the descent. thomas dekker/thijs zonneveld. ebury press paperback. 218pp. £12.99

the descent - thomas dekker

i have frequently joked that, north of the border, the letters epo are an abbreviation for 'extra porridge oats', the means by which us hebrideans gain our impressive power output without resorting to 'nippy sweeties'. however, i was recently moved to point out that there may be an exploitable gap in the market when it comes to specifically flavoured gels and energy bars. it's possible to find both products with guava or caffeine, both designed to provide that extra boost when the energy levels begin to drop, but try as i might, when searching through the shelves in the glasgow city branch of evans cycles, i could find none with added epo.

since those of us who make up the majority of the amateur peloton are not subject to the whims and iniquities of the aigle overlords, additives such as that manufactured by amgen can scarcely be considered as beyond the pale.

of course, the conundrum thus raising its ugly head is that we really have no need of such blood boosters. it might be nice to win the sprint for the 30mph signs at bruichladdich, but it hardly demands ingestion of otherwise banned substances. and that, to a certain degree, is the nub of the problem. if winning, or being of unquestionable support to your team leader is the name of the game that pays the mortgage, you can sort of see the temptation to have some clout when it comes to contract negotiations.

that, in a simplified nutshell, is why many riders have resorted to blood doping and epo abuse and while we might not agree with it, it's not hard to understand why it happens. what is rarely cited as a reason for doping is the gratification of an inflated ego, essentially the self-admitted downfall of former rabobank rider, thomas dekker.

much like many a horror story, even when reading or watching through spread fingers, there's still a compulsion to keep going till the end. i know this because i read every last paragraph of 'the descent' at a single sitting on the ferry from kennacraig to islay. from the opening sentence of chapter one, till the final sentence, there's an overwhelming sense of stunned disbelief. how could anyone with such demonstrable talent on a bicycle, ruin a promising career by resorting to substances that pretty much ended his career at the comparatively young age of thirty?

it seems that the acquisition of material wealth can be cited as at least one reason. when still at primary school in dirkshorn, he played marbles and sold on his winnings...

"I saved it all up for later, to fulfil my dream of buying a flashy car. I have no idea where it comes from, my love of material things. Not from my parents, that's for sure. My sister has no appetite for bling either."

yet it would appear that not only did dekker take to cycling like a duck to water, he displayed an affinity for competing without undue difficulty. it was an ability that brought him to the attention of the netherlands' principal team.

"At the end of my first year with the novices, when I was 15, a letter landed on the doormat. The Rabobank logo on the envelope was enough to get my pulse racing."

this simple affectation for competitive cycling came at the expense of academic achievement. dekker's sole dream at that time was to become a professional cyclist and everything that might be perceived as an obstacle to achieving that "was swept aside". the dream ultimately came true, signing with rabobank's junior team in 2001 and being almost immediately selected for the world championships in lisbon. despite being a dutchman, dekker was impressed mainly by the italians he met when invited to join a training camp. their sense of unified purpose and purported arrogance was seen as the young dutchman as something to which he might aspire.

"In Holland a top athlete is frowned on for driving a Ferrari: in Italy everyone wonders why the hell you'd want to drive anything else."

with the gift of hindsight, even at this early stage of the book, we're beginning to see the young dekker sow the seeds of his own destruction. a seemingly undeniable talent for victory did everything to bolster his already inflated sense of self-worth. "But I was the biggest talent of all. There was no stopping me. I won, won again and I kept on winning. It sometimes seemed like losing wasn't in my repertoire. I didn't just beat my rivals, I pulverised them."

in the light of this self-confession, even if driven by a growing ego, the question still remains as to why any rider of this calibre would find it necessary to try and illegally beat the system? "I wasn't just any old talent. I was Thomas fucking Dekker."

though dekker's descent may have already begun at this point, it's safe to say that there was little outward sign of this being the case based on his race results. but those possessed of such an overblown ego are rarely given to admitting as much in public; he might have scarcely have acknowledged or even recognised this state of affairs at the time, but it's hard to deny a certain admiration for his warts and all confessions that fill the pages of this excellent book.

