Book Review: Descent by Thomas Dekker

Friday, 1 December 2017

Descent by Thomas Dekker and Thijs Zonneveld, translated by David Doherty

When Paul Kimmage’s Rough Ride was first published he was accused of “spitting in the soup”, of dirtying the very milieu he’d worked hard to join and profit from. Here Thomas Dekker does the same only by now the broth is unpalatable to begin with and if this is a new story it repeats familiar scenes whether bloodbags hanging from hotel room picture hooks or team managers asking as few questions as possible about the training methods of their riders.

There are plenty of pro cycling autobiographies and many share a storyline: the first bike, success as a junior, a big U23 win, the pro contract, early success, a setback, some lessons learned and so on. There’s even a sub-genre of this, the doping confessionnal with a similar arc until the rider in question tests positive or ends up in a police cell, learns some lessons and so on. See Tyler Hamilton’s The Secret Race or David Millar’s first book.

So another copycat story? Yes and no. There is the standard stuff, how Dekker comes from a “dead ordinary” family but soon collects extraordinary race results. Only he recounts that from an early age he craved company, material objects and recognition. As a junior he’s taking home enough money to buy his sister a car. Without spoiling the story Dekker is in a hurry to make money and reach the top of the sport and quickly embraces doping as a means to achieve this. This makes the book more of a tale of hubris and nemesis rather than the usual gradual, reluctant slide in doping where the rider blames the system for putting in this position.

It could all have been so different as if Dekker had suspicious blood values the UCI could not stop him from racing on these alone. The alarm bells are enough to make the UCI retro test old samples and he is positive for EPO having taken some out of competition. If the test had happened a day earlier or later then the sample may have been clear. Dekker doesn’t dwell on this but maybe he’d have gone onto a podium or two in a grand tour and he’d found a friendly ghostwriter to knock up one of those ordinary autobiographies that obviously omitted the darker means deployed along the way. Or would his “descent” have happened anyway given his chaotic lifestyle?

Once again this is a tale of entourage, of how a rider’s career path and values are set by those around them. Decker’s ambition has him doping precociously but going by this book at least nobody wanted to stop him. There’s seemingly more annoyance from management that he’s using prostitutes on the eve of a race than their discovery that he’s doping, something which could (and did) bring down the team.

When Dekker does get more support he’s not ready for it and riding for Slipstream he’s lost interest in the sport and is trundling around to collect a salary in large part because he doesn’t know what else to do. Ditto when he trains for an attempt on the hour record only this time he’s up for the challenge but it is rushed and he falls short.

This is Dekker’s version of it all and various people in and around the book rejected some of it on publication. You wonder what Dekker leaves out. We don’t know what was omitted – once he sees a gopher for doping doctor Fuentes entering a hotel occupied by Team CSC but says it’s for the rider concerned to admit it which is bound to make some wonder which rider at CSC used Fuentes and got away with it.

Inevitably some won’t want to read a book like this. Why not review one about a clean rider? Scandal sells. Is there a market for the autobiography of, say, Laurens ten Dam described here as as “clean as a new whistle” and “doping just isn’t his style”? Not easy given they’d have to account for their time alongside known and possibly unknown dopers and so even their tale would include this. QED when we see the traction one paragraph about Fabian Cancellara in Phil Gaimon’s recent book got. Also if we want a cleaner sport then understanding the incentives and systems in place for Dekker explain a lot; as does the explainers on faking illness to abuse cortisone which is still a live topic.

It’s a quick read. The prose has that clipped, short sentence style that you might know from Krabbé or Hemingway but it’s neither as deadpan nor as descriptive, it’s more “I did this. I did that” and so on and at times it’s so simple it’s like reading a child’s book. This isn’t meant as dig, just an observation of how quick it is to read. The book assumes a level of cycling knowledge, such as the meaning of the Tour de Romandie or the significance of the Rabobank team at the time.

The Verdict
Another doping confessional? Yes and this one assumes a certainly familiarity with the topic so you’re better off having read, say, Tyler Hamilton’s Secret Race first. The quotes on the cover and sleeve play up the extra gore, crashes and sex but, inside the pages, Dekker’s life often sounds joyless and unsatisfying. He skips the handwringing of other confessionals to give a frank account that doesn’t spare colleagues and employers. It’s this that stands out and even if time has passed it acts as handy alarm bell as teams pay riders millions but ask few questions in return. But as a literary work it’s a quick page-turner to consume quickly rather than account that you could return to again and again, like Kimmage’s Rough Ride.

