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Cult hero: Laurens ten Dam

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Photographs: Marthein Smit

This is a story about a professional rider who showed up at the Tour of the Mediterranean in 2013 without telling his team that he’d have a journalist in tow for the whole season. It hadn’t struck him as something important that a member of the press would be following him. He’d mentioned it in passing, perhaps, but nothing more. It seemed like a good idea to him, so he went with it.


Fast forward to the end of the year, and we’re in a car at the World Championships in Florence. On the drive back to the hotel he drops the bomb: “Hey, my book’s coming out.” His agent’s a relaxed guy, a former pro rider himself. He knows that this is how cycling works – mostly off the cuff. “What book?” he enquires, intrigued. “The one I wrote with the journalist who followed me for the year and who took all my blood and ADAMS data.” Cue laughter and a lot of swearing.


Laurens ten Dam is like that. Blithe is perhaps not the right adjective for a fiercely competitive cyclist who was good enough to stay in the top five for much of last year’s Tour de France, but he’s about as far removed from the archetype of a modern professional athlete as you can get. The Belkin rider is proud of what he does and feels lucky to be able to do it, but there are no airs and graces, or sense of self-importance. He’s just a guy who likes to ride his bike. So someone showed an interest in his career and wanted to write a book – where was the harm?


“The first race he went to was the Tour of the Med. We went together to the airport at Charleroi, and the team directors were there and they didn’t know about it!” A smile suggests he’s not completely unaware of the importance of a decision like teaming up with a journalist. “At first they were…” he makes a curious expression, “but then we talked about it and they liked the project too.


“The book is my story and it’s my opinions on things. It’s not about other people. You can’t be speaking in a team and then the next year it’s in a book. If it was like that then no one would speak anymore. I didn’t make any changes about the things he said about me, but we were careful to respect other people. I think that’s fair, no? It’s my book and my decision, they didn’t make that decision to be totally open.”


It says a lot about Ten Dam that he’d think like that. That he’d let a journalist shadow him for the season. That he’d agree with him about it being important to show his ADAMS – the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Anti-Doping Administration and Management System to give it the full title – data to an impartial third party. There’s probably nothing a cyclist can do these days to convince everyone that he’s riding clean, but allowing someone unrestricted access to your life and handing over every scrap of medical data that you have to some stranger in a lab is as close as you’re going to get.


“When I started cycling and I went to my first national championships, Robin van der Kloor was the guy who won – it was the only race he ever won. Two years after the juniors he stopped, but that day he just rode away from the rest of us – I hesitated a little – and he won. So I never forgot his name. If you have to win one race, it’s good to win the nationals.


“Then two years ago, he got in touch and we did an article for a magazine or something like that. I think we went for a beer in Maastricht, my home town, in my local bar. Then last November he approached me again, we went for another beer and he asked me to do a book. I had to think about it for a little bit but I decided to say yes. I wanted to be totally open, to show the people all the effort I put in to be as good as I am.


“Cycling in Holland had just exploded – Rabobank pulled the trigger. They just pulled the pin.” Ten Dam feigns a laugh here but it’s obviously still a tender subject. As he saw it, he’d gone from hard-working hero to a miserable cheat in the blink of an eye.


“In the famous words of Bert Bruggink, Rabobank’s CFO, they thought that ‘cycling was rotten to the bone’. That’s not nice to hear when you’re in the business.


“I’ve been at the team for five years, since 2008, and all these things that happened were all before then: the USADA report, Levi Leipheimer saying he bought EPO from someone at the team, Rasmussen – it was all before 2008. But people look at me because every day when I’m at home, I’m out riding my bike in Rabobank clothes. I used to be really proud of that – it was almost like the Dutch national team. When I turned pro I was really happy, it was a dream come true, but in the Netherlands it also had a little bit of status, you know? Like a football player. But then suddenly I felt the change. It was like being a banker – they also used to be proud of what they did, I suppose. With all the scandals, suddenly I wasn’t proud anymore, I was almost ashamed. I was wondering what my neighbours were thinking when I passed the house. I even go training in the snow, on my mountain bike, but they maybe saw me and just thought ‘oh, there’s a doper’ or ‘he’s a cheat’.”


