Paul Kimmage: She knows - This is what death sounds like
The life and death of Johannes Draaijer, part 3
Published 24/08/2014 | 16:00
In the summer of 1989, as Johannes Draaijer was racing towards Paris in his first Tour de France, a pop singer from Amsterdam called Rene Froger, was surfing the Dutch charts with 'Everything can make a man happy', his first number 1. Annalisa Schmad can still recite the chorus:
Everything can make a man happy
The sun breaking through the clouds
A fresh cup of tea
My own house
A place under the sun
"It was our song," she says.
The summer had brought great joy to their lives. Johannes had returned from Paris with $60,000 in prize-money, a new two-year contract worth twice his original deal and the surety of earning at least 20 grand in cash from the post-Tour exhibition races. But his rising status did not change him.
He traded his battered Opel Ascona for a Mazda 626 and invested the money in a new house. "Johannes was not a flashy kind of guy," Annalisa says. "He bought his clothes in C&A and used to build furniture or draw in his spare time. He was careful with money, in fact the only time we ever fought about anything was if I spent too much."
There was little time to rest or reflect after the Tour. On July 30, a week after it finished, he travelled to Newcastle for the Wincanton Classic and then returned home and spent the next 10 days riding exhibitions. On August 14, it was time to get serious again for the prologue of the Tour of Holland and a 17th-place finish just behind Seán Kelly, the team leader.
Five days later, on the morning of the final stage, the peloton awoke to the news that Bert Oosterbosch, the recently retired former World Pursuit champion from Eindhoven, had died overnight in his sleep at the age of 32. Johannes returned home that afternoon and sat down with his wife in the garden.
"When Oosterbosch died it was very confronting," she says. "I said: 'If it could happen to him, it could happen to you'. He said, 'Yeah, but it's not going to happen to me'. We didn't have any life insurance. We were young and just starting out and didn't plan for anything like death but six weeks later we got life insurance.
"The other thing we did, which was weird, was to change our bank account - everything was in his name so we opened a joint account. But it's funny . . . I always had a feeling he was going to die early; I used to have this recurring dream where I'd be listening to the radio and hear that he had died in another country during a race. It was upsetting. I never told him."
For Johannes, and his friends in the peloton, Oosterbosch's death was a shock best explained as 'one of those things'. Five days later, he returned to work in the Dutch classic, Veenandaal-Veenandaal, and it was business as usual for the rest of the season.
In December, after a well-earned break in Florida with Annalisa, he started training again and looking forward to the new season. Steven Rooks and Gert-Jan Theunisse had jumped ship during the winter with Peter Janssen, the team doctor, and Bertus Fok, the chief soigneur, and would race in 1990 for the Panasonic team.
But PDM had also done some business. Erik Breukink, the new Dutch superstar, would lead the team with Seán Kelly and Raul Alcala. They had also signed a tough Belgian, Dirk De Wolf, and two former East German stars, Uwe Ampler and Uwe Raab.
The team also had a new doctor. His name was Wim Sanders.
The shadow of the syringe has fallen across professional bicycle racing. The top-ranked team in the sport admits that it gave regular injections, legal but unpublicized, to its riders in the Tour de France. The rare announcement was designed to explain the team's withdrawal but raised new questions.
According to the PDM team, its doctor injected all nine riders with liquid food before they were forced to quit the Tour with body pains and high fevers. The injections were never made public as a possible cause of the withdrawals or as part of the team's routine medical treatment.
- Samuel Abt, the New York Times, August 6, 1991
It was in the summer of '91, 17 months after Johannes Draaijer had died, that the world first learnt of 'the PDM affair'. It started on the evening of July 14, after the ninth stage of the Tour de France in Rennes. The race was going well for PDM. Jean-Paul van Poppel had won the seventh stage to Argentan; Erik Breukink was lying second overall; Kelly and Alcala were both top 10 and they were cruising once again to the team prize.
Sprits were high at the Hotel de Cheval d'Or that evening when Dr Sanders began the injections. Jean-Paul van Poppel had a single room, the rest were sharing: Raul Alcala with Nico Verhoeven; Erik Breukink with Jos van Aert; Seán Kelly with Martin Earley; Falk Boden with Uwe Raab.
Two days later, they were too sick to race.
At first, the team played games and tried to blame the hotel. It was an obvious case of food poisoning, they said, something in the chicken. But three weeks later the truth was revealed; the riders had been infected by a badly-stored batch of the substance - a nutritional protein - in the doctor's syringe. It was Sanders' last act with the team.
