clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Rough Ride, by Paul Kimmage

David Walsh says it's the most important cycling book ever written. Pat McQuaid hates it. Hein Verbruggen has never read it. William Fotheringham has dubbed it Gone With the Whinge. Graeme Fife has described it as being a litany of complaints. Stephen Roche still moans about it. And now, with the UCI attempting to do to Paul Kimmage what they did to Willy Voet after his Breaking the Chain was published, the Café Bookshelf finally gets around to adding Rough Ride to the shelf.

Current_mediumTitle: Rough Ride - Behind The Wheel With A Pro Cyclist
Author: Paul Kimmage
Publisher: Yellow Jersey Press
Year: 1990 (updated 1998 and 2007)
Pages: 336
Order: Random House
What it is: Cycling's J'Accuse
Strengths: Kimmage's sincerity shines through in his passion and his rage.
Weaknesses: It was all a long, long, long time ago. Wasn't it?

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it
~ Santayana

Cast your mind back, if you can, to 1998. Dublin was en féte as it prepared for the grand départ of the Tour de France. Over in the UK, Rachel Cugnoni's newly established Yellow Jersey Press had just rescued Paul Kimmage's A Rough Ride from out-of-print obscurity: stripped of its indefinite article and with a new intro and outro, Rough Ride was back on the bookshop shelves. And in Dublin that re-opened an old wound in Irish cycling.

Back when A Rough Ride was first published, in May 1990, Kimmage wasn't just castigated for breaking the law of omertà, for spitting in the soup. Here in Ireland Kimmage was castigated for placing a cloud over the reputations of Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche, both of whom were still riding at that time. Not for anything Kimmage said about them in A Rough Ride. But rather for something he didn't say when interviewed on Irish TV about his book.

Kimmage was appearing on The Late Late Show, hosted by the oleaginous Gay Byrne. After some brief foreplay Byrne quickly cut to the chase: "The implications of what you've written are that everyone is doing it [doping]. What about the lads? What about Stephen and Sean?" Kimmage batted the question back at Byrne: "What about them? This is my story. It has nothing to do with them."

Kelly greeted Kimmage's book and his appearance on The Late Late with his trade-marked eloquent silence. Roche, on the other hand, was particularly displeased with Kimmage's response to Byrne, as he recounts in the most recent volume of his autobiographies, Born To Ride:

"he should have said either yes or no, otherwise the suggestion was that Sean and I had been doping. He should have clarified the issue, rather than leaving this big cloud hanging over us. [...] I held that against him because he knew me. He had shared the same room as me for a year and a half, so he could have answered that question one way or the other."

Could Kimmage have given a different answer though? Kelly had two doping busts at that time, the stimul bust from 1984 and the 1988 codeine positive. And did sharing a room with Roche at races during their time together at Fagor really mean Kimmage knew whether Roche was clean or not? Consider Roche's response when I asked him recently about Guido Bontempi's testosterone bust during the 1987 Tour:

"In those days you didn't know what was going on in the room next door. And you didn't care. There was no big king of doping in those days. I didn't know what people were doing in their corner and they didn't know what I was doing in my corner of the building. It wasn't something you spoke about. I'm taking my vitamins, they're taking their vitamins or whatever they're taking."

A week after his appearance in The Late Late Kimmage was hit with the threat a lawsuit, delivered though the pages of the Evening Press by Roche's one-time mentor Peter Crinnion, a former pro who was a contemporary of Shay Elliott and one of the men who zealously guards Elliott's memory. The same story quoted an unnamed "senior cycling official" saying this:

"He glossed over the fact that top riders like the three mentioned [Kelly, Roche and Martin Earley] just would not take any drugs because they are tested so often. Kelly was tested every day in the last Tour de France - he just wouldn't risk it. [...] The big guys don't risk it and the amateurs wouldn't be bothered. It is just the second-string pros who are struggling to scrape a living who go in for it."

(You might be asking who that anonymous senior cycling official was and what became of him Me, I want to know how many times he crashed in order to give him amnesia over Kelly's two positives. And all the other top riders who'd popped positives down through the years.)