In many ways, Rabobank was the whole sport in microcosm. The team’s reputation – and by association, the bank’s brand – had taken a hammering in recent years, but by the time any action was taken, those most culpable had left. Michael Rasmussen had dragged Rabo through the mud but after the Dane’s expulsion from the 2007 Tour de France there was a sea change on the Dutch side.


Theo de Rooij and most of his management staff left in disgrace after the Rasmussen debacle and things went in a better, cleaner direction. Under de Rooij, doping had been a deliberate medical decision, to use his phrasing, but with new management came new ideas. There were still rumours, particularly about Denis Menchov and Dr. Michele Ferrari, but if we were to pay attention to all of the speculation and the Chinese whispers that surrounds this sorry sport, there’d be very little left untainted.


If 2007 was the high-water mark for Rabo, it was not until the flood receded that the damage became clearer. Thomas Dekker admitted to doping repeatedly after being caught in 2009 by a retroactive test taken in 2007 – as always, he’d stopped using PEDs by the time he signed for Rabobank.


Michael Boogerd, one of the Netherlands’ most popular riders, also finally stopped denying using EPO and blood transfusions throughout his career. The hits kept coming, and the bank’s image had taken a pounding. It was regrettable, they might have lamented, that it was now a different generation of riders paying the price, but they’d had enough.


Ten Dam’s book comes in reaction to that, perhaps. It’s a voice to the ordinary riders who are unwilling to be collateral damage and nothing more. But it isn’t just another rider protesting his innocence. He’s done more than that. He was willing to open up his world to someone else’s conclusions.


Van der Kloor, for his part, isn’t your typical sports journalist. He has written about cycling in the past, but right now he’s an education correspondent for a Dutch newspaper. This is worth mentioning because, while he’s a cycling fan, he’s not reliant on the sport for his livelihood, nor did he come to the undertaking with vested, long-term interests or relationships he was keen to protect. In the past, those understandable human frailties were key to so much of cycling’s murkier details staying out of the public domain, but they are not at work here. We spoke on the phone.


“It was a big project. I followed him almost exactly one year. It started in October when we talked about how the sport was doing and I asked him if I could follow him. He said he’d been thinking about doing the same kind of thing, so it all came together.


“When we were younger, he started cycling just as I decided to quit. We just cycled together for a season, but he’s been in my mind because I think he’s the only one of us who became a pro. Then when I moved to Maastricht I just contacted him because I think he’s an interesting rider and I wanted to do something with him.”


That something soon developed into a book, as the fallout from Lance Armstrong finally giving up his ridiculous lie shook the sport to its foundation.


“I wasn’t shocked by the USADA report,” muses Robin, “it was just strange to see how people judged cycling. I knew that other sports were probably doing the same, but cycling was more in the picture. I’m not saying it irritated me, but it was certainly a negative feeling. Then when I was talking to Laurens and he was telling me how much he thought the sport had changed … it was painful to see the sport suffering this much from the problems that had happened years ago.”


But if it was painful for Robin to observe, then it must have been hell on earth for any rider living through it.


“Instead of being proud of myself I was feeling ashamed,” says Ten Dam, with a mixture of anger and sadness. “If it had stayed with all that shit, I wouldn’t have lasted. I would have quit. That’s why I agreed to do the book with Robin and to put everything on paper. I wanted to show how cycling has changed, the whole culture.


“Take the no needle policy; of course I used to use needles, but that was the culture of the time. Now it’s not allowed and the team doesn’t do it anymore. That’s just how it was: you were allowed to, so you did it. I wasn’t like I phoned my mum, proud that I had a needle in my arm. It was a little bit…  It’s like David Millar says in his book, the first time with the recuperation medication, you’re like, ‘what’s happening?’ I never took the step further like Dave did, but as he said, the step between needle and no needle, recuperation or no recuperation, was actually bigger than it was between recuperation and dope, because then it was just something else going in.


