Last week’s news that Chris Froome tested positive for elevated levels of the drug in his allowed asthma medication at this year’s Vuelta a Espana, which he won, once again brought the ghost of doping past to the surface. Froome, the most decorated pro racer of the modern (post-Lance) era, and his Team Sky have faced whispers and more over the past several years.
The team hasdominated in big events, including in Froome’s and Bradley Wiggins‘ Tour de France victories, and the team has been investigated by Britain’s anti-doping agency, which effectively returned a no-sanctions finding despite some rather odd goings-on regarding a specific package shipped to Wiggins before a race, multiple “therapeutic use” exemptions, etc.
It’s no secret that many riders in the pro peloton regularly claim therapeutic use exemptions for otherwise controlled substances, and Froome is a long-time user of salbutamol, the asthma drug that was discovered at twice the allowable concentration in one of Froome’s urine tests during the Spanish Tour, and confirmed by his B sample from that day. The drug requires no medical allowance to use, but its allowable concentration in the body is strictly defined and limited, because it expands lung capacity and is a performance enhancing drug.
Froome faces a ban for the failed doping test, and once again cycling is saddled with the burden of its top rider being not just under suspicion but facing expulsion from the tour. No matter how much it wants to put doping in its past, cycling and its governing body, the UCI, just can’t seem to escape it. (Keep reading the mini-review that follows of a doping memoir from the Operacion Puerto heyday by Rabobank rider Thomas Dekker.)
At least one of Froome’s rivals, though, initially focused more on the process the UCI followed in acknowledging the failed test and the claimed “special status” of Team Sky by the UCI.
Tony Martin took to Facebook to vent his frustration. “I am totally angry,” Martin wrote “There is definitely a double standard being applied in the Christopher Froome case. Other athletes are suspended immediately after a positive test. He and his team are given time by the UCI to explain it all. I do not know of any similar case in the recent past. That is a scandal, and he should at least not have been allowed to appear in the World Championships.
“Not only the public but also I have immediately the impression that there is wheeling and dealing going on behind the scenes, agreements are being made and ways are being sought as to how to get out of this case. Do he and his team enjoy a special status?”
There will be much more to come on this matter, and the sport’s doping past is never further away than the next memoir. Keep reading.
Thomas Dekker’s ‘Descent’ Into Doping
In his award-winning, international bestseller, DESCENT: My Epic Fall from Cycling Superstardom to Doping Dead End (www.velopress.com), Dutch racer Thomas Dekker reveals in sordid detail the lifestyle of professional cyclists during the height of cycling’s EPO and blood doping era.
It was a time (think back to such names as Jan Ulrich and Michael Boogerd and such “national” teams as Rabobank) when sponsorship money, drugs and blood flowed freely in the pro ranks, and riders like Dekker thought nothing of going on booze-fueled benders and hiring hookers in cities across Europe.
Like all riders worthy of the pro peloton, Dekker was a Type-A competitor who rose through the local ranks, winning small-time races in Dutch backwaters and climbing the cycling ladder. At age 20, he was earning €100,000 a year—as an amateur. When Dekker turned pro, signing with Rabobank, his salary quadrupled, then jumped to €900,000 as his talent established him as a super-domestique among Europe’s wealthiest cycling teams.
Before long, though, Dekker found himself corrupted by the money, bedazzled by the fame, and utterly incapable of handling the relentless pressure to perform at the level of hisfellow uber-competitors. “I have success, money, women. I’ve been lionized by the public and the press. The world is at my feet. I’ve spread my wings and here I am, soaring above everything and everyone. But in reality, the descent has already begun.”
As was common for the era, there weren’t more than 2 degrees of separation between a rider and source of doping – the two main types in the early to mid-2000s were EPO (and derivatives) and blood doping (basically, having your own blood drawn, frozen and stored for future use to boost your body’s own ability to perform and endure).
In Dekker’s case, he simply asked a teammate or two for their source, and his own team’s medical staff helped monitor his blood levels to guard against positive tests. In short, unlike on some of the other pro teams that had systemic doping programs, Rabobank riders like Dekker ran their own personal programs. Which meant, unscheduled trips to fly to visit the “vampires” who surreptitiously took his blood in a foreign hotel where it was not at all unusual to see other pro riders haunting the same hallways. (Dekker was, in fact, caught up in the Operacion Puerto scandal and served a 2-year ban in the middle of his career.)
The book makes crystal clear that Dekker was a self-indulgent (to put it mildly) and self-destructive character from the beginning. Adding the sauce of money, sex, fast cars, fame – and enough success to want more of it all – only added to the seeming inevitability of his personal outcome.
Descent is a fascinating character study, as much about what money and fame and competitiveness can do to a person lavished with all those things long before he has the emotional ability to handle any of them. Add a healthy dose of self-loathing, and you have Thomas Dekker in the midst of the pro cycling peloton’s Wild West doping days of the 2000s.
The book is barely over 200 pages and a quick and entertaining read.