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.
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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