Paul Kimmage - Who's afraid of Johannes Draaijer?
The premature death of a Dutch cyclist remains unexplained
Published 03/08/2014 | 17:03
A man's death makes everything certain about him . . . One does not know more facts about a man because he is dead.
But what one already knows hardens and becomes definite. We cannot hope for ambiguities to be clarified, we cannot hope for further change, we cannot hope for more. We are now the protagonists and we have to make up our own minds. - John Berger, A Fortunate Man
Almost 25 years have passed since Johannes Draaijer, a handsome 27-year-old Dutch professional cyclist from the province of Friesland, died in his sleep and the mention of his name continues to provoke fear amongst his former contemporaries and friends. The question is why?
Last January, after a visit to his grave, I began reaching out to several of his former team mates. Some refused to talk about him, others spoke on condition of anonymity. This phone call, late one evening in February, was typical. What it conveys is the sense of discomfort: this is a man who would rather not answer questions. What it does not convey is the sense of fear.
"I'm writing a piece about Johannes Draaijer."
"And what happened to him."
"So any assistance you can give me would be greatly appreciated."
"Well, I know you think it's drugs, don't you?"
"Well, I don't know."
"I don't think it is. My belief, honestly, is it's not."
"What is your belief based on?"
"I never saw him do any exceptional rides. I saw somewhere about him, or read somewhere, that he did something exceptional in the Tour one year. But he didn't even ride it that year."
"What year was that?"
"I can't remember. I read it somewhere."
"He rode the Tour with you."
"Did he ride it in '89?"
"Yeah, he rode with your team in '89."
"He didn't do anything then, did he?"
"He finished 20th in the final time trial."
"But there was nothing exceptional . . . I mean 20th in the time trial is pretty good but he was a good time trialist, wasn't he?"
"I don't know anything about him, that's why I'm calling you. You were his team mate. I don't know anything about this kid."
"He was a strong rider but I bet that would have been his best ever performance."
"What do you remember of his death?"
"Do you want to have a think about it and I'll call you back?"
"No I . . . It was . . . When did he die? Was it November or December time or something?"
"It was February of 1990. He had just come back from a race in Sicily. He was home a day and he died in his sleep. Did you ride that race in Sicily or go somewhere else?
"I don't think I rode with him that year."
"In February you mean, at the start of the season?"
"No, I don't think so. I think I was probably in Ruta del Sol (Spain) or something. I don't think I raced with him in Sicily. No, I didn't. But the year before . . . I never saw anything that was exceptional.
"In terms of his performance?"
"What about the doping on the team?"
"What do you mean?"
"There was a lot of doping on the team. How was it done? Where did it come from? Who was organising it?"
"What do you mean?"
"Peter Jansen was the doctor that year."
"I think he was there in '89."
"What sort of fellah was he? What was he doing? What was the routine?"
"I mean there was . . . (exhales). There was nothing exceptional again."
"Okay, let me just explain how this is working. I'm writing about this. I need you to help me in any way you can, so have a think about it and I'll call you about it tomorrow. I've been to Holland. I've spoken to some people there. What happened with Draaijer is an absolute disgrace."
What happened with Draaijer?
"He died in his sleep at the age of 26."
"Yeah, I understand that."
"That was three months after (Bert) Oosterbosch (another former Dutch professional) had died in his sleep and a few months before somebody else. There was a spate of deaths at that time."
"You were Draaijer's team mate. You spent a year racing with him. I don't know anything about him so what I need is anything you can tell me about him. Anything at all."
"I didn't race that much with him."
"You rode the Tour of France with him."
"You rode the Tour of Switzerland with him."
"That's the best part of two months (on the road together)."
"Yeah, but he wasn't winning anything, he wasn't . . . I can't remember anything out of the ordinary."
"Did you go to his funeral?"
"Did the whole team not go?"
"It's going back a long time. I don't know who went and who didn't, but I didn't."
"You weren't shocked by it?"
"Of course I was shocked by it, the same as you would be for anybody of that age. But you know I . . . I didn't link it to anything that I saw that was obvious."
"What have you heard?"
"I've heard a lot."
"I'm not getting into the specifics because I have to write it yet. That's why I'm talking to you. I was hoping you might help me. But obviously you can't help me."
"You never saw any doping on the team?"
"There was no . . . I never saw anything forced on anybody. There was no Armstrong-type system or anything like that."
"Because I've heard that it was forced."
"Okay, have a think about it, and if you think of anything you might give me a shout."
He never called.
NEXT WEEK: The Life and Death of Johannes Draaijer
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