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Thomas Dekker's 'The Descent' book review

13 Apr 2018

As honest as they come, Decker surpasses Tyler Hamilton when it comes to cycling's doping shock factor

Cyclist Rating: 
A brutally honest account of doping in cycling that will leave you wanting more

Doping is cycling's forbidden fruit. We tell ourselves it's behind us and that we are done discussing it. Then it comes up again and we can't help ourselves all over again.

That said, most of us had moved on from discussing the days of Rabobank, Eufemiano Fuentes and Thomas Dekker. That was until the latter released a tell-all book detailing his whirlwind career of cycling and doping in the sport's 'dirtiest' days.

Now with a translation in to English, it is likely this book will thrust the 'D' word straight back in to our consciousness and so it should.

That's because for me, Dekker's The Descent tops Tyler Hamilton's The Secret Race as the most groundbreaking narrative of doping in the professional cycling and is essential reading.

Let me start by pointing out that I'm not saying that doping has disappeared. It clearly hasn't. Dekker references many names that still ring loud in our world of cycling today. Some of them will even be racing this weekend.

But today, we see the era of Armstrong and EPO as the 'bad old days' and in many ways a time we are trying hard to forget. Yet Decker's book thrusts it violently back to the forefront of your mind.

Dekker flanked by Michael Rasmussen and Alexander Vinokourov

Starting from the early days of Dekker's career, when he was all-conquering junior in the Netherlands, the book takes you on the same downward spiral experienced by Dekker as he falls from grace into an early retirement.

I won't regale you with the stories that Dekker graphically takes you through in the book – simply read it yourself for that. It always sounds better from the author's mouth anyway.

But some instances do stand out. Most memorable among those are Dekker trying to self-administer a blood bag before racing the Tour of the Basque Country, and the rider's first dealings with disgraced doping doctor Ufe Fuentes.

The descriptions are so graphic they are almost nauseating but you never stop reading. You always want to turn the next page.

At times, the situations almost seem fictional so outlandish are they, and at many points you find yourself struggling to fathom how this actually happened. Reminding yourself that it did is to remind yourself just how messed up professional cycling was (and, some might argue, could still be).

The writing quality is a little rough around the edges, although much of that could be due to the material having been translated from Dutch, but you get the feeling of this having been written as if Dekker was talking to you over a beer.

And that's not a bad thing – if anything it reinforces the raw honesty and truth that are clearly driving these stories.

A recurring theme you will experience reading this book is that of whether you like Dekker.

This has become a well-thumbed book in the Cyclist office and one of the first points of discussion – after the inevitable 'blimey, they really did take a lot of drugs' debate – is how the events that are detailed in The Descent reflect on the man at the centre of it all.

Dekker clearly lived a playboy lifestyle. Jet-setting from races to European party destinations, he lived life to the full, surrounding himself with cars, women and money. He knew he was a good cyclist and he decided to exploit that. 

The tone of his writing (or through ghostwriter Thijs Zonneveld at least) is one of confidence that borders on arrogance. You never forget how full of himself Dekker is, even when he talks about his fall from the top.

Ultimately, it's a book that leaves you either loving or hating its protagonist. Personally, I enjoyed what I saw as Dekker's boyish charm and I couldn't help but feel sorry for the Dutchman as he recounts how he seemingly fell further and further away from his dream.

But other colleagues said they couldn't get past the arrogant selfishness of someone who still after all these years is willing to find excuses for his own mistakes. Of course it doesn't help that for many, Dekker and his story embody why an era of pro cycling they wish they could remember fondly is now one they'd much rather forget. 

Either way, at £8.99 any fan of pro cycling is unlikely to pick up a more enthralling read.

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