Thomas Dekker strides across the lobby of the Gran Hotel Sol y Mar like a new man. It’s almost an unrecognisable contrast to when Cyclingnews visited him at his home in Belgium on the eve of the Tour de France in 2010.
At the time he was without a team, overweight and serving a two-year ban. Talk of a comeback to the highest echelons of the sport seemed almost unfeasible. However, 18 months on, Dekker has achieved all he set out to do.
Now signed with Garmin-Barracuda, he’s looking towards a new chapter in his career.
“For the next ten years it will always be about the guy who doped but I hope in the end I can earn trust again,” Dekker says. “It’s been a really long road. I still have that house that you interviewed me at, it’s even got some furniture now.”
That road involved several hurdles and while Garmin’s Jonathan Vaughters has always been a fan of the Dutchman, he made the rider sweat and suffer before finally offering him a contract. Dekker even travelled to the team presentation in Boulder before Christmas uncertain over whether he had a deal. With only an hour to go before the squad was presented the two men finally shook hands and in one sense gave closure to negotiations that actually began as far back as 2008.
“All the months and testing, blood controls, working with my managers, there was a lot of stress for me but also for my family. It wasn’t easy going, and they’d ask me if there was news and if I had a contract. It was hard but in a way getting a contract on the dream team was victory in itself,” Dekker says.
“I’m with a clean team where there are no grey areas. Vaughters was the first one to introduce the no-needle policy so it’s totally clear. It’s really nice feeling to be here. Now I hope to talk with my legs.”
While Dekker can finally plan a season of racing back in the professional ranks, he knows that not everything will be easy. After a long break from the top ranks he still has work to do on and off the bike. Part of his arrangement and final contract offer from Vaughters centred on co-operating with WADA. Dekker has complied, sitting down with WADA two weeks ago to discuss his past
“We made a plan. I had a meeting with WADA, the UCI, and the Dutch Federation so I can visit cycling clubs and talk there. We’re planning that schedule now."
The WADA meeting was perhaps the most significant. Dekker would not talk about the specifics, but told Cyclingnews that while he talked about his own past he did not give up names of those who he knew had doped or who had helped him cheat.
“It was pretty serious stuff, talking about my story and what happened in the past. We had a good meeting. I made clear to them what I did. For sure there was an environment in the past but nobody put a gun to my head. I was young and I made a mistake and I was punished for two years. I want to let my legs do the talking now. I can’t discuss the specifics.
“WADA did ask about the environment. In the end it was my decision [to dope]. After the B sample came out I looked at myself in the mirror. Those two years were not easy but I want to look forward now.”
Dekker also stressed that he had no worries over the Human Plasma case that he was embroiled in previously and that his knowledge of developments only came from press reports. The case closed several months ago. Whether cycling takes Dekker’s assertions from that meeting as gospel is open for debate, but assuming he’s being truthful it leaves one important question: does his silence over that matter protect doping and those involved, enforcing omerta?
“I don’t see it that way,” he says. “I know what you mean but I think I’ve helped and I made everything clear to them.”
Dekker’s season will begin at the Tour of Qatar, before moving onto a more traditional race programme that includes Tirreno-Adiratico, Criterium International, the Tour of the Basque Country, the Ardennes and the Tour of Switzerland.
His progression in those races will determine the rest of the year and he’s crossing his fingers that a Tour de France slot is open for him.
“I’m dreaming that they bring me to the Tour. I don’t know what I can do there. It’s difficult to say, especially as we’re only in January, but for me it would just be a dream to come back. It’s the biggest cycling event and just being there would be a victory for me, and would be a sign of starting again in some ways.
“I think I can return to a level of success. That’s just my opinion though. It will take some time though. This year it’s about coming back and learning to suffer again in uphill races, stages races. I need to show Vaughters that he was right to give me a contract and that I’m a good ride who can do something for the team.”