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'He’d heard there was stuff in the book, and me telling him basically to f**k off'

In this extract from ‘The Ascent,’ the fallout from Paul Kimmage’s ‘Rough Ride’ book is recalled.

Paul Kimmage pictured in the 1986 Tour de France.
Paul Kimmage pictured in the 1986 Tour de France.
Image: ©INPHO

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from ‘The Ascent’.

One last lap and then goodbye to all that. On the last Friday of August 1989, as Paul Kimmage soft-pedalled over the Côte de Montagnole in the company of Sean Kelly, Martin Earley, Laurence Roche and John Brady, a Dubliner based as a professional in the United States, it was hard to ignore the occasional pang of regret.

Kimmage still looked the part in his Fagor kit but he was already in the process of stepping off the field of dreams. Two days after Stephen Roche’s abandon at the Tour the previous month, he had climbed off his bike on the road to Montpellier, demoralised by the internal bickering at Fagor.

After finishing the Giro, Kimmage had made up his mind that he was in his last season as a professional bike rider, but without Roche to ride for, he saw no point in going on even that far. He retired there and then. Now, as he rode with the Irish team as they reconnoitred the World Championships course in Chambéry, just 50 miles from his base in Vizille, he wondered if he hadn’t been too hasty.

There would be no raging against the dying of the light as part of Kelly’s big push for the prize he most coveted. ‘That is kind of a regret. I wish I’d gone on and finished that Tour and ridden that World Championships in Chambéry. It would have been a nice way to finish,’ Kimmage says. ‘But there was a poisonous atmosphere at Fagor, so I just said, “Fuck it.” But then, I do stupid things spontaneously…’

Two days later, Kimmage watched from the sidelines as Kelly endured the greatest disappointment of his sporting life. At 33 years of age, Kelly was running out of chances to be world champion, but he rode sagely and bravely on a wet afternoon in the Alps to stay in the hunt, only to be betrayed by his sprint, of all things, in the finishing straight. Greg LeMond took the rainbow jersey, a happily ever after coda to his fairy-tale comeback win at the Tour de France that summer.

An ashen-faced Kelly stood on the podium alongside the American, his head anchored downwards by the bronze medal around his neck. No other defeat punctured his stoicism quite like this one. As a friend and admirer, Kimmage felt compassion for Kelly’s distress; as a nascent sportswriter, he felt inspired by the pathos the occasion inspired. But before he could expound on others from the press box, he had another, plaintive tale to piece together: his own.

Kimmage was an accidental journalist. When David Walsh interviewed him on his debut Tour for Magill magazine in 1986, he found the transcript so compelling – or perhaps his deadline so tight – that he turned in a 5,000-word first-person account.

Over the next two years, Kimmage contributed occasionally to the Irish Cycling Review, but his big break came, ironically, when he was not selected for the 1988 Tour. Walsh had planned to co-write a book on the Tour with Kimmage, but now proposed he write a piece on the race each week for the Sunday Tribune.

Active sportspeople’s columns tend to be bland, ghostwritten and humourless, but Kimmage’s were colourful and darkly comic. At the end of 1988, Sunday Tribune editor Vincent Browne offered him a job. Kimmage declined, but he would pen a column throughout the following season for the newspaper. By the time the Giro came around, it was clear that he was extracting more pleasure from moonlighting than he was from his day job. Ahead of the Tour, he decided to retire from cycling to concentrate on journalism.

In the months between abandoning the Tour and moving back to Dublin to start work with the Sunday Tribune in February 1990, Kimmage wrote A Rough Ride – it would lose the indefinite article by the time an updated edition was published in 1998 – on a Honeywell laptop computer given to him by Browne. Through Walsh, he had signed a contract with the publisher Stanley Paul, who planned to release the book in the run-up to the 1990 Tour de France.

In his newspaper columns, Kimmage had pierced the glamorous veneer of professional cycling by writing about the back-stabbing within teams or providing details like the time he urinated on his hands to keep them warm on a snowy descent at the Giro.