Descent’s English version is published by Velopress who sent a PDF for review. The Dutch version “Mijn Gevecht” is by Voetbal inside.

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J Evans December 1, 2017 at 2:25 pm

Sounds like a far more honest account than most: seems like he’s much more willing to accept the blame rather than it being ‘all down to the system’.
‘which rider at CSC used Fuentes and got away with it’ – or which of many.
Frank Schleck admitted paying Fuentes, of course, but it could easily have been someone else – for instance, he and his brother seemed to do everything together, and Andy went from finishing the 2010 Tour between a doped Contador and a doped Menchov (not to mention those who followed) to being hopeless (and always remained remarkably uncritical of both Contador and Armstrong).
If there was anyone who thought that doping no longer played a very large part in cycling a year ago, they’d have to be borderline delusional to have managed to hang on to this idea.
But there seem to be a large section of people who think it’s OK if the authorities don’t ban you for it.

gabriele December 1, 2017 at 3:23 pm

Do you know when OP did happen? Because I really struggle to see the link you seem to suggest with Andy’s career.
By the way, it’s not like I’m defending that Andy or whoever were clean (let’s prevent the usual misunderstanding), it’s just that I’m always amused by theories trying to connect doping and performances, which can work in some case but in most it’s just about pure imagination.

A “more honest account”? Why? Perhaps he felt that this new rhetorical approach could just find more readers.
Have you any idea about how does doping work in a professional team? An idea which hasn’t been provided by confessions, I mean (some of which, of course, you deem as not that honest because they don’t correspond with your ideas, while others are “more honest” if you like them best).
I’d trust police investigation, in that sense, and from that kind of source a broad variety of situations has been exposed through years: and, in many cases, the rider is actually the weakest agent when compared to DSs or the doctors, who are often implementing a real scheme, unlike individual riders who, sure, in some cases happen to turn to this or that witchdoctor.

Why should somebody like Dekker be considered as “more honest”? Maybe he just had a different experience. Or – as you could say about anyone – he maybe goes for what he thinks will serve his interests better. It’s not like we don’t know that in Rabobank the doping was also managed within the team… not just “ignored” (which is a part of the story).

J Evans December 1, 2017 at 3:37 pm

Gabriele, your post doesn’t seem to be replying to anything I actually said.
I explain in my first sentence what seemed more honest: him accepting his own culpability – nothing else.
Some riders seem to lose a lot post-doping conviction; some lose little. All I’m suggesting is that Andy could be one of the former.
You then talk about ‘how does doping work in a professional team’: all that you have written after that has nothing to do with what I said.
I’m not disagreeing with you, it’s just that our two comments are unrelated.

Richard S December 1, 2017 at 4:12 pm

I think a little of the point of what Gabriele is trying to make is that you are linking Andy Schleck to Operation Puerto, which was in 2006, when Andy’s little period in the sun was between 2007 and 2010. Maybe Schleck, and even Contador’s, golden period was more down to the fact that so many top riders were either banned or recently retired?! I’m not saying he didn’t dope, just that little scandal was just before his time.

Anyway sounds like an interesting read. I get the impression that compared to the more ascetic lifestyles of the Americans and Italians et al around the same time the Dutch, and Belgians, were pretty wild.

J Evans December 1, 2017 at 4:30 pm

Ah, now I see. Apologies, I certainly didn’t intend to suggest that Andy was involved in Puerto, but now I look back at what I wrote that is implied. Very badly written, I’m afraid: mine was meant to be a more general point about how riders of that era (even post-Puerto) were, in my opinion, still very much at it.

Larry T December 1, 2017 at 5:13 pm

For awhile now I’ve taken a “Gabriele will explain my views on subject X” attitude rather than post many comments here. But I think we’ve reached a fork in the road (which doesn’t mean I might post more here, just in case the usual suspects are groaning now) when you write things like “I’m always amused by theories trying to connect doping and performances,” This seems like a whitewash of dope cheats. Whether a specific doping instance (and let’s not pretend Frank Schleck sent 7K euro to a gynecologist for help with managing his menstrual periods) resulted in a specific performance is irrelevant. To me, if the competitor cheated and was caught/sanctioned or was involved in some chicanery (like the Schlecks) it casts a dark cloud on his entire career and all of his victories.

J Evans December 1, 2017 at 5:31 pm

I’ve never been part of the ‘doping explains everything about a doper’s performance’ crowd, but I’m also not in agreement with those who perennially make excuses for dopers.

