty-fourth of 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.
- Thanks for ruining my life.
Within hours of that phone-call, Dekker tells us in The Descent, he was talking to a lawyer, Federico Cecconi (whose clients have included Alejandro Valvarde, Luca Paolini, Danilo Di Luca, Davide Rebbelin, and many others):
"We agree that I'm not going to deny the allegation, but that I'm not going to tell all to the press. I will admit to blood doping and keep my mouth shut about the rest."
After telling the authorities only what they already knew - as so many others, such as David Millar, had loyally done - Dekker got sent to the naughty step for two years.
When he returned he was a shadow of the rider he used to be. Riding for Jonathan Vaughters's Lost Boys Dekker simply didn't have it any more. He'd lost the passion that once fuelled him and spent three seasons just going through the motions before finally hanging up his cleats. The fire had gone out.
* * * * *
Miguel Indurain won his last Tour de France the year Dekker got his first racing bike. When Bjarne Riis dethroned the Spaniard in 1996, Dekker couldn't believe what he was seeing:
"I remember him being asked to comment that evening back at his hotel, people and cameras everywhere. His words betrayed doubt, his eyes despair. 'I don't know what the future holds,' he said. 'But I will never be better than I was before.' It sounded like a farewell."
Dekker watched the 1998 Tour from a French campsite and discovered a new hero:
"Dutch cycling wasn't worth shit in those days but in 1998 all that changed: it was the Tour when Michael Boogerd went like a rocket. In his red, white and blue jersey he was giving the best riders in the world a run for their money on the climbs. It was the spark that lit the flame in a 14-year-old cycling fanatic."
In 2001, at those World Championships in Lisbon, Dekker stayed in the same hotel as Boogerd and met his hero, along with his namesake, Erik Dekker:
"They said 'hello' and asked me how I was doing. I don't recall saying much in reply. Not that it mattered. The mere fact that a lad like me was standing there talking to riders I had only ever seen on TV was a thrill in itself. The poster on my bedroom wall had come to life."
In the autumn of 2004 Dekker became a stagiare with the Rabobank senior squad and it was time to put away childish things, time to faire le métier. On his first race with the team Gert Leinders injected him with the calf blood extract Actovegin, a drug that has had an on-again off-again relationship with the banned list and at that time was off:
"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."
At his first Paris-Nice a few months later, the team was sticking more needles in his arm, for récup, and handing out sleeping pills:
"Michael Boogerd pops a pill on a daily basis, he can't sleep without them. Knowing he takes them, and because I like the idea of dropping off to sleep straight away, I take them too."
As the season drew to a close at the Worlds Dekker was introduced to cortisone:
"The cortisone injection doesn't feel like doping. I don't feel like I'm crossing a kind of line."
The miseducation of Thomas Dekker was completed by his manager, Jacques Hanegraaf, who had been recommended to him by Gerrie Knetemann, Hanegraaf having been a former team-mate at Raleigh in the early '80s:
"Jacques knows his dope. He knows what's on the market, what works and what doesn't. And he knows what kind of doping offers the least chance of getting caught: blood transfusions. 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."
* * * * *
Dekker's story is, we're told, shocking. Jonathan Vaughters was shocked by the fact that a kid from the next generation had used so much so young: the blood bags, the EPO, the testosterone, the cortisone. Daniel Friebe blurbs the book saying The Descent is "the most shocking doping memoir cycling has produced." It is certainly one of the best written. But the most shocking?
So much of it is not actually shocking. So much of it is all too familiar.
Take the cocky little kid who has no respect for his directeur sportif: we've met him before, in Stephen Roche's The Agony and the Ecstasy. The neo-pro wanting the old-timers to talk to him about doping? Laurent Fignon in We Were Young and Carefree. The rider calmly accepting a shot of Synachten? We met many of them in Willy Voet's Breaking the Chain. The hotel rooms and the blood bags? Tyler Hamilton's The Secret Race. Cycling's culture of pills and potions? How in God's name can anyone be shocked by that today?
What about the 20-year-old stagiare who was taken to the Sauna Diana brothel by his new Rabobank team-mates? Before you harrumph and shake your head just remember how many times you've smiled and laughed when told the story of the Sauna Diana bus at bike races in the 1990s: you knew it was advertising a brothel, who the hell did you think went there, lonely old men? What about the recreational drugs, the speed and the ecstasy taken with team-mates at a rave, the line of coke admitted to while on the naughty step - shall we talk about Jan Ullrich, shall we talk about Tom Boonen?
What about the reality of his life as a rider, what about the final week of his first Giro, when Dekker was in the shower weeping, barely able to stand? How can we be shocked when that is the sort of thing fetishised by the likes of the Velominati, when the end-of-race dead-eyed thousand-yard-stare is fetishised by cycling photographers? When blood is shooting all over the bathroom as Dekker fails to find a vein to feed a blood bag into, how is that shocking, do you think DIY blood doping is easy, have you come to believe the bullshit about that one rotten apple, Riccardo Riccò?
So much of The Descent is simply not so shocking. It's, well, so what? Calling it shocking is a defence mechanism against what we have come to accept as the norms of cycling's culture, on and off the bike. Could the real shock be that here we have it all in one place but, taken piece by piece, we've simply come to accept that this is the way that cycling is?
* * * * *
Dekker comes across as brutally honest throughout The Descent. He comes across as someone who has successfully twelve stepped his way through recovery and done that whole serenity and courage and wisdom thing. Unlike others - David Millar, Tyler Hamilton - he doesn't try to pass responsibility for his doping elsewhere: it was his choice. He shows a self-awareness that's been lacking in most recent chamoirs and has been absent from most doping kiss-and-tells. His willingness to accept responsibility for his own actions is refreshing.
Success, he tells us, came easy. At that first race for the Rabo pros in 2004, just turned twenty, he bagged a stage win:
"I bide my time and launch an attack ten kilometres from the finish. No one responds - or no one can respond, who's to say? It's only with the finish line approaching that I look around: the street behind me is empty. I do the decent thing and thrust my hands in the air, but there's no rush of euphoria. I'm not even surprised. I've become so used to winning that this seems normal. There are victory celebrations at dinner that evening. We don't overdo it, a few bottles of wine, that's all. With hindsight I realise how special it was: a young lad like me, a trainee on his first stage race snatching a victory, but then and there it doesn't sink in. When the others tell me what a big deal it is, all I can do is shrug."
Less than a fortnight later picking up a silver medal at the World Championships was met with this reaction:
"It's the biggest disappointment of my career, not least because it hadn't occurred to me that I might not win. Up on the podium I have to stop myself hurling my silver medal to the ground. And when I get back to the hotel, I sit on the edge of my bed and sob for minutes on end."
Dekker is all too aware that he was driven by a materialist streak that came from he knows not where. He's aware of the importance he put on status, his need to be recognised and acknowledged, his need to be taken seriously, to be respected. And he's aware that his life was about instant gratification, that everything had to come today. This is a book that could become course material for clinical psychology students.
It should also be course material for cycling: every commissaire, every DCO, every DS, every wrench monkey, everybody should be made to read The Descent, not to see where Dekker failed himself but to see where the sport failed him and to learn how not to let it fail others:
"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."
And that is the real shock of Thomas Dekker's story: those in authority are already ignoring it, refusing to learn lessons from it. They don't have the backbone to acknowledge the reality of what cycling has become. Why that's a shock when it's happened so many times before I don't know. But it is.