In the book, however, Kimmage felt it beholden upon him to peel another layer from the onion and talk about a topic he had neglected in his columns. The response from his peers to an interview he gave to L’Équipe during his final Tour gave Kimmage the encouragement he needed.

‘The book had been in my head, and then Philippe Brunel interviewed me, and the story ran with a photograph of me in my Fagor jersey with a little electric typewriter,’ Kimmage says. ‘I spoke about the doping problem, how it needed to be addressed, and that I was going to do it. And what was amazing was that one of Kelly’s old teammates, Dominique Garde, came up the next day and said well done. It got a very good reception, which was strange given the omertà. So it was definitely in my head, this awareness of the need to write something about the problem in the sport, and to do something about it. It was the easiest book I ever wrote.’

Kimmage’s fellow Irish professionals had an inkling that he was writing a book, but little notion of what it might contain. Come the spring of 1990, however, when Kimmage covered Paris-Nice for the Sunday Tribune, Roche’s antennae were picking up blips.

‘I spent a couple of days with him at Paris- Nice, and he asked me about it then: “What are you going to be saying?” And that was the first sense that I was a bit wary about it,’ Kimmage recalls. ‘I’m pretty sure I’d have said, “Look, you’ll have nothing to worry about.”’

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By then, the manuscript had been submitted, and though cycling’s doping culture was the central plank of the book, there was not a single accusation levelled against Roche, Kelly or Earley in its pages.

The references to Roche, Kimmage readily admits, were obsequious. His admiration for Kelly was more restrained, but just as obvious, and while Kimmage admitted his lingering resentment towards Earley, the depiction of his one-time rival was ultimately a flattering one.

Kimmage described the prevalence of needles in cycling, the haphazard nature of anti-doping controls and the unwillingness of the authorities to do anything about it, all refracted through his own bid to get by in the peloton without recourse to doping. He confessed to using amphetamine at the Chateau-Chinon criterium in 1987, but, mindful of the outrage it would provoke in Ireland, he was very careful not to specify that the two other criteriums at which he had doped were in Dublin and Cork, respectively.

He did, however, explicitly name some of his RMO teammates in his accounts of doping practices, though they are depicted empathetically as victims of a poisoned culture rather than sensationalised as cheats.

Cycling’s ecosystem was the target, not those who dwelled within it, but it was green of Kimmage to think that such nuance would be appreciated by the likes of Thierry Claveyrolat and Jean-Claude Colotti, particularly when the book was never translated into French.

A month before publication, the Roche camp was growing more anxious. In April, Kimmage fielded a call from Peter Crinnion, and began to realise that A Rough Ride might not be received to universal acclaim.

‘I remember getting a call from him before it came out, saying he’d heard there was stuff in the book, and me telling him basically to fuck off,’ Kimmage says. ‘My hackles were getting up at this stage. But I was very naïve. In the book, I was going to set out what was wrong with the sport. I naïvely thought that the public would see it for what it was, that the lads would see it for what it was, and that it would be well received.’

A Rough Ride was published in May 1990, and Kimmage’s initial sample audience was his own family. His wife Ann and David Walsh apart, none of Kimmage’s family or friends knew anything of his experiences of doping.

Years later, Kimmage came to the belated epiphany that the driving force behind his cycling career had been a deep-seated desire to impress his father – ‘It had fuck all to do with wanting to win the Tour de France or winning everything. It had everything to do with pleasing him,’ he says – even though the equable Christy Kimmage was the very antithesis of a pushy parent.

Christy sat down, read A Rough Ride, and offered his support in the most Irish way possible: he said nothing. ‘My father had no clue I had doped until he opened the book and started reading. No clue,’ Kimmage says. ‘My father, mother and family had no clue. I’d never spoken to them about the decisions I’d made, and what I had or hadn’t seen, in any way, shape or form. And they read it and never commented on it at all to me. Which seemed bizarre.’

Outside of Coolock, the response was less contained. Extracts published in the Sunday Tribune created a stir but it was his appearance on the Late Late Show that brought the book and its author their greatest notoriety.

