Dean Jones was a professional elite road cyclist in Europe for more than ten years. In part one of a three part series, he recounts how doping first crept into his life; as a disguised infiltrator that took the severest of tolls on the noble ambitions he hatched as a boy growing up in country NSW.
"Pardon Mister…Can I have your autograph?”
As I move to the team car, a child stands before me with a cycling cap and pen at the ready. I say “No!” shaking my head. I’m not worthy of this worship, so guide the child towards someone more desirable. I don’t want this innocent lamb to be led to the slaughter; to recognise, in this moment, a mirror of me and my clear and principled pursuiting past – to mistakenly worship what I’m actually doing now.
Now I’m scarred, and am nothing more than a dirty junkie! I’m no role model. How did this happen to me? Where did it all go wrong? When did I get to this point? I want to know myself. I crave that my now-blemished carcass and pock-marked soul be chaste! Yet I’m too far gone and my empty fists carry no stones to break down the systemic establishment.
My addiction started as an excuse. To be part of the environment, bonding, to pep up in the rain or early season races, to lose weight, gain focus when a little tired, a short-term fix to get to the end game which hurtled toward a three year addiction of a daily self-loathing. An excuse to just face the world and hide in my bubble with the echoing voice of justification. “Just one more time then that’s it,” whispered the devil on my shoulder.
Getting clean meant struggling with the shadow of depression for five years; taking each waking day as it rose. Dealing with the normality of a non-blinkered life; of once again feeling the warmth of a dawn and listening to internal emotions with the maturity of an adolescent. I had to learn how to live in a real world like a newborn at the tender age of 27.
I never set foot on a cycle again.
My drug of choice: “Belgium Pot” was a pharmaceutically made concoction of part pethidine/heroin; part ephedrine; part methamphetamine and part cocaine.
This was sport for me, a religion maybe, perhaps a belief – maybe even a way of life. There was no plan B; this was it. All the proverbial eggs were in one basket. But above all this was my choice. Or so I thought – cycling never had any security. The metaphor for this was the ever-present suitcase of worldly possessions parked at the base of a hotel bed ready to move on to the next environment. Part gypsy, part mercenary ready to be called to action; where your existence was balanced on a knife’s edge emblazoned with the motto: You’re only as good as your last result.
Throw into the mix the lack – approaching zero – of financial security and you have a time bomb philosophy. Just the insular cycling world of doing what ever it takes; a primal instinct to survive. This goes into the very fabric of what sport is all about. A gladiatorial totality – lorded over by both fans and supporters.
A cycling friend said to me once: You’ll get to the end of your career and you’ll be able to add up in micro-second increments of pain and decision making: What? Where? When? How? You should’ve– could’ve – done something different. Seconds of pain in a 15-year career, and you can recall and reflect as vivid as if you were there now in the moment.
Musing on it now it’s true – and the same can be said about the choice to dope! Cycling is a game of chess played at speeds averaging close to 50 kilometres per hour where the board changes from checkers to monopoly to risk to poker; the moves are automatic. He who hesitates is last, with all of nature’s elements thrown at you as a test of will and there is only one constant: A finish line.
Racing on the European continent was like going into battle. You pinned a number on, then all you had was your band of brothers – your teammates, and it was a primal warlike confrontation. You didn’t actually know if you would survive. And some didn’t. The scars and broken bones look like the side of a WWII bomber with bullet holes. Fear and the unknown was the sport I loved but it also claimed many lives I loved.
Where do you start?
I moved around a lot when I was young, the product of a good middle class family working for the government. My father was a weatherman and it seemed we changed environments like a weathervane. I was always the new kid at school. As a defence mechanism, I cloaked myself in a suit of armour. Thankfully I was good at sport. All sports: cricket, football, swimming, running. I knew if I went to a new school and I was capable at a team sport, then I’d automatically have 10 new friends who had my back so I wouldn’t get bullied. Well that was the idea anyway. I grew up believing in the innocent glory of sport – the old world gentlemanly nature of fair play and hard training.
My grandpa represented Australia in rugby and NSW at cricket. He was a surfboat rower too, a towering gentle man who preferred a glass of milk to a beer and worked all his life for BHP in the mines around Newcastle. He was a pure amateur sportsman and my hero. (I wore one of his rugby medals from 1932 on the inside of my jersey for good luck in every race I rode)
He worked all week and played sport on the weekends. He was everything I looked up to and strived to be like, he was my benchmark or blueprint of the nobility of sport and what a sportsman should be. He always had time to show me how to bowl a ‘legcutter’ or an ‘outswinger’ or an ‘inswinger’, it was like magic discovering these new things. A bag of tricks to practice and perfect then unleash at the next cricket match. At this early age I learnt about acumen towards training. Life was healthy. School holidays were spent swimming and playing cricket.