As I say, everything Gabriele has written from ‘A “more honest account”? Why?’ onwards has nothing to do with what I said and nothing to do with what I think.

My point of view was very much summed up at the end of my original comment: there seem to be a lot of people who think that if it’s not punished by the authorities, it’s not doping.
I disagree with that: for me, to give one example of what I fear are many, using corticosteroids out of competition, whilst not banned by the authorities, is doping.
Like many, I strongly suspect that cycling (along with a lot of other sports) is rife with this kind of ‘permitted’ drug use. Not only does that taint the sport, but – more importantly – it’s detrimental to riders’ health.

gabriele December 3, 2017 at 2:06 pm

I challenge the idea that Dekker’s account is “more honest” than, say, Manzano’s.

Also note that very few cyclists who confessed doping really ever say that it was *all* down to the system.
In fact, most of them accepted their part of responsibility – I mean, *actually*, not with a book bla bla bla – as far as receiving sanctions both in the sport and in a criminal court as a consequence for their confessions.

Which means that you’re attributing to those “most” a stereotype which doesn’t correspond to what really happened, and which – as misleading as most stereotypes are – makes ’em look indeed “less honest” because most of us do reasonably assume that maybe not *all* but *a part* of it was down to them, for not just leaving pro cycling for example.

But even if a doped cyclist says that it was *all* down to the system, I’m ready to question that such a perspective is substantially less honest than Dekker’s.

Doping mainly works through a highly structured social system (as I defended above and as, I reckon, you won’t dispute): individuals play a role, as any social system, but focussing mainly or fully on the individual is as distorting as putting all the blame on the system. Honesty would be relative in both cases.

I’d also add that, from a pragmatic POV, highlighting how the system works, focussing on social practices and power structures, is way more useful for wahtever authority should ever be interested in fighting doping that the other way around.

And, not surprisingly, the riders who denounce *mainly* the system, although doing so they might look selfish or self-condescending to the judgemental crowds, well those guys typically end up paying the highest personal price. And they perfectly know that beforehand, which makes you suspect that perhaps they’re not that selfish.
Those who admit their *individual* guilt… well, you won’t be surprised finding them making a living within cycling again.
This simple difference should offer quite a good material to reflect about what position might be more “honest”, if anything, assuming – as I do – that neither is *perfectly honest*.

PS J Evans (and the rest), I hope you’ll excuse me if I’ve been or I’m being brusque. No lack of respect is intended. It’s just dialectics to me (and my control over my style is more limited than I’d wish).

gabriele December 3, 2017 at 2:32 pm

Larry, I understand your POV but what I write should be read simply as what I wrote, especially on such a complicated subject.

Let me explain what my sentence means.
If you positively know that someone was doping on a certain race, you might (and, even so, it’s not always that easy) be able to link being doped to exceptional performances. I’m fine with some facts, I don’t necessarily demand that those facts are accepted by a court. Example: Basso’s ITT performances in 2006 and the Fuentes telephone tappings or papers may be reasonably linked, even if the court accepted the thesis that Basso’s only was “attempted doping”.
OTOH, what I’m defending above is that when you say “look, that rider is going faster, he must be doping” or “he’s going slower, it’s because he isn’t doping anymore”, that is, people use performances to infer doping practices, well, in most cases it just doesn’t make sense.
In this field there are some exceptions, too: no doubt that some extreme situations will make our eyebrows raise, as well as the decline of some (few) riders looks coherently associated with a reduction in doping practices when compared to previous ones.
But it’s easy to show that *most* of such theories will lack consistency.

That’s what I’m saying here, which has nothing to do with any moral judgement about doped riders. It’s merely cognitive, simple logic.

That said, it’s pretty much clear – to me and I suppose to everybody else who’s been reading inrng for the last years or so – that our perspective on doping is different when several aspects are concerned.
For example (but I’d rather not start another debate), I’d say that to cast a dark cloud on whomever is caught – especially if he’s been caught “within cycling”, that is, through the internal procedures of the sport – creates an unduly privilege in your moral court towards all those dopers who’re actually being covered by the sport itself… while all the clounds linger over the *usual* suspects, worse dopers shine in the sun as if they were crystal clear (and I say they’re worse because when you’re protected you can do much more, and that’s more unfair, too).
And my personal take is that doping in pro sport isn’t currently an on/off or black/white thing. I’d say that it’s a lot about shades, gray zones and so on. But this is mere opinion.