Eight years on from that encounter and with Rough Ride re-issued Roche renewed his war of words with Kimmage as Dublin geared up for the Tour. Sam Abt separately interviewed both Kimmage and Roche for his book about the 1998 Tour:

Kimmage: "I love this sport. It was from love of the sport that I took the decision to write the book. Because it would have been easy to take a job on the paper, say nothing, and be buddy-buddy and pally-wally with everyone. But what service would I have done to the kids who were coming into the game?"

Roche: "He has to wake up some time and realise what he's doing to the sport in general. Yes, it's OK to wake everybody up to the danger of drugs, I do agree, but at the same time there's a limit as to what you can say. He's said it once, OK, but he keeps saying it again. I say kids today need sport to keep them out of trouble, to keep them away from drugs, to keep them out of delinquence. So encourage them to ride a bike. Don't tell them that if you ride a bike well, you have to take drugs. Say it a little but don't go on and on, please."

Kimmage: "The book was written to highlight the ambivalence of the authorities to the problem. They were the target. It wasn't the bike riders. The book wasn't written to portray those who do drugs as baddies and those who don't as goodies. Once the system addresses the problem and the guys keep taking stuff, they're no longer victims. That's when they become cheats. When the preventive measures are in place, and the penalties are laid down, and they still insist on looking for the edge, then they become cheats. But the authorities haven't answered to the problems. They have to, they can't keep ignoring it."

Interviewed by In Dublin magazine, Roche was even more scathing in his comments about Kimmage:

"He's using this whole thing to give himself profile. What he's doing is encouraging parents not to put kids on bikes because he's making this drugs thing sound more widespread than it actually is. The Tour de France is the biggest annual sporting event in the world and all Paul Kimmage is doing is bringing it down. He's a sensationalist journalist."

Unfortunately for Roche, the whole world was about to discover just how widespread this drugs thing really was. Five hundred kilometres to the east, in Lille's Palais de Justice, Willy Voet was appearing before Judge Patrick Keil. The Tour de France was about to endure its own rough ride. And Kimmage's revelations about our sport suddenly seemed far from being sensationalist as doping pushed cycling off the back pages and onto the front. The whole world got to see just how fucked up cycling had become.

It didn't have to be like that. It shouldn't have been like that. In a fair and just world those who governed cycling in 1990 - Luis Puig as head of the UCI and Hein Verbruggen as head of the FICP - would have heeded the message before things got so bad. And that message wasn't just being delivered by Kimmage. A year before A Rough Ride was published Freddy Maertens published his autobiography, Niet Van Horen Zeggen (Not From Hearsay). Four years later that was translated into English as Fall From Grace. Though without the substance of Kimmage's book, Maertens still confirmed much of the gist of what Kimmage said in A Rough Ride: cycling's doping problem was far more widespread than people had tried to claim it was. And it wasn't just books pointing out the problems in the sport. Continental newspapers were waking up to the rise of Gen-EPO.

Had those who governed our sport at that time paid any attention at the stories being told by retired pros and being told in the sports sections of the newspapers they read, then those stories would have been heeded. Action would have been taken. That's how a fair and just world works. But we don't live in a fair and just world. Nobody was listening. Greg LeMond was opening up the New World to cycling and those charged with its governance were too busy looking to the future to want to address the problems confronting the sport.

Nobody was listening? That's not entirely true. At the bottom of cycling's great pyramid scheme fans were listening. And, when Rough Ride was reissued in 1998, in the newly globalised village of the internet age those fans came to realise they weren't alone. New websites like Cycling News began to collect the stories being reported the world over as the skeletons in cycling's wardrobe rattled their bones. Yellow Jersey Press followed up on the success of the re-issued Rough Ride with Jeremy Whittle's Yellow Fever and William Fotheringham's translation of Willy Voets' Breaking the Chain. The truth was out there and you no longer needed to speak multiple languages in order to read it.

* * * * *

Why, of all the books written about cycling's doping problem, do people keep coming back to Rough Ride? Some of it I think has to do with Kimmage himself. He's the little guy standing up to authority. Compared to David Walsh - a bloody great Irish wolfhound with a bite as big as his bark - Kimmage is the underdog. We all love the underdog, want to cheer him home. As well as that there's the fact that, as a rider, Kimmage was nothing special, 'just' a domestique, a water carrier, albeit one who got to become a Man of the Tour and ride into Paris in the peloton. The point is that it's easier to relate to Kimmage than to the heroes of the sport who normally get to write their autobiographies. And then there's that he's no holier than thou Simon Pure: Kimmage didn't exactly swim in the doping sea but he did dip his toes in it and get his feet wet. He's human. All too human.

