Friday, January 12, 2018

"Descent, My Epic Fall from Cycling Superstardom to Doping Dead End,"Thomas Dekker

The title of Dutch cyclist Thomas Dekker's memoir, "Descent, My Epic Fall from Cycling Superstardom to Doping Dead End," is no exaggeration. Dekker was a huge talent.  When just twenty, he won a stage of the 2005 Critérium International when he got in a break with big-name pros Jens Voigt, Bobby Julich and Ivan Basso and outsprinted them all.  A year later he won the one-week stage race Tirreno-Adriarico across Italy and the equally prestigious Tour of Romandie a year later.  He was on a path to be the greatest Dutch cyclist ever and the first to win The Tour de France since Joop Zoetemelk in 1980.

But by the time he rode his first and only Tour de France in 2007 he became swallowed up by the drug culture of the sport and all the temptations that he could afford on his hefty salary, in particular women, and never realized his potential.  His book is as frank about his womanizing--visiting brothels and inviting prostitutes to his hotel room the night before races--as it is about his use of performance enhancing drugs. His cocky, flamboyant, undisciplined behaviour led to his dismissal from the Dutch super team Rabobank in 2008 even though he had a year left on his contract.  He fully understood, as he called himself a "23-year old thug used to getting my own way."  

His career fully derailed less than a year later when a urine sample he had given eighteen months before tested positive for EPO using a new test.  He had to serve a two-year ban.  When he returned, he was lucky to find a team that would employ him.  After earning more than a million dollars a year, he accepted the minimum of $45,000 to ride for the American Garmin team.  The pay didn't matter he said, as he was just happy to be able to return to his profession. But he still lacked that single-minded commitment necessary to excel at the sport.  During the team's pre-season training camp in Boulder, when he was just getting to know his teammates, a stripper who had given him a lapdance just hours before texted him at three in the morning to come over for a visit.  He didn't realize she was an hour away, but didn't ask the cab driver to turn back.  

He barely made it back to the team hotel for a mandatory seven a.m. meeting.  He was too wiped out to attend.  When the team director came knocking on his door at 7:15 he confessed all, but wasn't sent packing. In his three seasons with Garmin he never regained his greatness and was released after the 2014 season when the team combined with Cannondale, a fate similar to that of Phil Gaimon, as recounted in his recent book "Draft Animalls."  Even though they rode together for a year and Gaimon mentions Dekker several times in his book, there is no mention of Gaimon in this one.  After his release from Garmin, Dekker made an attempt on the Hour Record, hoping it would earn a spot on another team.  He fell 889 feet of beating Rohan Dennis' recently set record, and thus ended his career at thirty.  

Instead of being able to write a memoir of "euphoric tales of victory and sporting glory," as he had hoped when he began his career, his memoir became a story of a "descent into dope and disillusionment."   Unlike Gaimon, who brags about not enlisting a ghostwriter, he is assisted by a prominent Dutch sportswriter, who makes this a much more focused and polished read without any distracting petty gripes in its snappy 212 pages.  

There is no speculation about who may or may not be using drugs, Dekker tells what he knows, unhesitant to name names except for one teammate, who learns at the same time as he does that their blood-doping doctor,  the Spaniard Eufemiano Fuentes, has been busted in the Operacion Puerto raid.  They are both devastated, wondering how they are going to be able to ride at the level they had been at without his blood transfusions.  Dekker wrote, "I won't mention his name.  I suppose it's up to him to come clean." Fuentes had three bags of Dekker's blood, which he was storing for a fee of $10,000 per bag.  

Without the advantage of the undetectable blood transfusions, whose benefits Dekker calls "enormous in a grand tour," he resorts to a version of EPO that was undetectable at the time.  He easily buys it at a pharmacy in Germany, feeling as sheepish the first time he asks for it as when he first bought condoms.

Dekker opens the book as he undergoes his first blood withdrawal by Fuentes in a hotel room in Spain, which he described as a "thousand shades of dark."  The book then returns to his youth and his first racing bike, a birthday present when he was eleven.  It was so beautiful he could have wept.  The book then follows a chronological time line, shying away from none of its sordid details, including attempts to inject himself with blood and spraying it all over, shocking a teammate who was unaware of what he had been doing in the bathroom.  His parents are in on his decision to dope when his agent recommends it after his first season as a pro as a twenty-one year old.  His agent received ten per cent of his earnings, so it was in his interest to have Dekker resort to any means necessary that he could get away with to increase his earnings. He needed no convincing.  If his parents had discouraged him from doing it he "would have laughed in their faces,".  His father was left speechless by the discussion.  His mother said, "I only hope this turns out okay."

In his first season as a pro before he makes the decision to become a committed doper, Dekker asks his older teammates, including Erik Dekker, about doping, and can't find anyone to speak frankly about the issue, his one great lament. He wrote, "I would have killed for a big name in my own team with the backbone to look me in the eye and tell me to keep my fucking paws off the dope."  But he blames no one but himself for his wayward path, writing,  "All kinds of people have played a part in my doping history, but ultimately there can be no doubt about the main culprit: It was me, no one else."

He doesn't hold back criticizing himself, calling himself "a spoiled brat with delusions of grandeur." After he began doping he confessed, "every decision I made was wrong,"  and admits, "I gave into every temptation that crossed my path."  On a trip to the Bahamas with his girl friend and another couple when he was still lush with money, they ended up at a club well out of their league and were presented with a bill for $25,000.  He barely flinched.  He had money enough to squander.  He was generous in many ways, buying his sister a car when she turned eighteen. 

His career could be defined as well by the many tears he shed, from those of joy after finishing second in the Under 23 World Championships to those of devastation, standing in the shower after three hard mountain stages of the Giro, knowing he's got to dope to be able to avoid such extreme suffering.  But when he wins Tirreno-Adriatico a year later with the assist of blood doping he cries in his hotel room, partially out of elation but also from stress and having "a secret" he can "never divulge."  But there are no tears when he receives the phone call that he has tested positive.  He accepts his fate and doesn't want "to be like Bernard Kohl, sobbing into a microphone as he tells his sorry tale."

He does cry on the team bus during the 2007 Tour de France after being forced to continue The Race when he and his teammates all wanted to abandon after their team leader Michael Rasmussen was sent home by the team when he was in the Yellow Jersey and on the verge of winning The Tour when it was revealed he had lied about his whereabouts to the drug enforcers, claiming to be in Mexico training, when he was actually in Italy.  Dekker doesn't begrudge Rasmussen, knowing they all indulge in illicit activities to enhance their performance, but he is extremely frustrated to go from the thrill of being on the Tour winning team to having it all taken away.  When Rasmussen came into his hotel room to tell him about his dismissal, he could tell that he had been crying, and it is sympathy, not rage, that he feels.

His final dose of tears comes when he fails in his Hour Attempt, from the pain of the effort, but also from "the frustration of the past couple of years."  He had a glimmer of hope of landing on a new Dutch team, but when that fell through he had to give up the sport.  His tale still ends happily, as he went to live with a wealthy woman in LA who deals in art and produces films and is twenty years his senior, who he met at the Tour of Utah.  Gaimon in his book called her a billionaire.

Though the book is a strong indictment of the doping in the sport, much of it team facilitated, he claims it isn't as bad as it was.  It is still "far from clean," he summarizes, as it remains  "riddled with shady agents, untrustworthy team managers, dishonest doctors, and riders with a talent for fooling themselves and everybody around them."  In other words, the ever-present dark side of human nature.  

No comments: