Sport Cycling

Sunday 21 September 2014

Paul Kimmage - Unfinished stone for an unfinished love

Paul Kimmage

Published 09/08/2014 | 23:53

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Annalisa Schmad at the grave of her late husband Johannes Draaijer in Sondel in the Netherlands
Annalisa Schmad at the grave of her late husband Johannes Draaijer in Sondel in the Netherlands
The couple on their wedding day
The couple on their wedding day

Johannes Draaijer was a Dutch cyclist. He won two stages of the Peace Race in 1987 and one stage of the Vuelta a Murcia in 1989. The same year he finished 130th in the Tour de France and was part of the team that won the race.

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On February 27, 1990, Draaijer died in his sleep of a heart blockage, just a few days after a race. It is widely presumed, though not proven, that his death was caused by the use of the performance-enhancing drug erythropoietin (EPO). The autopsy did not specify the cause of death, but Draaijer’s wife later told the German news magazine, Der Spiegel, that her husband became sick after using EPO.

This was the second death of a Dutch cyclist that was attributed to EPO, after the demise of Bert Oosterbosch in 1989.

— Wikipedia 

Sondel, in January, is a cold and desolate place. We pass the place where he was born, the place they were married and arrive, finally, at the place where he rests. The small brown church and graveyard on Buekenswijkstraat sits in the heart of the village. It has been raining constantly since we left Amsterdam but it’s clearing now as we step from the car.

I follow her through a gate and along a neat stone path into the cemetery. The graves are ordered and neatly maintained but the sight of the first headstones brings a lump to my throat that I would struggle to explain. There was no logical reason for me to come here. There was no logical reason to bring these flowers to his grave. I never spoke to Johannes Draaijer. He was not a compatriot, a team-mate or my friend.

And yet . . .

I was three weeks into a new job as a sportswriter with the Sunday Tribune when he died in February 1990. I had interviewed Mick McCarthy in Lyon and was driving to Paris for the Six Nations game with France when I stopped for coffee and was shocked by the announcement in L’équipe.

Six months earlier, Bert Oosterbosch, a former world champion, had died from a heart attack at the age of 32. A month before that, Hans Daams, a team-mate of Draaijer’s at PDM, had been forced to quit the sport because of a heart abnormality. What was it about Holland? What was it about PDM? It was a puzzling and worrying trend that I tried to address that week in a column:

“Can the deaths be linked to the excesses of their profession? I don’t know. I have often questioned the sanity of a race like the Tour; I have often questioned the sanity of the sport as a whole. To have your heart pounding in your chest for five hours a day in a race that lasts three weeks is a lot of stress, a lot of sweating, a tremendous strain on the body. Is it natural?”

Three months later, L’équipe revisited the deaths with a three-quarter page investigation (‘Enquete Sur Des Morts Suspectes’) that suggested it wasn’t natural at all and reported that a new wonder drug called EPO was circulating in the peloton. Eugene Janssen, a physiologist from Maastricht University, sounded the warning.

“The abuse of corticosteroids has ravaged the sport but all the talk at the moment is about EPO. This hormone has several qualities. It oxygenates the blood and is less onerous than training at altitude. But it’s particularly dangerous when the subject is asleep. His heartbeat drops, the blood has become thicker and harder to circulate, and the heart can stop.”

Had EPO killed Johannes?

His widow, Annalisa Schmad, was adamant it had not. “I know that doping exists and that there has been a lot of talk recently about EPO but Johannes was against all that,” she insisted. “He refused to take even an injection of vitamin B and Raul Alcala, who shared a room with him, was the same.”

She also spoke about an intimate diary he kept. “I’ve seen it,” she said. “And there’s nothing in it to suggest he doped.”

That short interview with L’équipe, in May 1990, was the first and last time she would address the issue with journalists. She never spoke to Der Spiegel. Her husband’s diary was never published.

We have reached the gravesite. I place the flowers at the base of his tombstone and notice that another Johannes Draaijer has been buried alongside. “His father,” she explains. “He had lung cancer the year Johannes died and died a year later, in January of ’91.”

A ray of sunlight — the first of the day — has burst through the clouds. I step back and whisper a prayer and study the inscription on the stone:

Love is eternal…

My loving husband

Our son and brother

Johannes Draaijer

08-03-1962  27-02-1990

“I put his race bike on it,” she says. “They etched it from a photo. And I chose an unfinished stone because his life was unfinished.”

It still makes her cry.

“Sometimes it seems like yesterday, I still cry about him,” Annalisa says. “I wake up with this feeling of remembering how he laid in bed, not moving. When someone’s dead, you know it; they don’t look like they’re sleeping, they’re dead. I think about it every day. For 24 years, it’s never out of my thoughts.”