We moved again, this time to the outback town of Moree. It was a tough town, weakness wasn’t an option as you’d get eaten alive. I couldn’t play rugby because I was too tall and gangly with no muscle and they only played rugby here. Cricket was the option. I started running around the block to get fitter for bowling and realised I was quite good at middle distance. Stamina and sustained pain didn’t bother me.
I saved all my lawn mowing money and cotton chipping earnings to buy a real 10-speed road bike. I discovered freedom. I could escape and I could go somewhere quickly under my own steam. Moree is very flat and there always seemed to be headwind. I grew strong riding into that wind and could ride long distances on my own, just me against myself. I started to compete in races all over northern NSW and went OK. I still hadn’t grown into myelf but with cycling that was OK – as it was all power to weight not purely muscle – you needed technique too, and race smarts.
Even at this early stage in the backwaters of a small country town, the old timers in cycling would talk about the pro-cyclist and the drugs they were taking. This was earth-shattering for me but that was OK too, I just wanted to ride for my country and represent proudly like my grandpa had.
It was at this period, on Channel Nine on weekends in July, that they would play footage of the Tour De France on Wide World of Sports.
The guys on the screen were like rock stars to me: Fignon,Hinault, Roche, Andy Hampsten, LeMond, Delgado – with narration provided by a deep, dramatic voice setting the drama. It had an inescapable allure, like a Shakespearean play. The stage was set and I was hooked. The romance of the backdrop rivalled any scene in the Lord Of The Rings trilogies: Europe’s highest mountains with a war on wheels; the battle for each stage and the knifes edge commentary of who was going to win. The suspense was like atop 40 countdown. Could the American Greg LeMond take home Europe’s biggest prize?
Watching the Tour avidly as a boy, utter adventure unfolded before my eyes. I was totally engrossed, I first heard the term ‘lieutenant’ used. To me it was an epithet for heroism.
Who was this guy and what was his role? It was a Spanish team and Pedro Delgado was racing over the biggest mountains in the Alps all with names like col this and col that and there was a guy towing him over these walls as the commentary was saying things like he was “dying on the bike” sacrificing himself for his leader. “His eyes were bleeding tears of pain for the team leader to win.” Epic! Heroic! Maybe I could do this – I wasn’t a natural winner, but I could sacrifice myself for one. Loyalty was one of my strongest qualities. The riders name was Jean François Bernard and he would go on to lead Miguel Indurain to five straight Tour wins as his lieutenant. This was my sport of choice. This was my way out of here.
I began competing at state level then we moved again, back to my hometown of Newcastle where I started being coached by the most influential person in my cycling career, Mick Chapman.
For the first time I had a training schedule. I set goals. I learned about macro and micro cycles and had achievable and unachievable tasks set. The unachievable would become achievable through hard work and discipline. I was doing ergo sessions, weight training, track training, strength endurance training. During these sessions my coach would come up to me when I was struggling and say life affirming mantras like “relax and enjoy the pain!” “Pain is weakness leaving your body!” ”Don’t give them the bullets to shoot you with,” and if I lost a race and wasn’t happy and started flinging stuff about, he would say “Don’t lose to them twice!”
I wanted to be a great sportsman. I had dreams and I had a plan on how to achieve those dreams. I wasn’t a natural competitor and didn’t have the cunning ability to win at all costs. I wanted to be known as a fair and honest competitor – if I couldn’t win through hard work and natural strength then I didn’t want to win and be known as the guy who soft pedalled and faked it or used others. Respect and acknowledgment from my peers was just as important as winning.
Integrity and the way I conducted myself within battle was paramount. During this period, guys had started returning from Europe – the troubadours; the adventurers going to the frontier as pros and returning shell-shocked.
Rumours of widespread doping and another world had permeated back to me like news from a war front. Snippets of what it was like on the European battle front. Some guys never spoke about the dark side, just choosing to return quietly. At the time, seemingly, with their tail between their legs. “They couldn’t cut it,” I thought. Some self funded cyclists would throw their hat in the ring and give it a crack on the continent, coming home saying, “Its like nothing you could ever expect.”
The talk of doping or drugs was always around but it seemed more of a choice taken when a rider turned professional. There was the odd amateur scandal, but it wasn’t rife. It was an era of clean, noble racing as amateurs.
My persepctive was very soon to be turned on its head. I was still a kid and clearly didn’t know a thing. (Next issue: Part 2 – out 29 May)