A life of sex, drugs and bloodbags. That was what the professional cycling life of former supertalent Thomas Dekker and some of his colleagues looked like. Last week, Dekker published a book about this topic and his story as a cyclist: His way to the top and his downfall in a world that was typified by extremes. His uncensored way of describing all the excesses caused a great uproar as he named and shamed all the people that were involved in his doping and sexual adventures. And that is very untypical in a world that was and still seems pretty much dominated by its omerta, a cultural code of honor to not talk about the shady things you did. A culture that is preserved because everyone knows something about everyone that could harm someone’s career. Dekker, with no strings attached to this world anymore, broke with this code and was invited to all the major Dutch tv talk shows, to talk about his book and the bizarre world he lived in. Here I’ll give you a summary of this shocking book, what the talk show hosts found most shocking about it and the reactions from the people who were named and shamed.
A cocky supertalent
Thomas Dekker described his youth as really normal. He grew up in a small town, called Dirkshorn, in the province of Noord-Holland where he discovered his talent behind the scooter of his dad, who functioned as a pacemaker during all the training hours he made, cycling tens of thousands of kilometres in the surroundings of the Ijsselmeer. Dekker was used to winning as a teenager, as he blew away his peers in most of the races he rode. That was when professional cycling team Rabobank picked him up and he ran through all the age groups of the team, where he kept on winning. Young Thomas became a cocky supertalent with limitless ambition to become the best cyclist in the world and the idea that he couldn’t lose. And then the professional career began, as he was introduced to a world where things were done on a whole different level.
The road to invincibility
At the first training camp, he slept in a room with his colleague Steven de Jongh, who gave him a towel, put on a porn movie and basically told him to jerk off together. And Dekker, as a newbie, thought this was some sort of initiation ritual and got along with this strange introduction as a pro. Ever since, things got stranger and more excessive for Thomas. Dekker regularly visited prostitutes with his team mates, ordered some escort girls, doing some drugs and was also introduced into the world of doping. He was in a time and place where you couldn’t become the best rider in the world without using doping. He was introduced by Michael Boogerd to doping and his manager Jacques Hanegraaf got him in touch with the renowned doping doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, the leading man in the famous Operacion Puerto. Several times a year he flew to Madrid for blood doping. When the Spanish Court of Justice got a lead on Fuentes, Dekker switched to the Austrian supplier Stefan Matschiner for doping.
The management of the team looked away from it all. They only wanted the cyclists to perform at the right time and place. It didn’t matter to them how they did it. They were only concerned with their riders not getting caught, because that could harm the image of the sponsor. Dekker still wanted to be the best cyclist, but he also wanted to be the best drinker, the most notorious playboy and live in the most excessive luxury. From the moment he was first introduced to dope and convinced that you couldn’t be successful without it and wanted to get along with all the other excesses that he thought were part of professional cycling, he led a live of using dope, looking for dope, ordering hookers, binge drinking, drunken driving, using drugs etc. Dekker was a self-destructive man in a fucked up world where nobody helped him to protect his unique talent against all the craziness that surrounded him and later on he was too far gone to except any help. He laughed when he almost got caught with blood values that were too high or when people warned him to be careful. Dekker felt invincible. He was not only leading an excessive live, but was miraculously still performing pretty well in the biggest cycling races in the world. Therefore, he was in 2007 selected for the Rabobank’s Tour de France team, the biggest race on earth. It was the start of his downhill ride.
The fight for the yellow jersey in the Tour de France of 2007: Rasmussen vs. Contador
The Tour of 2007 was dominated by Dekker’s team mate Michael Rasmussen and the Rabobank team. Dekker helped his team mate trying to win the Tour de France and together with Michael Boogerd and Rasmussen himself, they looked invincible. Dekker dragged his team forward for hundreds of kilometres at the head of the peloton while one rider after another couldn’t keep up with his pace and had to let go. It was a clear demonstration of power where it looked like only Rasmussen could win the Tour de France of 2007. But then, there was a big shocker as Rasmussen was taken out of the Tour by the team management, because he lied about his whereabouts to the doping agency. In hindsight that was because he was trying to avoid doping inspection, but they didn’t know the how and why exactly at that time, but it was too shady for the team management to let it go, probably harming the good name of the sponsor if they did.
