CALPE, Spain (VN) — Thomas Dekker is the latest rider on the comeback trail from a high-profile doping case. He was once hailed as the future superstar in Holland, but his world came tumbling down in 2009 when he tested positive for EPO in a test dating back to 2007.
Dekker’s tale is similar to others who have returned, such as Ivan Basso, Alexander Vinokourov or Alejandro Valverde, but what’s different is that it’s with one of cycling’s “clean teams” at Garmin-Barracuda.
And Dekker has been completely open about his past and equally frank about his hopes and fears for the future.
Dekker, 27 this year, was given a lifeline by Garmin boss Jonathan Vaughters. The pair originally had conversations years ago, but Vaughters was wary of Dekker’s inconsistent biological passport numbers.
They stayed in touch and Vaughters decided to give Dekker a second chance, but only if he agreed to conform to the team’s strong anti-doping ethics.
Dekker jumped at the chance and rejoined Garmin’s development team midway through last season when his two-year ban ended, but only raced the Tour of Portugal, a grueling, climb-heavy race where Dekker was less-than-impressive.
Dekker’s one-year deal wasn’t struck until November, after Dekker had a heart-to-heart talk with his new teammates and promised he was on the right path and would not betray their trust.
VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood sat down with Dekker during the team’s training camp this week in Spain. Here’s what he had to say:
VN.com: How does it feel to be back at a top pro team after so much drama in your life?
Thomas Dekker: It’s really good to be back, especially in a team like this. It’s a dream come true, getting back to this level, with a team like Garmin-Barracuda, with Jonathan Vaughters, who was always an example for me. In doping, there were no gray areas. It’s the clean team and I am really happy that they gave me a second chance and I am going to try my best to have some good results, work good for the team and see what 2012 brings us.
VN.com: How have you changed from your doping ban to now?
TD: Before I was not living in reality. I was very young and I was making lots of money. I had no one telling me what to do. Now I am realizing more that I made some big mistakes in the past. In the future, I think in six months I can say more about my level or about how I can do in bigger races.
VN.com: How did you first get in contact with Vaughters?
TD: I have already known him for a long time. We had some contact in 2008, when I was still at Rabobank. At that time, my blood passport was not good enough, JV told me that I had made a mistake and I was honest with him. Then I got my positive test and we stayed in contact over the time. In the beginning of 2010, I started a project over the course of 18 months, of blood testing and physiological testing, to see how my level was during my ban. It was always getting better, and JV and I were always honest with each other. In 2011, it was difficult to come back after a ban due to all the bad image in cycling. That’s why I am really thankful he has given me this chance in 2012 to show that I am a good rider and I can ride races without doping.
VN.com: Last year, you came back and raced the Tour of Portugal?
TD: That was the only race I did. There wasn’t a big program with the U-23 team and there were some races that were cancelled. I couldn’t race in the espoirs events because I am 26. I did a lot of small crits in Belgium, to keep me on a certain level. Then in the beginning of October, I did a good physiological test. He invited me to the camp in Boulder in November.
VN.com: So at that point you still didn’t have a contract?
TD: I was still not sure of a contract with the team. It was a hectic period in my head. I didn’t know what the future was for me. So I stood in front of all the guys on the team and told them my story, that I had made a mistake in the past, that I wanted to join the team, to show them that I am a good rider and earn their trust again, the trust of the sponsor, of JV, the riders and the public. That is the main goal of 2012.
VN.com: You admitted to doping, you came public with that, do you regret the mistakes you made?
TD: I was only 25 years old, but the past two years have been so difficult for me. I think I learned more in those two years than I did all my previous years of life. I was living the dream. I turned pro really young with the best Dutch team (Rabobank). I learned about life in these past two years. I was really down, but I learned how to be humble. My family and friends were very supportive of me. I made some mistakes and I learned that is not the right way. I learned a lot about myself. It’s not easy being 25 years old and two days before the Tour de France, everything that you’ve known since you’re 16, all the structure and your life, is taken away for two years. You don’t know how to deal with all that. I chose to fight back and the only goal was to come back with the Garmin-Barracuda team. That’s already achieved, so now I want to race my bike again. I want to prove I am a good rider again.
VN.com: What did you do during your ban?
TD: At first, I was still watching all the races, because I have loved racing since I was four or five years old. Then in the end, it became too hard to watch the races, because you know you were riding races like that. It was also a motivation to come back, to see guys you were beating before they were getting good results. I want to prove to the peloton that I am a good rider.
VN.com: You’ve turned the page on your past and you’re committed to being a clean rider?
TD: I am a new rider, for sure, but I will always be the rider who is known as the rider who doped in the past. People do not forget. That’s the way it will always be for me for the rest of my life. If I can regain the trust, that is my big goal. And that’s why I want to be on this team. This really is the clean team. There are no gray areas on this team. We go for it, we do it without any banned substances. It’s racing the bike, training well, doing things the right way, development, giving young riders a chance. I hope I can also grow with this team.
VN.com: You were a big star in Holland, is it perhaps better for you to come back with a U.S. team like Garmin?
TD: Everyone here is open-minded and friendly. I feel very accepted. I am very open with people, I am honest about the past, I am talking with people. I am thankful I get this second chance. The riders will see that I am trying hard. I do not know what the future brings for results. At this moment, I am happy I can ride the big races again and be part of this team.
VN.com: How is your racing schedule shaping up for the first part of the season?
TD: I will start with the Tour of Qatar, then Haut Var. Maybe I will do Tirreno, but I hope I can show them that I am going to be good enough. That’s a race I won in 2006. There is a team time trial and an individual time trial, so it would be nice to have a week of racing. It’s been a long time since I’ve had that. Then I will race Criterium International, the Basque tour and the Ardennes classics.
VN.com: How would you measure success for your return?
TD: A lot of people have asked me that. To tell the truth, I am just very happy to be back. I have to wait to see how it is when I am back in the races. I have only been training, and especially in the races I like, with uphill and time trials, you need power, you need the depth. You need hard races to get better. The Tour de Suisse in 2009 was the last big race for me. It’s a little bit of a mystery of how I will do.
VN.com: Some riders have come back and won immediately, look at Valverde, he just won in Australia, so do you feel pressure to return and score some big results right away?
TD: For sure, I am hoping for that, that I can win races again. But first of all, I think I will need some time. Valverde was always winning a lot of races. He’s a different kind of rider. I am just focusing on myself, on this team, and see what happens.
VN.com: Have you talked with the team about racing a grand tour this year?
TD: Not yet. We have to see how I will do. It is still my dream to race the Tour de France.