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Left stranded without a contract at just 30 years of age, Thomas Dekker has staked everything on an all or nothing bid to break cycling’s world hour record. Although his recent record against the clock is not as good as that of some of the other riders who will try to surpass Matthias Brandle’s 51.852 kilometres, Dekker has two things going for him which could give him the edge.
The first is his total commitment to trying to set a new mark; the other hour record riders want to put their names in the history books, but he needs to. He is conscious that a successful attempt would put him in the frame for a very late contract, giving him a platform to secure a team despite the new season already being underway.
The second factor is a more quantifiable one: that of altitude. When news emerged this week of his bid, the biggest surprise was the disclosure that his end of February attempt will be done at the Aguascalientes velodrome in Mexico. Situated just under 1900 metres above sea level, he is clear that significant advantages could be derived if things work out.
“Normally the facts speak for themselves. Nine of the fifteen world records on the track are in Aguascalientes and normally with the altitude, despite there being less oxygen, it is one of the fastest tracks in the world,” Dekker told CyclingTips in an exclusive interview. “I think it is a big benefit.”
The Dutchman is surprisingly frank about his need to search out an edge. “To be honest, a guy like Rohan Dennis showed in the last years that he is a better cyclist than me, especially in the time trial. He also has much more track experience. So one of my only chances is to get it over there because I have the advantage of the altitude while he is doing it in Grenchen, the track of BMC.”
Dekker spoke at length to CyclingTips on Friday, talking about his hour record bid and what he will do to prepare for it, but also opening up about a number of other topics. He talks about the disappointing way his period with Garmin-Sharp ended and why he feels the team management did not treat him fairly in the way that was handled, discusses his doping suspension and return to cycling afterwards, and also talks about his future, the uncertainty about a contract and his acceptance that his career is very much at a crossroads.
Into thin air: buckling the modern trend in his hour record attack:
Dekker’s decision to go to altitude contrasts the other current bids but follows the example set by Eddy Merckx and Francesco Moser when they set their own records in 1972 and 1984 respectively. Merckx won five Grand Tours as well as numerous other races, but described his record bid at altitude as the most difficult ride of his career. Dekker knows it is a gamble but is determined to get his build-up right and use the thinner air as leverage for success.
CyclingTips: Riding the hour record puts a strain on the body, but doing so at altitude adds extra demands. How long do you think it will take you to acclimatise?
Thomas Dekker: To get 99 percent used to it, it will take around two weeks. In the third week and the fourth week, you are improving still at one percent, and after five weeks you are totally adapted. But I hope 99 percent is enough…I’ll go two weeks before.
CT: Before then, what will you do as your build-up?
TD: I have just arrived in Greece for a training camp. I don’t know exactly what I am going to do after the hour attempt, but I am focussing now 100 percent on this. This is the only thing I can do.
After the camp I will have two weeks at my home in Belgium. I will be training on the track and on the road there before going to Mexico. I still don’t know exactly the date [of the record attempt].
CT: Do you have any idea what distance is possible to get at altitude? Is there any way to calculate that at this point in time?
TD: No. The record is now on 51.8 kilometres and then we have Bobridge and Rohan Dennis, the Australian guys who are doing it at the end of January and the beginning of February.
I really don’t know. I am going to be more than two weeks in Mexico and so we can probably do some testing over there. I don’t know what those guys are going to set the world record, but I will just do my best and do everything for it. That is the most important thing.
CT: So what if one of them does a high distance and you do the calculations in Mexico and the record looks unlikely? Will you keep going with your bid?
TD: Yeah, I am always going to do it.
“It is bad if you have to read on Twitter that you don’t have a contract”
Dekker clocked up countless strong results in the early part of his career, including overall victories in the 2006 Tirreno-Adriatico and the 2007 Tour de Romandie. However a retrospective test carried out on a sample from December 2007 led to him being popped for EPO and he served a lengthy ban.
After that suspension he returned to competition in 2011 with the Garmin-Chipotle development team, and then signed a contract with the Garmin WorldTour team for 2012. He remained there until the end of this season.
He was ultimately not retained by the team. He says that the official CPA/AIGCP joint agreement rules were not followed by his team, which should have informed him in writing by September 30 if he had to look elsewhere.
Ironically that agreement was negotiated and signed by Garmin-Sharp CEO Jonathan Vaughters when he was head of the AIGCP, the teams’ association.
CT: Is it true that your first indication that Garmin-Sharp wouldn’t renew your contract was when you saw a Tweet on Twitter about it? (Note: Vaughters was asked on social media if he was going to retain Dekker, to which he answered no).
TD: Yes, that was the first information I got. In fact, until now – and we are heading towards halfway through January – I still didn’t hear anything official about it from the team.
CT: Presumably that was frustrating, having been part of the squad for several years and riding for others in that time?
TD: Yes. When I came back from my suspension, I probably didn’t bring what I had to bring. I was not the rider from before my suspension. But in the last months of the team…in June, I did one race for myself, the Ster ZLM Toer, and I finished fifth there. Then I did Utah, Colorado, England, Lombardia and Beijing, so there were two months working for the team.
We won Utah, we were second in Colorado, we won England, we won Lombardia, we won two stages in Beijing and were second in the classification. I did my work for the team there.