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Gay Byrne, like everybody else, spotted the paradox at the heart of the book: A Rough Ride showed the prevalence of doping in cycling and the seeming impossibility of being successful without it, yet there was no accusation that Kelly or Roche had doped. ‘What about the lads?’ Byrne asked. Kimmage refused to say yes and he refused to say no: ‘This is my story, it has nothing to with them.’

Roche begged to differ, and the campaign against Kimmage’s book was immediate and sustained. The following day’s Evening Press carried the banner headline, ‘Roche may sue over Late Late’. At the Dauphiné Libéré the following week, he gave an interview to L’Équipe in which he denounced the book, though Kimmage was grateful at least that the journalist, Jean- Michel Rouet, gave him a chance to respond.

On the weekend before the Tour began, Roche wrote a column in the Irish Times reiterating his distaste for the book. ‘I learned things in Paul’s book that I never knew,’ Roche wrote. (There was a certain irony, mind, in Roche’s inference in the same piece about Pedro Delgado’s positive test from the 1988 Tour. ‘Two years ago Delgado was tested positive after taking a product used for wiping out the traces of hormones – well those hormones could be traced now,’ he wrote.

In his Irish Times column during the 1988 Tour, however, his stance was different. ‘I doubt very much whether Pedro was stupid enough to take any kind of hard drug,’ Roche wrote then, in a piece calling for a rather drastic show of solidarity from the peloton. ‘Until there is some kind of secrecy in the test procedure, I think the riders should boycott the Tour’s medical controls.’)

Roche’s indignant and public response contrasted with Kelly and Earley’s radio silence on the matter. Although it wasn’t to be confused in any way with tacit support, Kimmage was grateful enough to thank them in the preface of the second edition.

‘There was no contact with them at all,’ he says. ‘That support was just the fact that they said nothing.’ Even now, Earley claims not to have read the book. ‘No, I don’t read books. I haven’t read any autobiographies, I read textbooks and stuff like that,’ Earley says. ‘I’m not saying there are more important things in life… I didn’t have feelings about it either way, really. That was his story. You could go on. But it is what it was, and that’s it.’

stephen-roche-1993 Stephen Roche (file pic). Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

At the time, Kelly limited himself to telling reporters that he would read the book before he commented on it. More than a quarter of a century on, he professes not to have read it in its entirety.

‘There was a lot of stuff in the book that was true and it came out later. Some of the stuff was maybe a little bit spiced up because he wanted to have a real good book, a real good read, and that’s what I said in the beginning,’ Kelly says. ‘But I didn’t really start picking out stuff and getting into the nitty gritty. I felt that it wasn’t for me to do it. It was Kimmage’s book and that was his version.’

Kelly was advised to hold his counsel by Frank Quinn, though it’s very likely that he would have arrived at the same conclusion under his own steam. ‘His attitude was, “The journalists get paid to write and I get paid to ride the bike. If we differ, that’s fine,”’ Quinn says. ‘I read the book and basically in these situations, the reaction is no reaction. We took that route straight away. Stephen took a different route to the one we took.’

Roche claims that he would not have responded so harshly to the book were it not for Kimmage’s appearance on the Late Late Show, when he refused to dismiss the possibility that Ireland’s first Tour winner had doped during his career.

‘I understood that he couldn’t really get involved in the conversation and put one down and not the other one down. We all know that Kelly had a problem and I hadn’t had a problem,’ Roche says. By ‘problem’ he means a positive test. ‘But if he’s going to go on and knock one and not the other, that wouldn’t look very good either. You understand that with maturity.’

Kimmage had heard pills rattling in Kelly’s pocket at Paris-Brussels in 1984 and witnessed him injecting himself a couple of years later, but in his time sharing a room with Roche at Fagor, they had never so much as discussed doping.

‘He knew that I knew,’ Kimmage says when asked why they never spoke about the topic. ‘I was four years a pro at that stage. I never asked anyone, “What are you doing, what are you taking?” You made your own decisions. If it was in front of you, you saw it, and if it wasn’t in front of you, you didn’t. And you didn’t ask any questions.’