 

* * * * *

1

An account of a phone call she does not remember making to Kathy LeMond, the wife of the triple Tour de France winner, Greg LeMond, on the morning Johannes died:

“It was pitch black in our bedroom as I reached for the ringing phone. I was already panicking because it is never good news that wakes you from a deep sleep. I thought it might be my parents and something had happened at home in the US. No one called us in the night, everyone knew Greg needed to sleep. I finally found the phone and answered. All I heard was screaming and crying. I totally panicked. I yelled to wake Greg up. I didn’t even understand who was on the phone. Then I got it. Anna-Lisa Draaijer was sobbing that she had tried everything but ‘he was dead.’ He was cold when she touched him. She was waiting for the ambulance and what should she do? ‘He’s dead! He is cold, he is cold. I am so afraid! Oh my God, oh my God!’”

A letter she received from her grandmother a week after he was buried:

‘Dear Anna,

I was so very sorry to hear about Johannes. I know you were both so very much in love and had such a wonderful future planned. It is a sad thing to happen to anyone but especially to one so young and with most of their life so far ahead of them. I know you are a strong person and will survive this disaster but with a lot of heartache and sadness. At least you will have happy memories of the time you had with Johannes and remember that is much better than no memories at all.’

Some famous signatories from the book of condolence on the day they put him in the ground:

S Kelly, Vilvoorde

Dirk de Wolf, Ternat

Uwe Raab, Leipzig

Atle Pedersen, Gullegem

Hans Daams, Hamont-Achel

Rudy Dhaenens, Vosselere

Frank Kersten, Geldrop

Peter Hoodert, Goes

Nico Verhoeven, Berkel-Enschot

Erik Breukink, Kalmthout

Jos van Aert, Rysbergen

Marc van Orsouw, Oyen

Steven Rooks, Warmenthuizen

JM Krikke, Knegsel

Jan Gisbers, Eindhoven

Piet van de Kruijs, Helmond

Peter Janssen, Deurne

 

* * * * *

2

At the Warner Brothers studio in Hollywood, deep in the bowels of a dusty cutting-room store, there’s a clip of Kevin Costner and Annalisa Schmad. The movie, American Flyers, was about sports physician called Marcus Sommers, who persuades his brother to come with him to Colorado and train for a bike race across the Rocky Mountains.

Schmad, a 21-year-old aspiring Olympian, was racing her bike that summer (’84) when the cameras rolled into Boulder and was signed to play a marshal. “Do you remember the Morgul Bismarck circuit?” she asks. “Well, there was a scene where there’s an accident at the top the ‘wall’ (climb) and I had to say: ‘Everybody move out of the way! We need an ambulance in here!’

“That was my line. I had to say it 25 times. Costner was just starting to get famous and I thought: ‘I want to be an actress. I’m moving to Hollywood.’ But I never made the cut.”

She was born in San Jose, California but grew up in San Diego and recalls a childhood dominated by a love of music and sport. Her father, a lawyer, was of German origin. Her mother, a teacher, was a mix of Irish and Finnish. Skiing was the passion of her teenage years and after four years at Brigham Young University in Utah studying accountancy and music, she moved to Boulder and discovered cycling.

“I liked escaping,” she says, “and for me cycling was escaping. It’s being at one with your thoughts and the road and I liked the competitive aspect of competing with yourself — you are in a constant fight with your mental state and you have to be strong.”

Hollywood’s loss was cycling’s gain. She continued to make good progress and was named as a reserve on the American road team when the 1986 World Championships rolled into Colorado Springs.

The day that changed her life — Wednesday, August 20 — started with breakfast at the (OTC) Olympic Training Centre.

“The athletes’ quarters was in an auditorium and they had these long tables laid out. I can’t remember if he sat down first, or if I sat down first, but we were sitting opposite each other and I remember looking up and thinking, ‘This is the guy you’re going to marry.’

“I didn’t know his name or what country he was from so I introduced myself and I thought he said his name was Johan. He was gorgeous, the epitome of a little Dutch boy. He was very soft-spoken and his English was great and I thought, ‘Yeah, this is the guy. I had better get to know him’.”

Johannes Draaijer was from Sondel, a little town of 800 people in Friesland, the northernmost province in the Netherlands. The second eldest of four children born to his parents, Johannes and Neeltje, he grew up on a small dairy farm. The Draaijers went to church every Sunday and finished evening meals with a passage from the bible.

Johannes was a good trumpet player, did well at school and qualified with a degree in hydraulic engineering. Speed skating was his first sporting love but bike racing was its first cousin and began to take over when he was soon winning races for the local amateur team.