That though doesn't really explain the unceasing popularity of Rough Ride. Back before the internet enabled word of mouth to cross continents with ease, back before Kimmage became a regular voice on radio - called on to comment on the latest scandal besetting our sport - Rough Ride was a word of mouth cycling classic. Which means there's got to be something within its pages that makes it a book people read and tell others to read.

Let me pose a different question: why hasn't Rough Ride been superseded in people's affection by the more damning Breaking The Chain or Matt Rendell's The Death Of Marco Pantani or even now by David Millar's Racing Through The Dark or Tyler Hamilton's The Secret Race? Ok, let's dismiss the last two because, although cyclists have magpie-like tendencies and love everything shiny and new, they're still too recent to be considered classics. Breaking The Chain? There's a part of that that is almost boastful, celebrating the ingenuity of those on the other side of game. It's a bit of a guilty pleasure is Breaking The Chain. But what of Rendell's Pantani book? Personally I think that is a better book than Rough Ride: Rendell tells a darker story that touches on some of the same themes as Kimmage but still ends leaving the reader with some hope. Not of a sport without doping, but of a way of still staying in love with a sport that lies to your face.

I guess the key difference between Rendell and Kimmage's books is passion. Rendell does a brilliant job of telling his tale somewhat dispassionately. Kimmage on the other hand is all passion, shuddering with a tempered rage at the injustice of what was allowed happen to cycling. The sincerity of Kimmage's story of lost innocence shines through that rage. And I guess a lot us who follow this sport can relate to that lost innocence.

For some it resonated with their own experiences on the bike. For others it resonated with the way they'd come to see cycling as a sport. Remember here that it was only a year after A Rough Ride was published that the Intralipid affair rocked the 1991 Tour. Even if those journalists who told us then that that wasn't doping were right, the syringe was already casting a more visible shadow over the sport. And that shadow only darkened as the years went on. Reading Rough Ride in the darkness of those years, fans falling out of love with the sport could take some comfort from Kimmage confirming that it was the sport that was betraying their love and not the other way round. Small comfort, but some.

As well as that small comfort Rough Ride gave - and still gives - some focus for fans' anger. Kimmage didn't name and blame fellow riders or those in the teams' entourages for what had happened to cycling, what had happened to him. Kimmage pointed the finger clearly at the UCI. Dopers have come and dopers have gone down through the years since Rough Ride was published. We've heard about rotten apples and rogue teams. But one thing has remained constant: the UCI.

* * * * *

1998_mediumIn the new intro and outro added to the 1998 edition of Rough Ride Kimmage ran through the rise of Gen-EPO and the inaction that that was met with by the authorities. He also ran through some off the fallout from the book's publication, particularly here in Ireland. And then Festina happened. Nine years later, in the wake of Operación Puerto, Yellow Jersey Press issued the current version of the book. Kimmage added a fresh, brief intro in which he said he really wanted to write "a 10,000-word opus on Lance Armstrong: 'How Professional Cycling Got The Champion It Deserved.'" Instead he added an eloquent and poignant obituary for Thierry Claveyrolat, a former team-mate and friend. Rough Ride ended that friendship. Claveyrolat eventually ended his own life.

Kimmage also added something else: humour. In the intro to the 1998 edition Kimmage had talked about wanting to re-write the whole book à la Raymond Chandler ("When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun."). In the years after that I think he must have moved on from hard-boiled noirs and been watching screwball comedies, maybe Howard Hawks's His Girl Friday. Take the following scene. Kimmage has just been called into his Sunday Times editor's office:

- I want you to cover the Tour this year.
- I'd rather go to the Open.
- I want you to go to the Tour.
- I went last year.
- Yes, you stayed for three days and wrote a story about drugs. Why not cover the race from start to finish?
- Three weeks?
- Yes.
- That's a lot of drugs stories.
- You don't have to write exclusively about drugs. How many times did you ride the Tour?
- Three.
- Well, what if you were to write a personal diary about how it feels to go back?
- Because I'd rather write a personal diary about the Open.
- You never played in the Open.
- I'm working on my handicap.
- Think about it.