It was 1995 before we heard from him again. The Dutch Fiscal Authority (FIOD) were puzzled by his tax returns and had made some alarming discoveries after searching his home in Limburg. Two years later, he was sentenced to six months in jail, three suspended, for the illegal trafficking of performance-enhancing drugs.
The investigators' dossier made for interesting reading: Sanders had been providing amphetamines, testosterone and hormones to cyclists, body builders, ice hockey players and track-and-field athletes. But it was the timeline that jumped off the page: between 1990 and 1995, Sanders had secured at least 178 ampules of Eprex from pharmacies across Holland and Belgium.
Eprex is a brand name for EPO; 1990 was the year he joined PDM.
We're in the attic, going through Johannes' paperwork, looking for clues. There's a directive from the team dated January 11, 1989. "This is when they went skiing," Annalisa says. "They went to Zell am See (Austria) in the pre-season that year for cross-country skiing."
"Jan Gisbers, Bertus Fok and Peter Janssen have declared themselves prepared to work together in a positive way with the goal of making sure that the medical assistance of the PDM team in 1989 is optimum.
The responsibility for the medical assistance in Peter Janssen. The doctor has professional confidentiality. The medical records of all the cyclists fall under this confidentiality. Only after permission from the cyclist can the medical records be made public.
This responsibility can only be accepted by the doctor if he knows completely everything that you are taking, which means that you need to have a good and complete discussion about the planned medication and the soigneurs of all the cyclists have to register all of their prescribed medicine. This registration will be on standard forms. These forms will be sent every two weeks by the doctor."
"This is making me sick! I never read any of this," she says.
"If the doctor is present with the team at classics or stage races, then he needs to know in advance what preparations you are using. If it becomes evident retroactively that preparations have been used that are giving problems at doping control, and the doctor was not involved, he cannot be held responsible.
The team management will take the necessary measure if you do not keep your word. The team will tell the riders in what way the medical assistance is organized in '89.
The responsibility for the health and the use of medicine is primarily the riders. Medicine use on your own initiative, or through a doctor that's outside the team, needs to be registered because a lot of medicines exist that can give a positive result at doping control. Also the riders should keep a list of any product or medicine they are using.
The doctor will receive from the soigneurs a complete list of all the preparations that are being used or being transported - the name of the product, the form (for example tablet, injection, etc.), the strength of the preparation (for example the number of milligrams) and the amount (for example an ampule of 2ccs)."
She hands me the letter.
"I drove to a race to surprise him once," she says. "He was sharing a room with Raul Alcala and the soigneur had laid out a syringe for them (each) on the dresser. It was some sort of vitamin B complex and they were supposed to inject themselves. They were laughing about it, 'We're not taking that!' and injected it into the mattress. I saw them do it.
"Another time, I was in the room when Johannes was getting a massage and the soigneur had this . . . it was like one of those big flight bags the pilots use. He opened it up and it was like a pharmacy. I was shocked but didn't want to say anything. I thought, 'Oh my God! Pills! Drugs! Vials! Why do they need this stuff?'
"Johannes hated doping. He didn't want any part of it but at the time he died it was taboo to talk about it. And I don't know if they tried to make him take something . . .
"To be honest, I never thought about it until the Tour (of '91) when the whole team got sick. Then I thought: 'What the fuck is going on with PDM!'"
Did Johannes succumb? Was he doping? The answer is here, in his attic, I'm sure of it. Any man who pasted boarding cards into his scrapbooks would definitely have kept all of his medical records and noted any change to his cortisol or testosterone levels. We know he kept a diary. It was a team obligation. What happened to it? The search begins.
We find a receipt for an injectable vitamin (Maxi B 5000) and a generic letter from the Dutch cycling union (December 12, 1989) warning about the abuse of steroids. The last letter we can find from a doctor is the one sent by Janssen on August 5, 1988:
It would be good for you maybe to take for a short period, some extra low doses of testosterone.
And that's it. There are no medical records for 1989. There is no correspondence from Sanders, or record of the test in Eindhoven, three weeks before he died. We can't even find a copy of the autopsy. "I can't understand it," Annalisa says. "It should be here."
Cause of death of cyclist Draaijer unclear
There is not much more to tell about the cause of death of professional cyclist Johannes Draaijer other than he died during the night from Monday to Tuesday in his sleep, felled by a cardiac arrest. The cyclist, who would have turned 27 on March 8, had an extensive check-up with his team-mates from the PDM team three weeks ago at St Joseph Hospital in Eindhoven.
