Rough Ride by Paul Kimmage

Published February 3, 2013 by tootingtrumpet

RRIt’s sat on my shelf for over a decade. Unlike the back copies of Procycling and Cycle Sport in the loft and under the bed, it didn’t grow so distant so quickly, as chronicles of the near past so often do. It had no photos of fallen heroes, no photos of those heroes not yet fallen, no photos of those who may be heroes yet (Boardman, Obree and Lemond and…). But I hadn’t read it, hadn’t wanted to break the spell woven by the voices of David Duffield and Phil Liggett (“IT’S ROCHE!”), hadn’t wanted to know what I merely believed. After reading David Walsh’s Seven Deadly Sins last weekend, the time had come to pick up its precursor.

For a while, it’s rather an ordinary, almost apologetic, read. Kimmage wants to emulate his father and win bike races – he soon does, and joins three other Irishmen, giants of 80s cycling Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly and fellow domestique Martin Earley on the continental pro circuit. There’s some laddish banter, some old bastard managers with hearts of gold (and plenty without) and some minor successes. The only unusual aspect of this rise to the middle is the author, a spiky young man, quick to judge (but usually right) with a gift for observation and recording that marked a talent for writing that had much more potential than his talent for bike racing. (Though he was no loser on the bike – he did his job and he did it well)

Then suddenly, the curtain is drawn and we’re ushered into the murky enclaves of professional cycling. It’s a looking glass world in which those not taking a “charge” are the immoral ones, letting down their mates. There’s the vicious weeding out of the “weak” of body and mind by the managers’, by the fan’s, by the sport’s insatiable desire to win. And there’s the brutality of the races: long miles in the cold, up and down mountains, day after day in which the losers are not those placed behind the winner, but those who get off – it’s as close to gladiatorial combat as is legal, and, boy, did we love it for that. People, as they do, learn to cope – the riders ran for the shelter of the pro cyclists’ little helper.

Kimmage didn’t want that. He remained as true as he could to his romantic image of what cycling could be. He weakened as far as the strong stuff three times in the narrative, but not to win – to survive. Even as clean as he was, hs story is an unedifying tale of needles in bums, suppositories up bums and of dodging the Keystone Kops of the doping controls. Don’t put your daughter (or son) in a stage Mrs Worthington.

Eventually he has had enough of the whole thing and swaps sitting behind the handlebars for sitting behind a computer – and, to his genuine surprise, discovers that he’s a better writer than rider. The diary pieces after stages of the Tour and the Giro are vivid portraits of life on the road, made all the more powerful by being headed by that day’s stage winner and maillot jaune – men never referred to in each day’s account. They might as well have been on another planet – often they were.

23 years after its first publication, the book has little to reveal to the cycling fan who has had eyes to see – cycling’s stars have often been treated like Chuck Connors in Branded. Through those 23 long years, Kimmage (like David Walsh) has been ostracised for “spitting in the soup”, speaking truth to power and challenge the alliances of sponsors, cyclists, managers, doctors and administrators who needed the show to go on, despite all that they knew. He lost friendships and found himself sued by his heroes for talking about a hit of amphetamine on the road, the setting up of a few criteriums and the occasional oiling of inter-team alliances with money – all stuff every cycling fan knew about and largely accepted. I know I did.

Now a journalist, he and Walsh began to find out about stuff stronger than that taken at most nightclubs in Europe. Hormone supplements are only hinted at in Rough Ride, but the genie was already out of bottle. EPO was allowing the riders to fly ever closer to the sun and to fall ever further if they got it wrong, as the blood thickened and the heart just couldn’t pump it. Kimmage’s book was a warning to the future and it was largely ignored by those with the power to do anything about it. And we know where that story ended last month.

Today David Walsh has revealed that he will live with Team Sky this season – the troll no longer under the bridge, but at the heart of cycling’s Number One team. His insider’s tale will be quite different from Kimmage’s – but did there have to be so many casualties laid out on the road between them? The UCI may have to answer that question very soon – and I hope Paul Kimmage is among the inquisitors.

(This review will also be published at Made Good.)

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