And he did. And he went. And he wrote. And that's how come Rough Ride now ends with the 2006 Tour as a cycling screwball black comedy.

One day - soon hopefully - Rough Ride will get its third update and Kimmage will get to writing his 10,000 words on Lance Armstrong. Maybe he'll go back to Chandler. There'll be smoking guns all over the place.

* * * * *

Original_mediumLet's end with the original message of Rough Ride, the reason the book retains its importance two decades on. The root of the problem, in Kimmage's analysis, was the lack of doping controls. Sometimes in the mornings of split-stages on tours. Often on the last day of stage races. But particularly at too many of the smaller races that awarded FICP points.

Hein Verbruggen, while in charge of the FICP, had introduced the points system in 1983. In Ireland we loved it because every month the same name headed the list: Sean Kelly. The points system seemed like a good idea at the time, a way of putting some order on the professional cycling season and guaranteeing entry to the top races for the top teams, offering their sponsors certainty. Riders earned points based on where they finished in designated races. Teams were rated on the basis of the points scored by their five best riders. The twenty teams with the most points got to go to the best races. Performance was rewarded.

The problem was with the way the points were awarded. A minor French classic that might merit no more than a squib in L'Équipe could earn a rider the same number of points as finishing fifth in a major race like Paris-Nice. And while the race to the sun would have some anti-doping controls the same could not be said of those minor races. They came to be known as Grands Prix des Chaudières, riders of all levels 'heating up' in order to win and score those all important FICP points. Points meant pay-cheques. No points meant no contract.

"This," as Kimmage put it, "is what we were up against: we play with the rules we have been given to play with." Remember here that as far as most people were concerned - and some clearly still are - the rule was not 'thou shalt not dope.' It was 'thou shalt not get caught doping.' Without a doping control there was no rule banning doping. Enhanced performance was being encouraged by the UCI.

That's the problem. What was the solution, what was Kimmage's call to action in Rough Ride? This:

"Sooner or later the can of worms must be opened and the full magnitude of the abuse exposed. The governing body must be prepared to wash its dirty laundry in public if the sport is to hang on to some decency. When every professional race has comprehensive dope controls; when random controls are carried out anywhere and at any time; when penalties for offenders are stiffened to provide a reasonable deterrent; then and only then, can we relax."

That was written in January 1990. How would you rate the response to it in the years since? The doping controls are now in place, though there are still drugs that cannot be tested for. The penalties are far more severe than they were in Kimmage's day, when you got six month suspension at worst. In 1998 the lid was taken off the can of worms. And again in 2006. And again in 2007. And yet again this year. That's what you might call progress, I guess.

But what of the other call to action, the need for the UCI to wash its dirty laundry in public? Let's answer that with an excerpt from a motion put to the recent UCI Annual Congress in Maastricht:

"Awareness of what has happened, or even sanctions for violations that have been detected many years afterwards, do not enable to undo and clean up what has to be accepted as a dark period in cycling's history;

"There is no point in continuing to re-examine the past of then undetectable doping and stigmatize the sport of the young generations now that the situation has considerably improved through UCI's continued efforts."

(If we are not to re-examine the past of then undectable doping why are samples put on ice and the promise-cum-threat of retroactive testing dangled in front us?)

The past, as far as the UCI are concerned, is a foreign country. And one of the few they do not wish to financially exploit. Nor do they approve of others trying to exploit it. That Congress motion went on to call on the UCI "to ignore attempts to exploit commercially or otherwise the painful aspects of cycling's past."

Do you want a list of some of those who have succeeded in commercially exploiting painful aspects of cycling's past? Tyler Hamilton. Bjarne Riis. David Millar. Laurent Fignon. Willy Voet. Paul Kimmage. Freddy Maertens. Were I to go on to list all the confessional autobiographies that have never been translated into English we could be here for a long time yet.

That Congress motion in favour of ignoring the stories publicly being told about the past by people who know what went on then was passed by thirty-eighty of the forty-two voters present. Hein Verbruggen's personal belief that reading such books is a waste of time is now official UCI policy.

The next edition of Rough Ride ought carry this blurb on its front cover: ignored by the UCI.