It is always a bad situation if you have to read on Twitter that you don’t have a contract, or if you don’t hear anything from your team. Nobody deserves that. After how I came back in cycling with Jonathan, it is a strange way…if you have a three year relationship with somebody and a team and if everything going well, the team is having good results and you don’t know anything about your own situation, it is pretty strange.
CT: There is a September 30 deadline under which riders have to be told if they are not being retained. Two other Garmin-Sharp riders have told us that was not done for them…
TD: Yes, if you talk about UCI rules, it is still not allowed [to not notify riders]. Until now I never received an official letter or anything saying that I am not in the team any more. The only thing I got an email that I had to give my bike back. That was all.
It is so easy for a team like that [to act properly]. I am 30 years old, I am grown up, I have been through a lot of shitty situations. So just give me a phone call and say you are not in the team any more…do it in an adult way.
Suspension and return: two distinct careers
Since coming back to the sport, Dekker’s results have been more muted than before. His performances contrast markedly with the highs of the past which are in some ways reassuring. In contrast, other riders have returned from drug bans and quickly returned to their former level. To many this suggests a return to the old ways of behaving.
Whether or not that is the case, Dekker’s results make it likely that he has kept his nose clean. He explains that there are a number of factors why he wasn’t ever seriously tempted to cross the line again.
CT: You had a pretty solid year in 2012, after your return, and then it has been a little quieter since then. Is that drop in results a reflection of morale, not training, of working for others, or what is it?
TD: Well, you live for your sport because it is still a hard sport. So you have to do a pretty big effort [to be competitive]. But if you don’t get the results after being used to getting results in the past, it is difficult to stay on the same level of motivation.
I feel like I had a really fun time with the team, we had a lot of cool guys there and I had some really nice friendships with those guys.
And also my team-mates…some of them had really nice results, so I was always happy for them. But my own personal success was not there any more.
CT: Some riders come back from suspensions and say they have changed but the results are exactly the same as before or maybe even better. In contrast, it is pretty obvious that you have two careers and things are different. Is it difficult for a rider in that situation to do the right thing and to say, ‘okay, I am not going to be tempted again…’
TD: No, for me it was not really difficult. I have been really deep [down –ed.] in the two years that I was out. And it is not only about me, it is my family, my friends, the people who are supporting me. So I never had that choice for me. It was not even a choice to think about doping again. I am happy in general in life and I am blessed that I did so many beautiful races.
Personally, I didn’t get the results. It is hard, but I think I still had some really nice results without cheating. I won most of my professional races in the past without doping. I was one of the most talented riders. It is more like a mindset where you start choosing wrong things or you just choose the way you are doing it at this moment.
CT: For those of us watching on the sidelines, it is somewhat reassuring to see a rider come back from a suspension and have different results than before…
TD: Yeah, we could talk about this for hours. In general, how do they [certain other riders] all use doping in the past and yet still have the same results now? It is a peculiar question, no?
CT: It takes mental strength to come back and resist the temptation…it seems a good example, accepting lesser results rather than doing what others have done and possibly succumbed again to doping.
TD: I think there is also a different culture in Holland. I would never go on the street again if something happened to me, but I think other countries have a different mentality.
You can blame them, everybody has raced in a different way, but it is not my thing to make the same mistake again.
CT: So do you believe the sport is better now?
TD: It is 100 percent better than when I started professional. But for sure there is still doping involved, like in every other sports, in politics, in banking. It is all the same if you can earn money, if you get success, if you get attention.
I have this mindset now for myself. But if I had never been caught positive, I would probably still do the same things.
CT: Because it is a difficult mindset to break out of?
TD: Yes, yes.
CT: What results are you most proud of while racing as a clean rider?
TD: Well, I won a lot of races in the under 23 category and juniors. I won like 43 professional races. From the 43 professional races, I think 30 races are 100 percent clean. Not even the mindset of doping. So I am still proud of my career. I know that I was really talented.
Sometimes things in life go different than they did before.
Uncertain future, but desire to race again
Dekker is a month and a half away from his bid and faces uncertainty about whether or not he will be crowned as the new hour record holder after that. What’s even more uncertain is whether or not he will have a future in cycling beyond that point. Currently at a career crossroads, he admits that he has no idea what will happen next.
Despite that, he sounds like he has some peace of mind at this precise point in time. He’s immersed in the process of being as good as he can at the end of February. That’s the only thing he can try to control right now; the cards will fall the way they will fall after that.
He can’t control the future, only influence it.
CT: You have the hour record coming up next. After that, do you think it is still possible to get a team?
TD: I don’t know. I know only one thing, that I can prepare myself 100 percent for this thing. After that, if there is still something in cycling, I would love to do it.
After three years with Garmin and now training for this thing, I feel kind of released. I feel good on the bike, I am happy again. It is a different Thomas than the years before. Maybe it is a good thing that I don’t have a contract right now, I don’t know.
CT: You are still a relatively young rider at 30 years of age. Do you still feel you have more to give?
TD: Yeah, I love to ride my bike and I still have a lot of fun. I would love to do this for a few years.
I hope there is something more. I am feeling really good, to be honest…