In addition to a so-called "maximum test" where an electrocardiogram registration was also done, there was a sonogram made of his heart. During this test, soundwaves are used to measure the size of the heart, the thickness of the heart muscle walls and the size of the chambers.
They didn't find anything irregular in Draaijer's heart. His physical condition was even above average. Autopsy will show what the direct cause of Draaijer's sudden death was. Wim Sanders, team doctor for PDM this season, says there is no sign of an inflammation in the heart muscle as a result of flu or other infection.
"It could be that an aneurism happened somewhere else in the body, if there was a congenital defect it was not detected by the heart tests." Sanders suspects arrhythmia, during which the heart can beat so fast that it stops or flutters instead of beating. "An infarct. It happens often to young people with a sport heart."
Draaijer fell last week during the Sicilian Cycling Week. He punctured on a corner and fell and hit his head on the road. He was a bit dazed but he got up and rode to the finish in Capo d'Orlando. Last Sunday, Draaijer rode the 80 kilometres to the airport in Catania, where PDM had a flight home, with a group of team-mates.
The group set a slow tempo but Draaijer hung at the back and complained of being tired. Sanders doesn't think there is a connection between Draaijer's exhaustion and his sudden death. "His condition was excellent, which showed he had trained well during the winter. The fact that he was tired and had a headache doesn't mean anything. The Sicilian Cycling Week is called a training week but we know that everyone makes a serious race out of everything these days."
Wednesday, February 28, 1990
Johannes has just got off the flight from Catania and is waiting for a connection to Brussels. Three weeks have passed since he saw Annalisa. He finds a phone booth and calls her at home. "Hi leveling (darling), I'm in Rome. I'll see you in a couple of hours. Can you pick me up?"
She's wearing a smile that could light up the terminal when the flight touches down. It's late and they have an hour and 40 minutes to drive but it passes in a click. She gives him the latest gossip from work and a progress report on their new home in Rucphen: "It should be ready after the Tour." He tells her about his first race with Erik Breukink and the other new arrivals on the team.
His third season as a professional has started well. After a solid opening week at the Etoile de Besseges in France, he finished fourth in the opening stage of the Settimana Sicilia and made a promising break on the fifth stage to Messina. A crash the following day had shaken him but he had performed well in the Trofeo Pantalica, their final race that week.
"I think I'm going to win a classic this year," he beams.
He's still sleeping the next morning when she leaves for work. It's the Monday of Carnival week, and she had considered taking it off, but she puts in her usual shift and races home to him at five. He has spent the day sorting his washing and fiddling with his bike.
"Did you go out?" she asks
"No, a bit tired, just did a bit on the trainer," he replies.
He has prepared tacos for dinner. He loves Mexican food. She pours a glass of wine and he joins her with a beer. Rene Froger is on TV, singing their song. They snuggle on the coach for the evening, go to bed and make love. Some time during the night - she thinks it might have been three - they are disturbed by some revellers, crashing onto the street.
He stirs and shifts in the bed.
"Yeah," she replies.
"They're making a lot of noise."
"Yes they are," she agrees.
They drift back to sleep.
Two hours later, she hears the splutter, and the wheeze, and an alarm trips in her head. That sound. She knows.
This is what death sounds like.
She jumps up. He's not moving. She slams her fist into his chest and starts to scream.
Oh my God!
Oh my God!
Don't leave me!
There's a phone next to the bed but she bolts out of the room and down the stairs to call the ambulance. She returns to the bedroom and stares at her husband for a moment from the doorway. The image is burnt into her retina. His lips have turned blue.
It's hailing and freezing outside. She runs barefooted to the next house on the street and bangs on the door. The police arrive first and then the ambulance. She is distraught. Her neighbour is trying to comfort her. They're working frantically upstairs, trying to revive her husband. At 05.41, Johannes is pronounced dead.
"I went back into the room after they had taken him," she says. "It was littered with papers and gloves and bloodied gauzes the ambulance attendants had left. I thought that was harsh. I thought they should have cleaned it up. It was confronting to see that stuff.
"He had wet the bed. I had to change the sheets and that was painful. For some reason - even though that's part of death - I thought it was quite demeaning for him. I never used those sheets again."
The hours that followed were a blur. She remembers the call to her mother-in-law and the sound of Neeltje's pain:
I don't believe it!
Are you sure?
She remembers Trijnsje and Hans, Johannes' sister and brother, driving down from Friesland. She remembers her dad flying in from San Diego and the parade of friends and neighbours to the door. She remembers going to the hospital with clothes and being handed his wedding ring and the silver chain he always wore with the bike trinket.