Strong and powerful on the flat, his progress through the ranks was steady rather than spectacular. In 1985, he raced a couple of internationals with the Dutch military team but improved a year later and — like Annalisa — was selected as a reserve for the World Championships in Colorado Springs.

“He had a hard time getting picked at first,” Annalisa says. “Sometimes I think you have to be cut-throat and ruthless to succeed in sport and he found that difficult. He was a very soft guy and very religious. He loved God.”

They both sat on the sidelines for the ’86 Worlds but Draaijer couldn’t complain. The Netherlands had won the team time trial and finished second and third in the road race but he was determined to go home with at least one prize.

“We had started hanging out at the races,” Annalisa says. “He was rooming with Herbert Dijkstra at the Howard Johnson’s hotel and we would sit by the pool — they weren’t allowed to swim — and talk cycling and stuff. There was a huge party the last night; John Talen (who had won two medals) tried to kiss me and Johannes was jealous.

“He never drank but was drinking rum and cola and got a little drunk. He said, ‘Listen, she’s mine!’ and kissed me. The next day, I took him to the airport and said goodbye.”

An account of his two flights home to the Netherlands:

We had a good flight to Amsterdam. We had to wait a long time in Chicago. We ate together with the entire team in an Italian restaurant. After that we wandered around the shops until we could get on board the airplane. In the airplane I fell asleep and didn’t wake up until we were flying over England. We arrived at 8.30 in the arrivals hall. Our parents were waiting for us there and the new world champions were given flowers by the sponsors, AMEV. Everyone that went to Colorado got a gift of a painting. The gift was extra special for me because it was coincidentally a painting of my home town. When I arrived home, first thing I did was put my bike back together, then I rode to the camera shop to have the rest of the pictures developed.

His response when she called him at home, three days later:

When you called me I didn’t know what to say. My entire family was listening. It wasn’t a good conversation. I didn’t dare to say too much. That’s why I am writing this now. Don’t be sad that I’m not with you. Over the last few days, I’ve thought about you a lot and reminisced about the time we shared together. It’s too bad that we can’t be together now so that we can get to know each other better — it’s a lot more difficult to become close, if you know what I mean. I hope I’m not making you sad. When you come to the Netherlands, we will spend time together and you will come to my home. You are very special to me, and I think about you every day. It was a wonderful time we spent.

The first letter he wrote to her, four days later on September 14:

Dear Anna,

As I write this letter, I am sitting in my car in a parking lot off the freeway, somewhere between Breda and Tilburg. Outside it is cold and it’s raining. I put the photo that Herbert (Dijkstra) took of you when we gave you our present up on the dashboard. I can see you now and I am thinking of you. The radio is playing ‘Say you, say me’ by Lionel Richie and other love songs. I have an amazing feeling inside, the same feeling as our last night together only much more conscious. It is a wonderful feeling. I was so happy you stayed the last night with me. I was a little bit drunk! You had to hold me so that I could walk straight. I was probably different than I normally am, less restricted and much more free; less shy. I was too tired to sleep. You are the first girl in my entire life. You were so kind, soft, sweet, beautiful and loving to me. Thank you for everything you have given me. I miss you. I can’t wait until you come to the Netherlands.

An account of his return to competition in the same letter:

Yesterday, I rode my first race since being home. It was cold and halfway through it started raining. I didn’t ride badly, but I got involved in a crash. Someone fell in front of me and I fell over him. Happily I didn’t have any serious injuries so don’t worry. Tom Cordes won. Today I will race in Tilburg. It is now 1pm and I have to eat now because the race starts at 4pm. After the race I will finish the letter.

Later that evening, he finishes the letter:

So, here I am again! It was a great race for me. I attacked right at the start and we got a lead group of five riders including Jo van Arle (his team) rider, Pierre Raas. He’s Jan Raas’ nephew, the manager of the professional team during the Worlds in Colorado. We were never caught by the pack. My team-mate won and I was third. Arie (Jagt), Tom (Cordes), Rob (Harmeling) and Gerrit (de Vries) were there too. They all said hi. When I got home, my mother told me you had called. That is so nice of you but I would rather that you write letters to me. I’m not at home a lot and talking on the phone with you when my whole family is listening makes me feel uncomfortable. I haven’t received your letter yet but I’m so curious about what you write to me. When you come to the Netherlands you have to come to me. My family is so curious about you because I don’t say much to them. Until then I hope you are happy in America and don’t be sad. I will see you in the Netherlands.