“For me, it was still one step too far so I just found my own way. I wasn’t the biggest rider but I earned good money. Now it’s stopped and cycling’s getting better and my results are also quite good. It’s a lot nicer to be a cyclist now, because you’re on more of a level playing field. But the public doesn’t always see that and last winter was really not nice. I was embarrassed to be a cyclist. When I went to the farmers’ market in the centre of Maastricht, if I was wearing a Rabobank jacket, people would be telling me to take it off.”


The bank’s official statement was a stinging, albeit disingenuous, indictment of the sport. “We are no longer convinced,” it read, “that the international professional world of cycling can make this a clean and fair sport. We are not confident that this will change for the better in the foreseeable future.”


Rich stuff coming from an organisation that had profited greatly from its long association with the team and from cycling in general. It’s impossible to think that they weren’t aware of cycling’s problems. A blind eye was turned when it suited, and when it was no longer possible to ignore the enormity of the problem, like so many others – journalists, fans, sponsors, everyone – they simply pleaded ignorance. It was also more than a little hypocritical considering the bank’s current problems. There have been fines and resignations and the Dutch finance minister is calling for criminal prosecutions relating to the fact that it had been manipulating benchmark interest rates for years. One wonders when we’ll see a statement clarifying exactly what’s clean and fair about using $300 trillion of financial assets to defraud ordinary people…


It’s a happy twist of fate, then, that the cycling team now looks more reputable than the organisation that dropped it. Belkin, formerly Blanco, had a terrific season given the circumstances and Ten Dem was right at the heart of it.


“Blanco was a fresh start. It was a good year, and with Belkin we found a new sponsor. The journalists in Holland say that we gave back cycling to the people, because before, people didn’t like it anymore because of all the shit. That was the biggest compliment we could get. I got so many comments from people too, saying thanks for the Tour. When I walk around Maastricht now, compared to six months ago, it’s totally different. I was like this” – expressive as ever, Laurens mimics hiding himself in a coat – “and now I can’t walk around without meeting fans. It’s really nice to be a pro cyclist again.


“When me and Bauke [Mollema] starting doing really well in the Tour, public opinion changed liked that,” a click of the fingers. “The journalists changed liked that.”


Robin saw the metamorphosis in the Netherlands first-hand.


“Everything was just forgotten. I think that’s because they look like friendly, normal Dutch guys. They seem to be fairly honest. I mean, take someone from the past like Riccardo Riccò: you could see he was a pain in the ass. The same for Lance Armstrong, he was never a nice guy. So I think one of the reasons it was quick to change was because of their character. I think if they’d been riding that good but with some black, negative ambiance around them, it wouldn’t be the same.


“Even with me, I think I’m less sceptical because of Laurens. Before I wasn’t sure that they’d be able to change the sport, but speaking to Laurens I’ve seen the human side of the sport. I mean, it’s only one rider so I can’t speak for everyone, but I got really close to him and I’ve heard all about his life and seen he’s a normal guy and I think that made me less doubtful.


“Rabobank was always a strange thing, because they rode in orange and some people thought it was a national team, a fully Dutch team, and I don’t think they were critical in the same way with Rabo as they were with say, Vacansoleil.


“I think now that the orange is gone and they’re in green and black, Dutch people will identify with the team less. That’s not to say they’ll identify with the Dutch riders less, but a lot of people thought that Rabobank was their team – that they owned it a little bit. I think cycling here is already recovering, but it’s less emotional this time because of that change. The team was there for 17 years and thousands of people go riding in that shirt, but I’m not sure if they’re all going to buy the Belkin shirt.”


It does seem a shame that that close connection has been lost, but if the romance gives way to honesty and realism, it might not be a bad thing. Part of the reason that the sport’s in the state it’s in is because everything and everyone are so closely tied together. ‘Us against them’ is a key component in why people observe an Omertà, whether you’re a mafia boss, a pro cyclist… or a journalist.


“Sure I knew things about certain riders,” says Laurens. “I didn’t say anything because, well, it’s like if you’ve got a good friend who’s cheating on his girlfriend or his wife: do you tell her? They make a choice, fine, it’s theirs. I make my own choices and I didn’t do it. I’m like that, but as well, I’m really happy that I have strong people behind me, like my wife and my family.


