Book Review: “Descent” by Thomas Dekker

In the late summer of 2005, Lance Armstrong had just won an unprecedented 7th Tour de France, a feat that will likely never be duplicated. As the professional peloton weaved its way through the Paris streets for the final stage of the tour, I rode side by side with a newly encountered neighbor on our local bike paths. We discussed many topics concerning the recent grand tour and came to the conclusion that it seemed impossible that Armstrong was winning clean. “Dope and cycling go together like coffee and cigarettes man,” exclaimed my new acquaintance. In the years that followed, some of the biggest names in cycling would be associated with doping scandals and positive tests, reinforcing the validity of the words spoken on that summer’s day in 2005.

I am a fan of the professional peloton–the races, the history and the gutsy performances in harsh conditions. I will set my alarm on the weekends of the spring classics to make sure I don’t miss a minute of these iconic races. I am also a skeptic and a realist, and if something appears inhuman, my brain immediately calls it into question. Let’s face it, professional cycling hasn’t exactly had the best track record for fair play, and with so many of the stars of the sport associated with doping, it’s hard to believe that any are winning in an honest way.

The same year that Armstrong was shattering records, a young Thomas Dekker was turning professional for the Dutch Rabobank team. The young Dekker wasted no time establishing himself as rider to be reckoned with. Winning the national time trial championship in his first year as a pro, Dekker was quickly on his way to becoming one of cycling’s young stars. In the years to come, victories would continue to come with ease for Dekker, but his ego and temptations to become one of the best would eventually sabotage his career.

In his autobiography, “Descent,” Dekker reveals the secrets he hid from his friends and family. He gives a glimpse into the cloak and dagger lifestyle of a professional cyclist trying to stay one step ahead of the competition and authorities. I will say, for those that are not naive to the history of the sport, there is nothing shocking revealed on the subject of doping in this book. Tyler Hamilton’s “Secret Race” blew the lid off of any ambiguity about what the doping culture is like in the professional peloton. If anything, it feels like Dekker held back a little bit. Perhaps he’s protecting old teammates, doctors and friends whose careers could be ruined, but the sort ignorance to which he describes team directors and soigneurs seems improbable.

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What “Descent” lacks in jaw dropping facts on the subject of doping, it makes up for in wild escapades and death defying moments in Dekker’s life off the bike. From wild nights with women and booze to car crashes and depression, Dekker’s story reads more like that of a troubled rock star than one of the world’s elite athletes. From the opening chapters, Dekker sets a tone that he was barely a likeable personality. His cockiness and his manipulative nature to get what he wanted sets the stage for his demise through doping.

“Descent,” while a troubling read, is also a fast and enjoyable one. The absurdity of Dekker’s nightlife exploits coupled with his talent on the bike takes you on fast-paced ride from the top of the world to the dirtiest backstreet gutters. While the doping tarnished his career as a professional, Dekker proved that it is not impossible to win as a clean athlete in the professional peloton. His first big wins as a professional were without the aid of performance enhancing drugs, and upon his return from his two-year ban he proved to himself and to the world that he could still win without the aid of drugs. Dekker robbed himself of what was sure to be a long and successful career. His natural talents were enough to sustain and win in the pro peloton, but he was betrayed by his own ego. “Descent” is another in a long line of lessons for aspiring pros–the cheats eventually get caught and there is little that can replace natural talent.

 

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Book Review: “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil” by Tom Mueller

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Author Tom Mueller begins this wonderful tale by documenting the rich and fascinating history of extra virgin olive oil through the millennia. According to Greek legend, the goddess Athena bestowed a gift onto the people when she struck her spear on the ground and it turned into an olive tree.

The people were thankful, indeed. In addition to using olive oil for food and cooking, the ancients burned it in their lamps for lighting, anointed themselves in it during religious ceremonies and concocted healing ointments with it. Olive oil was so much a part of ancient life that it was one of the earliest forms of widely accepted currency. How’s that for liquidity?

The health benefits of extra virgin olive oil have buoyed the popularity of this magical elixir to this day. The centerpiece of the Mediterranean diet, extra virgin olive oil is chock full of polyphenols, which have been shown have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Good fat, indeed.

But what’s on the label may not match what’s inside the bottle. The centerpiece of Mueller’s tome is the light he shines on a shadowy underworld big oil, big money and big fraud. The author’s thorough and detailed research reveals a worldwide conspiracy of food fraud that boggles the mind in its scope and scandalous nature.

Because of rampant fraud, supermarket shelves are festooned with counterfeit extra virgin. Lesser-grade oil is blatantly passed off as extra virgin, and sometimes olive oil is illegally diluted with canola, soy or other oils. Studies have shown nearly two-thirds of oil on USA supermarket shelves labeled “extra virgin” failed to meet the international and U.S. standards for the extra virgin grade. Sadly, the counterfeit oils are typically devoid of the tremendous health benefits of authentic extra virgin.

Amidst all the corruption there is a glimmer of hope. Ever-increasing numbers of smaller, artisanal olive oil producers are popping up to fill the demand for the real thing. Mueller provides tips on what to look for when shopping for extra virgin so that you have a fighting chance of getting the real thing. The author’s website extravirginity.com is also a fertile source of information.

[Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Bicycle Times issue #28, published in April 2014.]

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