Larry T December 3, 2017 at 4:47 pm

Thanks for the clarification, but when you write “…doping in pro sport isn’t currently an on/off or black/white thing. I’d say that it’s a lot about shades, gray zones and so on.” it’s clear we’ve taken different forks in the road. Cheating in the form of a sticky bidon to me fits into a gray area. Let’s say rider has suffered a crash not due to his own actions and gets brought back to where he/she might have been had the crash not happened. Cheating? Certainly, but that’s a gray area for me and one that can be observed by officials and other competitors and dealt with in a timely fashion.
Doping is premeditated (not to mention invisible) unless you buy the excuses of tainted meats, spiked bottles handed up by nefarious characters, “my gel caps were counted out on the same surface as the dope” etc. To me it’s the same as a motorized bike.
Positive dope tests that aren’t due to premeditated use of banned substances rarely happen. Using motorized bikes or banned substances is cheating. Competitors using them are not involved in sport, it’s merely commerce or twisted self-gratification.
It’s black or white for me, no shades or zones of gray.

gabriele December 3, 2017 at 9:56 pm

Well, Larry, that implies you being supposedly happy with TUEs signed by a single person (and a person with a dubious past); using doping substances which just won’t enter a well-directed WADA list; using procedures which aren’t allowed in some countries (just go and train where they’re allowed); using substances which aren’t even considered by WADA because they aren’t in the public knowledge; accepting that one of the most relevant antidoping tools is subject to various kind of bias and not all them well-intentioned (and, oh yes, those scientific studies about Henao)… and so on and on.
That’s all white according to your criteria, it’s pretty gray to me.
Bet let’s skip over, it’s a terrain with few facts regarding the present, most of what we know is about an albeit (very) recent past, but anyway I feel that anyone has the right to believe things work fine now and I won’t have many data to prove that the contrary is true.

RQS December 3, 2017 at 11:59 am

Gabriele you are a dopers dream. Your comments are exactly the sort that the UCI, pro teams and pro riders come out with all the time to distance themselves with the doping of the past, present and future. The likes of Dekker, Hamilton, Miller and Schleck are not so far removed from the present to be able to put them in a shoe box and consign them and their influence to the past. While I am more categorical about doping, there as much evidence that the current bunch are clean as they are dirty – I.e. any evidence is circumstantial – drugs in the blood are hard to detect, and being able to distinguish between an artificial hormone and a natural one is virtually impossible. For the most part science can only provide innenudo, has, by-and-large, proven ineffective to proving the existence of doping. Legally speaking the authorities can’t ‘prove’ drug taking in many cases, but they likely have their suspicions. The authorities are largely powerless to the legal standards required. Scepticism is a useful philosophy and perhaps you should use it a bit more.
The degree to which it takes place, whether it is wanton, methodic, occassional, minimal or ‘legal, but outside the spirit of sporting endeavour’ can be debated but it is here to stay – though if you’re looking for hypocrisy there are many other sports which are less rigourous than cycling.
I think you’ve leapt upon J Evans words with a standard trope response to doping and that doesn’t really deal with the state of things.

gabriele December 3, 2017 at 1:38 pm

Could you please be more explicit rewording what you *believe* I’ve been writing?

The “dopers dream” is, in fact, charging all or most responsibility on individuals, because in most known cases it was a team affair (do you need a list?).

And this is not a personal opinion: it is what dopers say and suggest in tape recorded conversations. “If a guy is caught, he’s got to say he did it all by himself”.
OTOH, top UCI figures went as far as suggesting they could have a rider positive and sanctioned, in order to keep the corrupted system ongoing. Armstrong himself liked to have rivals “under control”.

With such premises, you can easily see why catching a doped cyclist rarely brought to any serious consequence beyond that single event, while tackling any doping network (be it managed within the team or by external doctors) often had a brutal cascade impact.

People who seriously study the subject also share this same perspective: the “hang’ em high” approach, referred to cyclists, only allowed doping to go on untouched. Obviously. You need to work on team culture and practices.

I think that you could hardly find anyone more sceptical than I am when clean sport is concerned, and that’s precisely why I’m sick of the blind perspective most people, who believe themselves fierce opposers of doping, are submerged in – they aren’t aware, but that’s being complicit with the doping mentality. The single, ambitious cheater, sort of a romantic scoundrel. Most of doped cyclists (not all of them) are just abused people, whether they know it or not (part of being abused is not acknowledging it). Cheated more than cheaters, though they believe they got a good deal.