Michael Rasmussen telling his story which has many similarities with Thomas Dekker’s story
Rasmussen was gone and Dekker and Boogerd were so pissed, because they felt like all their hard work was done for nothing, that they actually wanted to leave the Tour. They didn’t think they were doing something wrong, because they knew that everybody else was doing it and therefore they thought that Rasmussen was only doing things a little bit better than all the others. Good for him, they thought. At that point they were totally detached from anything you can call a normal life. It was the first and the last Tour Thomas rode.
In the year after that, Thomas became a loose cannon. The team manager Theo de Rooij was replaced by a man from the bank, Harold Knebel, who knew nothing about cycling but was more committed in keeping up the good image of the sponsor and was therefore more prepared to intervene where he had to when the image was at stake. In 2008 Dekker wasn’t performing as well as he did in earlier years and he was living more and more on the edge, as he kept his blood just under the punishable values and the anti-doping agency was keeping a closer eye on him. He didn’t take Knebel’s concerns about him serious and Dekker wasn’t selected for Rabo’s Tour de France team of 2008. He was so disappointed about it that he immersed himself in even more parties, booze, sex and drugs. The Rabobank cut him loose in August 2008 and Dekker was caught with using doping in 2009 in retrospective. They tested old blood samples from him, after the introduction of the blood passport and saw that he had such irregular blood values that he had to have used doping. He was suspended for two years.
Thomas Dekker talking about his doping past and excessive behaviour during his suspension
The black hole and the last chance
Dekker tried to escape from reality in a black hole of more drugs, parties, women etcetera, but he couldn’t escape the fact that he wasn’t a real cyclist anymore, the only constant thing he knew from the moment he began to drive a bike. He thought he could come back after his suspension and show the world that he was better than ever before. But he didn’t live like a monk like he should have done, still carrying the load of his past. He was still attached to the omerta of the cycling world where he still had to lie constantly, trying to not put himself or others in a difficult position. He had to hold on to some perspective of getting another chance as a cyclist.
Dekker talking about his hour record attempt
But in the end he failed to get back on track. Teams didn’t want him anymore or cut him loose for not delivering good results. He had become a pariah because he got caught using doping, because he confessed, because he wasn’t as good as they thought he was and because they weren’t sure he wouldn’t derail again. There was only one chance to get back on track and earn a new contract and that was trying to take the world hour record. It was his last chance. He trained for months like a monk. No alcohol, no doping and no other excesses, just cycling. He just failed to take the record in Mexico by 270 meters. You would think that it should be enough to earn a contract somewhere, but nobody was calling him anymore. He was done. It was over. Dekker stopped with his professional cycling career in March 2015. He failed his talent as a self-destructive man in a destructive world.
The naming and shaming in the book of all the people that were involved in Dekker’s career didn’t make him very popular. Most people that were named in the book said they didn’t recognize some, most or all of the scenes that Dekker described. His former manager, Hanegraaf, who introduced him to Fuentes even said that he would fight the ‘lies’ of the book in court. Dekker even said to have received physical threats because of the publishing of his book.
The main topic of last week’s conversation at the tables of most talk shows therefore was if he should have named so many others that were involved, knowing that he would severely damage these persons. Although that point of view is understandable you could say that on the other hand, there was never a more open book about the way doping was used, provided and all the excesses surrounding it than Dekker’s book. Therefore it was really good to break the omerta of professional cycling finally and so completely as he did. From a journalistic point of view, you can only be happy with that. And you can only be happy with this book as a young talented cyclist, because it’s a pretty clear warning of what can happen if you don’t make the right choices in your career and disappoint yourself if your failing your talent so badly. I understand that the people that were named are not so happy and try to deny most events, but they’re the ones trying to keep the omerta alive and that’s not good for anyone except for themselves. Anyhow, it will always be a difficult discussion if you need to take others down in your fall. When things will get to court we’ll see if Hanegraaf or Dekker is right. The only thing I know for sure about cycling and was confirmed by reading this book is summed up by a famous quote of the Dutch writer Tim Krabbé: Courir, c’est mourir un peu.