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The last few decades have spawned a trove of juicy material for cycling journalists. In 2012 and 2013, writing about Lance Armstrong became a cottage industry, while a multitude of doping scandals found their way to the stands of bookstores. On the other end of the spectrum you have memoirs written by cyclists that are often so dry or self-congratulatory that only the most diehard fans can appreciate them.
However, Thomas Dekker’s new book Mijn Gevecht, or My Fight, written with Thijs Zonneveld of the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad, has something that one rarely comes across in a cycling memoir — vulnerability.
It’s hard to say how Dekker and Zonneveld came to write this book, and perhaps the title comes more from their “fight” of setting the events to paper. Recently, on the Netherlands’ most popular talk show, De Wereld Draai Door, Dekker sat glumly at a table with Zonneveld while the presenter, a cycling enthusiast, bemoaned that the book had permanently ruined his view of cycling — the beauty, the majesty, the memories of summers watching the Tour all thrown out the window with the reality that Dekker and Zonneveld portray. In particular, readers will be shocked by many passages about sex, drugs, prostitutes, and the hedonistic excessiveness and egotistical drive that it takes to succeed in pro cycling.
When Zonneveld asked the presenter, “Would you rather we didn’t put it in there?” the presenter thought about it and said finally, “Yes, I wish you hadn’t.”
The theme is simple enough — a young innocent boy with big dreams gets sucked into the dark, destructive forces of celebrity. It could be the Dutch Rabobank team just as much as the Dallas Cowboys. Each chapter is a conscious move toward the final stage of self-destruction, and when the end arrives, the reader, too, feels ruined. I have no doubt that the book was structured close to a Hollywood script so that movie offers would follow, at least in Holland.
But what makes Mijn Gevecht stand out from the multitude of cardboard memoirs is Dekker’s voice, which I can only hope is as authentic as it feels. Mijn Gevecht is not a tell-all, but it does indeed feel as if he is telling all, every wart and blemish. The situations he describes are stranger than fiction, such as the first time he meets his hero, Steven de Jongh; they’re assigned a hotel room together, and De Jongh quickly turns on pay-per-view porn. He tosses Dekker a towel, and tells him they’re going to masturbate together, which they do. Welcome to professional cycling.
Dekker tells of sitting in a caravan with his dad, watching his idol Michael Boogerd climb at the Tour de France. Then, a few years later, spending 3500 euros with the same man in Yab Yum, the most notorious brothel in Amsterdam. It’s not the first nor the last time they stay up late before a race, drinking, taking drugs, and having sex with prostitutes. There are also Dekker’s repeated sexual encounters with Ivan Basso’s sister, Elisa, who was banned for four years by the Italian Olympic Committee for trafficking banned substances, and each encounter marks a new descent into his despair. In one particularly poignant section, Dekker is tested by the UCI for drugs, and he’s not sure if they’ll find the EPO from earlier in the week or the GHB he took the night before while clubbing with Max van Heeswijk.
Perhaps what is hardest to read is when Dekker and his manager, Jacques Hanegraaf, have dinner with Dekker’s mother and father. By this point Dekker has spent much of the book repeatedly explaining how his parents are “dead normal,” northern Dutch in every sense of the word — sober, but deeply devoted and loving. The dinner takes place after Dekker’s first year, a successful one, and Hanegraaf tells his’ parents that he wants to take their son’s career to the next level.
The implication hangs heavy over the table and under Zonneveld’s hand, the reader is almost sick with angst, for this is precisely the point and place where the common man — not only the passionate fans of cycling, but the parents who have done everything right — are suddenly infected by the diseased morals of a professional sport. Zonneveld artfully describes the pained looks on Dekker’s parents face, the way they are studying their boy, wanting what is best, knowing and not knowing, like we all know and don’t know.
After Dekker’s fast, hard fall from grace, he determines to make everything right. He throws himself at the Garmin team, flies to Colorado, meets the new generation of clean cyclists, quietly scoffs at their naiveté, goes to a strip bar, stays up all night, gets a text from one of the strippers, spends $300 on taxis going out to the far suburb of Lakewood, and makes it back to team camp just as the youngest cyclists are heading to the breakfast buffet.
And this is when Dekker realizes that he self-sabotages, that his behavior is no longer about cycling or winning or his ego. This behavior is about his own self-destruction. It no longer matters that Jonathan Vaughters takes him to meet the owner of Garmin or that, after a night of having sex with strippers, he’s sitting down to sign a contract for $35,000, almost twelve-times less than he had done with Rabobank. What matters is that he has a profound insight into his own character, into the swirling, black psychology of the driven cyclist, and we, the reader, are right there with him.
Dekker also gives us the stories about blood bags, and the shady hotel meetings with his dealers; how he goes to Germany, to a certain pharmacy, where he can get certain drugs. He talks about the checks, the flights to Spain, his own desperate insecurity, which drives him to need exactly what all the best cyclists have, how he salivated as Lance Armstrong boarded a private jet while he waited in line to board coach. He gives us a perspective of Michael Rasmussen that is undeniably weird and chilling, of Erik Breukink chastising him for not being more focused like Boogerd and de Jongh, of his parents and parents’ friends who supported him from the very beginning and through the darkest, most troubling times.
Surely, Dekker’s former teammates will come out and defend their name against this memoir, which is understandable, but pointless. The NBA is made up of flawed athletes and we love them more for it. I was never much a fan of Boogerd during his racing days, but now, I have to admit, I am. Through Dekker’s stories I saw that Boogerd was a friend, a flawed one, but one that nonetheless navigated a corrupt system and helped his friends navigate it as well.
Like Vaughters, I grew up cycling in Colorado. We had a shared friend, one who died in high school, but when we were young we would go on rides up Mount Evans, near his home. I remember our rides clearly. My friend was full of angst and trouble and during the start he would talk endlessly about his problems, but by the time we reached timber-line that same friend was quiet, serene. Cycling was one of the few things that calmed his soul and mine. And sometimes I think we forget that.
Cycling is made up of people whose souls are so tumultuous that they ride until they can ride no longer. The beauty, for me, has always been the flawed overcoming, about the damaged shining and not about the shining damaging. Thomas Dekker has done something brave here, he has opened sutured wounds with the hope that the rot will dry up. And for that alone we should be thankful.
About the author
Erik Raschke is an American writer living in Amsterdam. His work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Buzzfeed, RIDE, De Volkskrant, and Soigneur.