Eric December 1, 2017 at 8:26 pm

I actually have a book about Laurens ten Dam which follows him during the 2013 season. It starts with Rabobank pulling out and doping stories and it’s impact on the team are a big part of it.

A good read, but I doubt there’s an English translation.

Andy Rafferty December 1, 2017 at 8:33 pm

Interesting to note the Nederlandse title translated is ‘My Fight’ (Mijn Gevecht). Slightly more prosaic than ‘Descent.

Johnny December 2, 2017 at 1:38 am

I’ve read both Tyler Hamilton’s and Thomas Dekker’s book. The story of Dekker is a quick read in fact and I at least in my case the book of Thomas Dekker gave me more of a shake-up. Sometimes I had the impression that I only kept reading because I wanted to know what bullshit Dekker’s going to confess to on the following pages torn between kind of hoping that he will get back on track and seeking satisfaction when the asshole as which he characterizes himself in this book gets another punch in the gut.
Tyler Hamilton’s book is told with a lot of more distance to the proceedings, less violent and you (or at least me) felt for Tyler at times. He was more of victim of the system but clearly completely commiting to it because of his determination to win. Commiting those crimes shattered his mind, made him sink into depression.
But both books give shocking insights into the completely perverse life as a pro cyclist and are absolutely worth their money.

The GCW / Strictly Amateur December 2, 2017 at 5:33 am

Mr. INRING rhetorically(?) asks, “Why not review one about a clean rider?”

& I think those have been done too…

However, understanding all things cheating is more interesting and less understood.

Cycling espionage.

Larry T December 2, 2017 at 10:30 pm

Clean rider? I bought two of the Phil Gaimon books shortly after (and I guess because of) the Spartacus fiasco. I finished the first one and am just past the part in the second where he calls out Spartacus. In this case books by/about a “clean rider” are very interesting and entertaining, though they both fall into the quick and easy read category. He blows apart a lot of myths and legends – stuff I’ve tried to explain to cycling fans for years. It’s great to finally see them busted by a guy who has truly “been there – done that”.

Anonymous December 2, 2017 at 12:05 pm

Sad to say but its just another book about some doper from back in the day when “they were all at it”. Kimmage’s book came out when it was more of a “revelation” and I certainly had an appetite to digest the controversies and the shadowy characters. Today, I cannot be bothered, things and time moves on and frankly I won’t waste my hard earned. As long as theres a finish line and a prize there will always be those who seek to gain advantage.

E_Pi December 3, 2017 at 7:33 am

But since the cycling community has convinced itself that ‘they’re all still at it’ and that nothing less than a communist-style permanent revolution of the rules and regulations will suffice, perhaps doing away with finish lines and prizes will be seen as completely reasonable.

Anonymous December 3, 2017 at 9:37 am

Eight riders have failed anti-doping tests on samples taken from riders during the 2017 Vuelta a Colombia in August, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) confirmed on Tuesday.
In a brief statement, the UCI said that seven of the eight failed a test for blood booster CERA EPO.
The eighth rider failed a test for anabolic androgenic steroids 19-noretiocholanolone and 19-norandrosterone.

Michael B December 3, 2017 at 1:18 pm

Dekker comes across as pretty self-absorbed and unlikeable before, during and after his pro career. He treats his family and girlfriend as badly as anyone.

The Boogerd hotel room anecdotes are pretty funny in a grim way, although I know Boogerd disputes a lot of events. Rasmussen seems as weird as ever.

One of the low points is when Slipstream give him a second chance. He’s all warm words and fake commitment before sneaking off with strippers all night and making the same excuses all over again. I just didn’t like him by that point.

Brian Riley December 5, 2017 at 8:02 pm

I have always wondered why Armstrong confessed. Why.

Sam December 6, 2017 at 2:42 pm

Because he miscalculated that a confession on Oprah would be the foundation for speedy forgiveness on the part of the public, and a welcome back into the fold of the celebrity embrace.

It back-fired.

J Evans December 6, 2017 at 4:32 pm


Dan December 6, 2017 at 2:15 pm

It’s a good book. Yes, it’s a quick read, but it explains a lot about the drive and desire to reach the top quite often being a greed; an insatiable hunger for the power, wealth and reputation. That hunger is alive and well, given the continuing doping infractions.

Dekker makes no excuses for his behaviour. Miller’s book in comparison is the tale of a little lost boy who was a victim of the Sport.

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