For that reason, Kimmage was unwilling to draw attention to Kelly’s two positive tests in A Rough Ride or on the Late Late Show. A false equivalence would have been drawn with Roche. ‘Kelly had already tested positive twice at that stage and Gay Byrne was saying to me, “Well what about the lads?” I could have said, “Ok, Gay, there’s fucking Kelly, he’s been done twice. Why are you surprised about this?”’ Kimmage says. ‘But if I’d said that, then it means the shining fucking man here, Mr Angel Roche, would be different, and that wouldn’t be fair. So that was the reason for that.’

Although the book became a bestseller, it remained contentious within the confines of the Irish cycling community. Only years later, when he was sent the newspaper cuttings in the mail, did Kimmage learn that an illustrious predecessor had already denounced cycling’s maladies in a strikingly similar fashion.

In a series of ghostwritten articles in the People newspaper in 1966, Shay Elliott had spoken in detail of the use of syringes and doping products in cycling, and the ways riders circumvented controls. ‘What really pissed my father off was that I was being accused of having invented all of this by people he had raced with, Crinnion included, who had gone to France, read those Elliott pieces, seen it first-hand themselves,’ Kimmage says.

Kimmage recalls sending a copy of the book, with a letter of explanation, to Roche’s father Larry, after the Late Late appearance, and given the furore that it provoked, he harbours mild regrets that he hadn’t informed Roche, Kelly and Earley of its contents before publication.

‘In hindsight, I should have sent a copy off to Kelly and Roche a month before it came out so they could have a read of it and be ready. That probably would have been fairer,’ he says. ‘I was finished at that point, but they weren’t, so I could have handled that a bit better.’ He smiles, however, at the idea of what might have happened had he shown Roche the manuscript any earlier than that. ‘He would have got a fucking injunction. He’d have got the lawyers out to stop this. He wouldn’t have been able to do that, but he would have tried.’

Although Roche didn’t stop A Rough Ride’s publication in Ireland, his L’Équipe interview had helped to disseminate a skewed synopsis of its contents in France. Kimmage had enjoyed some respite from the controversy while covering the 1990 World Cup in Italy, but he travelled onwards to report on the Tour for the Sunday Tribune filled with trepidation about how he would be received by his former RMO teammates, specifically his friends Colotti and Claveyrolat.

‘That was really hard because Roche had fucked me with all of them, absolutely fucked me,’ Kimmage says. ‘I remember I called Colotti on the night before the first stage. And he told me to fuck off, basically. So I knew I was fucked then, and I just felt it was pointless trying to explain myself to them. I didn’t put myself in a situation where I’d walk up to them and ask how they were getting on. My attitude was if they want to approach me and have a go, they can, but I’m not going to go up and explain this. I can’t. I felt under siege. I was there, but still hiding.’

And yet, whether he perceived it or not, there was some admiration for Kimmage’s book within the cycling world. Patrick Valcke winced to himself as Roche denounced A Rough Ride.

‘I wasn’t in agreement with Stephen because I thought what Paul did was courageous. Courageous is the first word I’d use, and the second word is right,’ Valcke says. ‘By 1990, Stephen had come into a certain system. He wasn’t the same Stephen of 10 years previously. But it’s normal that when you’ve done 10 years as a pro, you see things differently.’

As Kimmage settled into life as a sportswriter over the following year, diplomatic channels with Roche opened once again. A truce was called, and they cleared the air in, of all places, Roche’s Porsche on the motorway between Lille and Paris. When required, Kimmage would cover Roche, Kelly and Earley for the remainder of their careers, availing of the privileges afforded to a former comrade. ‘They behaved as if it had never happened and I wrote as if it had never happened. I enjoyed the access I got with them,’ says Kimmage.

Considering the rancour that followed, the speed with which Kimmage and Roche drew a line, however temporary, under the Rough Ride falling-out is remarkable. Perhaps both men simply needed each other. Kimmage was building a new career and Roche was always eager for exposure in his home country. ‘You could be riding Stephen’s wife in front of him as a journalist and then say, “Any chance of a quick word?” and such was his love of the microphone, it wouldn’t matter what you did, he would go to the microphone,’ Kimmage says.

The Ascent by Barry Ryan is published by Gill Books. More info here.

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