“My wife said to me – I’m not sure if this is in the book – ‘once I know you’re cheating, I’m out’. At that point we weren’t married yet, but she said she didn’t want to live with a cheater. She explained it to me – she’s a teacher – that in between lessons, she’s all together with her colleagues in a teachers’ room and that they congratulate her on my results. If she knew I was cheating, how could she be there, listening to those people? I was like, ‘Fuck, yeah, she’s right,’ you know? And now I have a son – when he goes to school he’ll be able to be proud of his dad.


“I can’t prove I never used. But I gave all my values to the journalist who passed it to the professor. He said that he couldn’t say I used, but he couldn’t say I didn’t use either. It’s like that with the biological passport. That’s the problem with it. I gave them everything but it’s still impossible to prove.
“I put everything on the table. Everything he wanted to talk about, we talked about. And this is private stuff to share. Of course I’m not happy with the professor’s conclusion, because he saw some values change after altitude or whatever, but that’s the consequence of being totally open. I don’t know why the values are like that, but that’s how it works with the passport.
“I know, my wife knows, my son will know… That’s enough. I hope that the Dutch people will believe me, but I can’t just expect them to after everything that’s happened.
“The point of the whole book is to show them the effort. Everyone was saying that it’s not possible, saying ‘oh, they do Mont Ventoux in one hour but it takes me three hours’,” says Laurens, allowing himself a brief chuckle, “but I just wanted to show people all the training, the stretching, the good food. I mean, I do 34,000km a year! How much effort do I have to put in? I put all this on Strava, you can see it all on the site. My competitors can see it, too, if they’re interested. I had a lot of guys come to me at the Tour to say chapeau because they knew I was working hard and that it was paying off.
“When I start training in November after a couple of weeks off the bike, I can’t imagine doing Ventoux in one hour either! But I put so much effort in to be good, it’s not nice to just be judged as a doper.
“The book shows everything. The preparation in December and January, my first races in February – I sucked in Catalunya and I sucked a bit in País Vasco, then I got better during the classics, did my own training camp in the Alps with my wife and my kid – no soigneur, nothing – and I did six or seven hours a day in the mountains, alone. Then I went to the Dauphiné, then Luxembourg… It’s a whole process to get to your highest level and I think it’s nice for people to see that.”
Robin confirms that his access was unrestricted, and though he’s understandably hesitant to give a professional cyclist an unequivocal endorsement, he’s seen enough to want to believe. And sad as it is to say, that’s something these days.
“He gave me his password so I could look at all his data, but we made an agreement that I could show it all to an expert because it would be senseless if I was the only one looking at all these numbers without knowing what they mean. It was an expert I chose, Harm Kuipers, who is a medical professor from the University of Maastricht. He’s an expert on doping. He said that some of the values were remarkable, but not suspicious. In order to say something more about the values, he’d need to know more about the circumstances.
“For example, if Laurens flew back from a race on a Thursday night, all dehydrated, and then he got a test at 6am on the Friday morning, his haematocrit would be four or five points higher than normal. So if you just look at raw data and see a high haematocrit, you could take it as suspicious, but if the circumstances change it would be completely normal.
“I know that I spent a lot of time with him. He had no problem at all with me being in his hotel room, we went on training rides, I met with his trainer, but I haven’t observed him 24 hours a day. That’s impossible, and I don’t think either one of us would have liked it.
“I cannot say that I’ve seen him the whole time and that he absolutely doesn’t use any dope or do suspicious things, but I have talked to a lot of people around him, directors and former directors, trainers, his parents, his wife, and they all gave me the same picture of the man. So I think he’s sincere.
“When he read the book, he saw the conclusion that Kuipers came to and he was absolutely not happy about it, but then he said it was a consequence of being open, and that was that. That to me was the essence of the book, because it wasn’t in his interest to give all these things and to let me look into everything and he did it anyway. It’s the complete opposite of the Omertà, what Laurens has done.”


Laurens ten Dam by Robin van der Kloor is published, in Dutch, by Nieuw Amsterdam


This article was originally published in Rouleur 47

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