Monday, March 3, 2008

Raw Deal

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.


bikesgonewild said...

...another excellently crafted article, padraig, of which at the end i can only shake my head in abject frustration... reaction to the start of the new season, tells me my interest is still piqued, but the continuing disingenuous actions by so many of the leading players tells me the song remains the same...

...stay the course, guys, your pov's always makes for interesting reading...

Unknown said...

I've only recently started getting involved with cycling as a sport and have watched the last three TDF. Unfortunately I never got to see the days when the peleton was running clean and lately it has been doom and gloom. hopefully it can get cleaned up but from what I've seen so far there are far too many ego's and infighting involved. We can only hope that teams will start to take the riders who devote themselves to clean racing to come to the forefront.

Anonymous said...

When you said you didn't know why you read Kimmage--well we all did because it was a book about cycling that wasn't a maintenance manual or didn't have a picture on the cover of a grinning idiot in a Bell biker on a loaded trek, somewhere in the Rockies. It was a book about racing, even if it was telling family secrets.
M Burdge

Anonymous said...

Good article. I think you capture the essence of the book and Paul Kimmage mistreatment.

You might be interested in an interview with Paul Kimmage here:

Jim said...

"The farm boys," eh? Isn't that what Lance compared the UCI and the rest of the teams in the ProTour to, in that compelling interview a year or so ago?

The damnedest thing about doping isn't that it's done; it's that the antics of the anti-doping zealots and the secretive, conspiratorial nature of the dopers themselves makes it impossible to trust, to know the truth. Clearly, the rules have changed and doping isn't acceptable any more, but the carpicious enforcement of doping prohibitions, and the witch hunts, do anything but inspire confidence. Can you have faith in riders who make up fantastical stories about 'false' positives? How 'bout the anti-doping agency heads who incite witch hunts, which later turn out to be unsubstantiated? Whom to have faith in? It's not clear to me, and since I can't trust, I can't love. So I watch the races and root for a couple of my favorite riders who I am reasonably certain are dope-free, but the emotional investment in the teams and the broad swath of racers just isn't there for me. It's gotten to the point where I enjoy seeing guys have a bad day in the grand tours, because it tells me that they are less likely to be one of the dopers, and more worthy of my cheers. Maybe there's hope on the horizon, however, with transparent, longitudinal testing of physiological factors. Go Slipstream!

Anonymous said...

"the UCI missed the opportunity to get on top of the problem before it entered the realm of systematic practice."

Doping has been part of cycling long before the UCI existed.

However, what has changed in the last 20 to 30 years (under the UCI's reign) is the effectiveness of the dopage.

EPO, steroids/HGH are much more effective than the simple stimulants used in the past.

These new drugs can turn pack filler into champions.

But, let's not kid ourselves. Doping *is* part of the cycling culture. And thus, to get rid of it you have to effectively change the culture of cycling.

This will not happen overnight...


Anonymous said...

I think 1990 as the date of the last "clean Tour" is a bit naive.

Bert Oosterbosch died of EPO back in 88 and he wasn't the first.

The late eighties were devistated by EPO abuse. Amgen threatened to sue any tests for its use. Lots of young guys were dying. The winners were total junkies. It was a big reason I walked out as a cat 1 in 1989.

LeMond was very much likely exposed to EPO after the hunting accident as it was a new and progressive kidney drug and he was a highly funded patient with a bad kidney.

His antidoping stance just echoes hollow. The year he dropped out of the tour he looked like he had just messed up his blood doping -- something his Junior coach, Eddie B., was a strong proponent.

db said...

The link to the Kimmage interview didn't work for me.

Click here.

gewilli said...

if ya haven't seen these Kimmage Articles:
(edit - the first 5 links are busted but click here for a list of Kimmage articles written about cycling - recently)

give them all read too...

interesting perspectives from an interesting man

bikemike said...

Thanks for the Kimmage link db.
Great topic BKW

mididoctors said...

I think it some what naive to think drug taking was some facet of cycling in the 1990's

the peloton was never "clean"

at the end of the day the riders are the only ones who can enforce a new culture


pompier said...

A very good book, even though its about the unpopular doping subject! I am currently reading "Breaking the Chain," by William Voet. He was the Festina Soigner who was busted at the Franco-Belgian border for carring illegal contra band, and after that, we all know what happens! A crazy part in the book is when William describes how he contained his "Belgian Mix," a cocktail based on amphetamines, stuck under his testicles while the Gendarmeries strip searched him. They told him to spread his legs, in which he did and plop came the drugs! Its almost like watching Oz on HBO!

Bluenoser said...

Everyone has seen the old photographs of riders smoking cigarettes because they thought it would open their lungs before a climb.

That goes way back. The below par will always try to find a way to be par.

Great post.


gewilli said...

smoking to open lungs well - it didn't do that but nicotine is one hell of a good central nervous system stimulant!

Anonymous said...

Great synopsis of what can only be described as a forboding tale of what was to come. Keep it up.

Kazeebo said...

I read Kimmage's book sometime around 2000. It was quite the wake up call for me since many of the names referenced in it were those I recognized from watching my first Tour on TV back in 1989.

Until reading this book, I figured doping was a mid-90's phenomenon...but obviously I was wrong. It just became far more refined and technically advanced. The images of caffeine suppositories and injections being taken while on the bike during races still haunt my mind to this day.

Nice article on a great book for any cyclist to sit down and read.