"(the) combination of cycling and swagger made perfect sense to me. I didn't want to be some faceless bloke who happened to go fast on a bike. I wanted to be up there pounding my chest with the other alpha males."

as a rising star in the competitive world of bike racing, dekker was eventually introduced to jacques hanegraaf to handle contracts, sponsorship, media etc. on his behalf. he had signed for rabobank at a salary of €100,000, an impressive sum for one so young, but according to hanegraaf that was "daylight robbery", arguing that dekker ought to seek to break his contract and seek double that figure.

rabobank rider michael boogerd, dekker's childhood hero, was now a bona-fide team-mate and perhaps unwittingly the man who influenced dekker's early acquaintance with substances not necessarily conducive to a drug-free career. That week I take sleeping pills for the first time. What was unthinkable for the Under 23s turns out to be common practice for the pros. [...] Michael Boogerd pops a pill on a daily basis..." couple this with the knowledge that jacques hanegraaf succeeded in breaking open dekker's contract with rabobank and having his annual stipend raised to an impressive €400,000 and it's not hard to see why that healthy dutch ego is beginning to run away with itself.

of course as with all agents, the more their riders earn, the more their own portion increases "He has found a goose to lay him golden eggs. Its name is Thomas Dekker."

hanegraaf's talent for salary negotiation was also, perhaps not surprisingly, accompanied by the ability and connections to introduce riders under his 'care' to those with the wherwithal to assist in the performance department. and by this i don't mean a sports coach. dekker's upward trajectory had already met with the early stages of pricking holes in his veins. the team doctor had already instigated intravenous 'recovery' drips and "As the years went by I could feel it coming. I knew doping would cross my path. And when it happened, I did not back away."

the preferred method of the day was blood doping, on the basis that it was all but undetectable and the man contacted to assist with this process was the infamous spaniard eufemanio fuentes. the idea behind blood doping is relatively simple: give blood, store it, then reinfuse it prior to competition. since we're talking about the rider's own blood, in 2006 there was no way of tracing the infusion.

"...after all, how is anyone supposed to spot the difference between your own blood and your own blood?"

of course, cheating the system is a tad more involved than simply finding suitable opportunities to blood dope or take products banned by the uci. but, possessed of an ego driven by racing victory, a great deal of money for a single man, an apparently endless stream of available women, fast cars and expensive clothes, the need and desire to keep winning meant that dekker was unlikely to restrict himself in the substance abuse department.

though it's tempting to say that here began dekker's real descent, in truth it had already commenced. recent history will relate that dekker's career was over by the age of thirty, having received a uci competition ban of two years and reached the point where no self-respecting team was willing to add him to their roster. the frankness of the first person narrative (translated from the dutch by david doherty) is utterly compelling, attested to by my having read the entire affair in less than a couple of hours. if i were you, i'd set aside a contiguous period of time to read 'the descent', because there's no way you'll want to put it down once you've begun reading.

it is, of course, a damning indictment not just of dekker and others like him, but of the world of professional cycling, one that appears to have let this happen as long as everyone kept quiet about it. a professional athlete's career is often relatively short, a fact frequently trotted out as justification for the often substantial sums of money paid to its more successful exponents. but sex, drugs and rock'n'roll are usually at complete odds with the image of dedicated individuals, living the life of the self-absorbed hermit, concentrating solely on the pursuit of athletic endeavour. large salaries arguably demand an equality of responsibility, an attribute often less well developed in the young.

however, dekker's confessions would suggest that he knew precisely what he was doing every step of the way, simply preferring to ignore or discount the penalties such behaviour would eventually bring to bear. hopefully his story will prevent other egotistical young cyclists from following in his tyre tracks, but i wouldn't hold your breath. the descent is a brilliantly written modern horror story that could well tarnish your view of professional cycling, but even with your hands over your eyes, it's a compellingly irresistible read.

saturday 29 july 2017

twmp ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................