She remembers the three nights in Sondel spent sitting by his coffin, knowing she would never see him again. She remembers the moment they closed the lid and lowered him into the ground. She remembers the call from PDM the day after he died.
"Gather every vial and pill you can find and put them in a bag."
And she remembers how she was shunned a month after the burial:
"It happened from one day to the next," she says. "Johannes was buried and it was the beginning of March, classics season, and I went to the team bus at the Amstel Gold race. I didn't want to completely extricate myself from the cycling world because that was my life. These were my friends but I'll never forget the way I was received.
"It was like, 'What are you doing here?' It was very strange because all I wanted to do was feel a part of this family but they made me feel very unwanted and unwelcome. They did not want to be confronted with the death of Johannes. I never went to them again."
It's a sunny Wednesday afternoon in March. Manfred Krikke, the 82-year-old former general manager of PDM, is sipping a cup of ginseng tea at an office in Valkenswaard. We are talking about the death of Johannes and it's obvious, from the moment we sit down, that it still pains him.
"I still see myself next to the coffin," he says. "It had a 'ventster' (hatch). It (the image of his face) stayed with me for months. He was the neatest person you could think of. He was a very nice rider - not Nibali - but a good professional. He was also a very accurate person who I (felt) would never use drugs. That's what I (felt), and that's what I still feel."
"How did you hear he had died?" I ask.
"I got a phone call . . . I think from Piet van der Kruijs (the assistant team director) and he said, 'You won't believe this but Johannes has died. He came back from Italy and died next to Annalisa'. We were really in shock and did whatever we could do on our side but what can you say?"
"Annalisa says you asked her to gather all of the stuff in the house - any pills or anything medical - and take them to the (PDM) office after he died."
"I did that?"
"You did that. You called and asked her to take everything in the house that was pills and medicines, to bring them to the office."
"That's not what I can recall. Was it me?"
"She said you sat down in front of her in a room like this . . . I think Piet van der Kruijs was there."
"I don't know. I'm not denying this. It's possible. I think it's more a matter of Piet van der Kruijs calling her and maybe coming here. That's possible. But I don't see in front of me any products."
"Maybe she brought the products because you wanted to see what he was doing? For the team?"
"Maybe. You did not talk to Gisbers or Van der Kruijs?"
"I cannot recall. I'm not saying it's impossible but I don't know."
"Bert Oosterbosch had died just before and people were starting to ask questions?"
"Yes, but there were totally different answers to the deaths."
"It was also the first moment we heard about EPO."
"I think - and Gisbers will tell you - that this has nothing to do with EPO. At that time, certainly, there was no EPO. I think it was heart failure."
Frank Kersten raced with Johannes as an amateur and shared a room with him in Sicily a week before he died: "He was in my room for the whole week," he says. "I never saw anything I hadn't seen in five years. This has nothing to do with doping - that I'm sure about."
Maarten Ducrot was also in Sicily that week, racing for TVM: "I don't know if Johannes Draaijer took something," he says. "He maybe had a heart defect but I know he was in the system, and in the team he was in, the system was very pronounced. The doctors were in the system and doing whatever they could.
"There have been a lot of stories written by journalists (linking) the cardiac deaths to EPO. I've never spoken about it. I can't prove it. I don't want to think it. I only know the system was rotten and it doesn't surprise me that it cost lives. I can't say it cost Draaijer his life. I only know he was in that system. I was in it as well. You are a pawn in the game."
Andy Bishop, a team-mate of Johannes at PDM, has a similar view: "I'm just happy that you are writing this," he says. "This was somebody's life. He was a great son, a great husband and just a really pure guy. A number of my team-mates are no longer living, Bjorn Stennerson, Michel Zanoli, Rudy Dhaenens, Gerrie Knettemann. Johannes' (death) is the one with the most mystery but he represents them all and that whole era of cover-up [in the sport]."
Annalisa is driving me to the train station in Roosendaal. It's a glorious summer's evening in August, and a journey that began eight months before on a cold winter's day in Sondel has come to an end. She was crying for him that day as we stood by his gravestone. She is crying for him now.
And yet . . .
"I've been thinking about the night he died," she says, "and how painful and traumatic it was for me. But Johannes could not have been happier. He had started the season well, we had just made love and he was dreaming of winning a classic."
Two days later, she sends me a note, a quote from Jeffery Seaver: "People say that Love and Death are the two common and universal human journeys. There is a difference though. Love is more powerful and lasts longer. A body can only be taken once but love can be given a thousand times. Ask how someone died the answer is finite; ask how they loved the answer is infinite."
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