Wednesday 26 October 2016

Paul Kimmage: Views and reviews differ on Rough Ride

Published 06/12/2015 | 17:00

‘A Rough Ride’ was first published in May 1990 and the thing that stands out is a front page of the Evening Press.
‘A Rough Ride’ was first published in May 1990 and the thing that stands out is a front page of the Evening Press.

"He could never have known that it would pollute friendships, some of them very long standing, but the reaction did show just how serious the problem is. And you have got to believe that the hostility was related to the guilt that some clearly felt. It was inevitable that there would be a bitter rejection of Kimmage's book. For me it was a bit like Serpico, the guy exposes the corruption and is then accused of treachery."

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- Hugh McIlvanney,

The Sunday Tribune,

November 25, 1990

I was in London last week, perusing the glorious shelves of Foyles on Charing Cross Road when I happened upon I Think Therefore I Play, the recently published autobiography of the Italian footballer, Andrea Pirlo. The book had been well reviewed and I was curious.

'Okay, Andrea, what have you got?'

(First paragraph)

A pen. Beautiful, granted, but still just a pen. A Cartier: shiny, a little bit heavier than a biro and emblazoned with the Milan club crest. But still just a pen.

(Second paragraph)

The ink cartridge was blue. Plain old blue. I looked at the pen, spun it around in my hand like an infant examining its first soft toy. I studied the thing from a few different angles, seeking out hidden depth and meanings. Trying to understand. Trying so hard that I felt a headache coming on and a few drops of sweat slide down my face.

(Third paragraph)

Finally, the flash of inspiration arrived. Mystery solved: it was, indeed, just a pen. No added extras. Its inventor had left it at that. Deliberately? Who knows?

(Fourth paragraph)

Suddenly I heard a voice. "For goodness sake don't use it to sign for Juventus."

I started laughing.

'Wow! That is absolutely class!"

There's not much class to A Rough Ride. I pick it up from time to time and wince at the clunky prose and wonder how it has survived.

(First paragraph)

I knew it would be hard this morning. In a race that lasts three weeks there are good days and bad days and survival is all about morale. With weak legs and a good head you can go a long way. With good legs and a weak head you go nowhere. This morning, I rode out of Toulouse on the twelfth stage of the Tour de France with a week head.

Not exactly Pirlo.

It would be a different now. I'd smooth the edges and dry the sweat and make it literary and profound but whose book would it be then? And would that really make it better?

It was first published in May 1990 and the thing that stands out, when I reflect on that turbulent summer, is a front page of the Evening Press. It was a Saturday afternoon at Easons in O'Connell Street and I was sitting in the middle of the store signing books as a bundle of first editions was delivered to the shelves.

"Best wishes"

"Best wishes"

"Best wishes"

The headline was visible from across the floor - 'ROCHE MAY SUE OVER LATE LATE' - and when I picked up the paper I was absolutely incredulous:

"Ireland's Tour de France hero is taking legal advice after watching a video of last week's Late Late Show where his friend and former cycling colleague, Paul Kimmage, spoke about drug-taking in the sport.

"Roche, Sean Kelly and Martin Earley will this weekend meet to discuss the matter, when they come together for a cycling event in Canada, according to Roche's Irish manager.

"Kimmage, now a journalist, has told how he himself once took drugs, amphetamines, 'to fight the battle with the same arms as everyone else.' Interviewed by Gay Byrne, he revealed a serious problem of drug abuse in the sport, and told how he had seen other riders injecting stimulants to improve race performances. Now, it is understood, Stephen Roche is 'taking advice about legal action'."

The rough ride had begun.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Ten months earlier, in August 1989, I'd sat down to write a book I was sure Roche and my former team-mates and friends would embrace and applaud. Doping was pervasive in the sport. A Rough Ride would highlight the problem and make it better for all involved. But I got it wrong. I got him wrong.

"I learned things from Paul's book that I never knew," he told The Irish Times. "He said he's seen riders taking stuff during races. It may happen, but I've been in professional cycling for ten years and I can put my hand in the fire and say I've never seen it."

It was an interesting summer. A Rough Ride was received very differently in England and Ireland. The BBC sent a camera crew from London to the Tour de France for a special feature on the book: RTé had a crew on the race - they covered every stage that year - and completely ignored it.

"There are a lot of Tour stories that we would love to do but we simply don't have the resources," a producer explained. "We can't deviate too much from the race."

And compare this review from Liam Hayes in The Sunday Press:

"The afternoon at Chateau Chinon, when he finally succumbed himself and watched the needle lip under the skin of his left shoulder, is distressing. It's also equally important, providing a close-up of the horrible act, and forcing us to watch. We must watch. We must observe his shame, and try to taste his guilt. It's important that we too understand. Or at least try to.

"So why, as I offer my thanks for this glimpse of the underbelly of professional cycling, do I want to instantly dismiss the informant as just another wretched cyclist who was pinned to his saddle with a disgusting needle? Like Chappuis. Like the hundreds of domestiques whom, Kimmage says, share his story.

"I admire him, but at the same time I find myself forcing a label over his face with cheat scribbled on it. Why do both feelings run parallel, and fast? He only charged himself three times! Why is it so difficult to imagine him as a victim?"

To McIlvanney's observations in The Sunday Tribune:

"(The book) dealt with two important themes, corruption and failure. Kimmage had come to terms with his own failure in the sport, with the realisation that his talent was an inadequate vehicle for his dream. He also had to handle the drugs question.

"His lack of success made him vulnerable to the accusation that he was embittered by his own experience but there is not the slightest trace of envy or malice in the book. His treatment of failure and corruption are what make this a book of real substance."

Thankfully, there was no Twitter or Facebook then - anyone who wanted to abuse me had to do it to my face - and after six stressful and difficult months, the book was awarded the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in London. Twenty five years later, I can still feel the buzz.

I went back there on Monday to Charing Cross Road. 'Sportspages', once the finest sports bookshop in Britain and the home of the 'William Hill', is now a tapas restaurant, but it was a short walk to the sports section at Foyles. I bought a copy of Pirlo and scanned the shelves for Rough Ride. It's still there.

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