I read Paul Kimmage’s Rough Ride in the spring of 1991. Why? I’m not sure to this day. I didn’t believe there was a drug problem in professional cycling and am not by nature a suspicious sort. Yet, for some reason, I decided to pick it up.
The picture Kimmage painted was so alien to what I thought I knew of professional cycling as to be practically science fiction. His was a dystopian world where the dreams of hard working innocents are dashed in a daily regimen. Worse than the tribulations mortals suffered at the hands of the gods in Greek Mythology, to race a Grand Tour among the PROs was clearly preferable to having your liver pecked out by an eagle on a nightly basis. Especially if you raced clean.
I hadn’t thought much of the book for some seventeen years. Then one day in a blaze of discretionary spending, I went nuts on Amazon and picked up a half dozen volumes without which my life seemed incomplete.
As I read the revised introduction I began to see all that I had missed in my first reading. In 1991, I knew the players, but not in the way I do now. The intervening years have given me time to read more about each of the protagonists and to become familiar with others whose names were little more than a footnote to me then. A line from the James Tate poem “The Lost Pilot” came to me as I read: He was more wronged than Job.
The stunner in this isn’t how Kimmage suffered as a pro trying to race clean. No, he was really just incidental damage in a system gone awry. There was nothing particularly malicious in his treatment as he got chewed up racing on bread and water. No, the outrage is how he was treated for, as the French call it, craché dans la soupe—spitting in the soup.
Rider after rider disputed the truth he told, and his hero and team leader Stephen Roche betrayed him and insulted him in a way that might make Roger Clemens smile. And while what was done to Kimmage was unfair and tragic, his personal tragedy was nothing compared to what the sport itself suffered as a result of hanging him out to dry.
Shakespeare himself would appreciate the cruel turn of events that occurred in 1990. As Kimmage was working on Rough Ride, the peloton was familiarizing itself with EPO. And by familiarizing itself, I mean the first Dutch cyclists were having heart attacks in their sleep.
Kimmage showed how the lack of testing allowed the cancer of doping to grow unchecked from the beginning of cycling through to the 1980s. The late 1980s ushered in a new age thanks to few tests, lax testing protocols, a culture that actively encouraged doping as a coping mechanism and three Italian doctors who saw EPO as something of a real-time eugenics program—a way to help the athlete to reach his full potential. It’s fair to wonder if Greg LeMond’s 1990 win at the Tour de France was the last clean win at the Tour.
In reading about Kimmage’s relationship with Irish journalist David Walsh—yes, that David Walsh—a different portrait of Walsh appears. Rather than the single-minded writer known for pursuing any rumor about Lance Armstrong, one sees a knowledgeable sports journalist mentoring a cyclist disillusioned with his sport because of his inability to get on board with doping. One can see how Walsh might have adopted Kimmage’s disillusionment as his own and how he may have grown outraged at those who victimized Kimmage for speaking the truth.
The cautionary tale here isn’t that in pro cycling you will face drug use. No, the cautionary tale is that by ignoring the doping problem when it was relatively simple and unsophisticated, the UCI missed the opportunity to get on top of the problem before it entered the realm of systematic practice. No longer was it the game of the farm boys.
Once doping became the province of doctors who introduced the athletes to the new drugs and team managers who instructed the doctors who peaked when, pro cyclists lost their dream. Kimmage’s story is not uncommon; on the contrary, his is the story of most cyclists of the modern era. It is the destruction of one cyclist's dignity after another.