Love,

Johannes  

Draaijer raced another three times that September finishing seventh at Franeker and sixth at Dronten. In October, he won a stage of the Volta a L’Emporda in Spain and finished eighth in the Gran Prix de France. But it was his debut at the Nissan Classic in Ireland (‘Solo Draaijer mislukt’, ‘Solo Draaijer niet toereikend’) that put his name in lights.

A report of the opening stage in The Irish Times on October 2, 1986:

“After the 14 miles neutralising spin to Leixlip, there was action at the front straight from the start, but it soon died down and when Dutch amateur Johannes Draaijer rode away, he was allowed to go on and he took the first three-seconds bonus sprint after just three miles at Maynooth, with (Adrie) Van der Poel and Mark Walsham second and third.

“Draaijer’s lead grew quickly to over two minutes at nine miles and seven minutes at 18 miles and at 35 he was 12 minutes and 20 seconds ahead with no reaction from behind.”

A reflection on the stage from the race organiser Pat McQuaid, in an interview with The Examiner in December 2012:

“Stage one was a 135-mile trek straight across the country, finishing in Eyre Square. A young Dutch rider, Johannes Draaijer, took off out of the bunch coming out of Lucan, in an orange jersey on his own, and built up a lead of 12, 13 and then 14 minutes by Athlone.

“He was in my rear-view mirror the whole day because I was driving the car out front and I was delighted for him, to see an amateur beating all the pros — some of the best in the world. As a sports fan you love the underdog. He didn’t win the stage but he got a pro contract out of it. But a year or so later, he was found dead in his bed, at 23. That’s EPO

. . . I know how Draaijer died, he died because of EPO.”

* * * * *

3

MORK & MINDY

A wacky alien comes to Earth to study its residents, and the life of the human woman he boards with is never the same.

— IMDB

Johannes was not long returned from Ireland and had just finished his season, when Annalisa arrived in the Netherlands on November 9, 1986.

A Dutch family she had befriended at the World Championships had offered her a place to stay in Nieuwkuijk, and she had given herself a three-month window (the length of her visa) to find a job and see if the relationship would work.

Nieuwkuijk, in Brabant, was a two-hour drive from Johannes’ home in Sondel but for that first meeting with his parents (Nanu Nanu) she might easily have arrived in an egg-shaped spaceship.

“I was like an alien to his family,” she laughs. “They were soft-spoken and conservative and Calvinistic and I was this loud, outspoken American and they just didn’t know what hit them. I mean they loved me, and I loved them very much but they always expected Johannes to marry someone from the village.”

She didn’t speak Dutch but got a job working in accounts for a company in Breda. Johannes would arrive on Friday evening, take her home to Sondel and drop her back on Sunday evening after the weekend. They would race cyclo-cross, milk some cows and exchange furtive smiles across the dinner table as Neeltje read the bible.

On November 29, four weeks after Annalisa had arrived in Holland, they made love for the first time. “Be gentle with me,” he smiled. It was also his first time. Seven months later, on June 7, 1987, he got down on one knee and asked her to marry him.

“Friesland is very formal and traditional and we had an official engagement party with invitations and everything. His mom picked out my clothes — I had double shirts on and looked like a nun!” she laughs.

“His dad was a fun guy, but Neeltje was very conservative. We weren’t allowed to kiss or hold hands or touch each other in public. And we had to sleep in separate rooms.”

Eighty-seven was a make-or-break year for Johannes. He had just turned 25 and it was now or never if he was going to turn professional.

In April, he won a stage of the Tour of Normandy and finished second to Cordes in the Hel van Mergelland.

A month later he won two stages of the Peace Race and the prologue of the Tour of Yugoslavia. And in June, three weeks after becoming engaged, and a day after winning the National Road Championship, he got an offer to turn professional with PDM.

Two weeks later, a two-year contract ($50,000 pa) and a cover letter arrived in the post:

Dear Johannes,

Please find enclosed the agreement we made with you with regard to your contract. Please return a copy to us with your initials on each paragraph and your signature on the last page.

I expect and hope that this is the start of a successful career for you as a professional cyclist.

Sporting greetings,

JM Krikke.

“He was really proud,” Annalisa says. “It was the ultimate dream for him.”

His last months as an amateur were spent preparing for two major events: a World Championship in Austria he would again watch from the side (“Andre Boskamp, the Dutch coach, was an asshole. He screwed with Johannes’ brain for two years”) and his marriage to Annalisa.

It was a cold, snowy Friday morning in December when the car (sent by PDM) arrived at the house and brought them to the small brown church on Buekenswijkstraat. They were honeymooning in the US and would start their wedded life, and Johannes’ first season as a professional, at a rented house in Hoeven.  

Life could not have been better.

NEXT WEEK: “They gave him something that kept him in the race.”

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