Friday 24 November 2017

Paul Kimmage: On track after a rough ride

There have been some tough times for Paul Kimmage but despite a bust-up with his closest friend and a spell on the dole, the award-winning sports journalist and former cyclist is back in the saddle, finds Donal Lynch

DRIVEN: As a teenager, Kimmage pursued a career in cycling with fervour. He was a contemporary of Stephen Roche and rode in the Tour De France, before later switching to journalism. His first book was a detailed expose of the sport. Photo: David Conachy
DRIVEN: As a teenager, Kimmage pursued a career in cycling with fervour. He was a contemporary of Stephen Roche and rode in the Tour De France, before later switching to journalism. His first book was a detailed expose of the sport. Photo: David Conachy
SURVIVOR: Kimmage was named one of the top ten most influential sportswriters in Britain, but was laid off by the Sunday Times after a decade there. Photo: David Conachy
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

THE Christmas tree twinkles in the corner. Paul Kimmage is laden down with shopping and ruddy-cheeked from the cold. A pleasingly corpulent Santa has just appeared over his shoulder and Michael Buble's syrupy crooning drones away in the background. But, as perfectly festive as this all looks, we're struggling a bit with a crucial component of the yuletide scene: goodwill to all men.

It's been almost a quarter of a century since Kimmage's seminal cycling expose Rough Ride was published and a documentary on his life and career -- Rough Rider -- is in the works.

It's a time for taking stock and, perhaps, for giving thanks. But it's also been an emotionally tough year for the award-winning sportswriter and it's clear that a few people wouldn't make his Christmas card list.

Some of these -- the headline-making villains of cycling -- you'd expect. But others took him by surprise. Aaron Brown, who was managing the fund set up to defend Kimmage against legal actions taken by two former UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) presidents Hein Verbruggen and Irishman Pat McQuaid, has in Kimmage's words, "fucked off with the money" and he can't get any details from Brown in relation to it. For his part, Brown claimed there are taxation issues and liabilities associated with the fund which he has taken on personally and that if the case against Kimmage is ever recommenced, the fund will pay his Defence bills. However, he is no longer responding to emails from Kimmage and litigation is ongoing. Kimmage seems more proud of the fund than any of his journalistic achievements -- principally because it showed the support of the cycling community in which he once felt shunned -- and he describes the "soap opera" of the money as "deeply disappointing".

The other notable omission from his Christmas card list is another legend of the anti-doping crusade, a man whose life and career have been intertwined with Kimmage's: fellow sports writer David Walsh. They met in 1982 on the same day that Kimmage met his wife, Ann -- she had been working for Walsh, taking notes for the journalist after a cycling tour, which finished in the Phoenix Park. From that moment until the middle of this year, hardly a day went by without Kimmage and Walsh speaking. They were all but brothers. And then in July, during the Tour de France, there was a spectacular bust-up, foreshadowed, Kimmage says, by other disagreements.

Some of it had to do with ill feeling around a piece Walsh wrote in which he defended 2013 Tour de France winner, Chris Froome, from what he called "the mob" who had doubts about Froome's performance. Kimmage took his own implied inclusion in that "mob" deeply personally but he is deliberately opaque about what else went on between himself and Walsh. "It's been very, very difficult," he said. "Let's just say we have had a difference of opinion. I spent about two hours in Dublin Airport screaming at him, letting him known exactly what I thought. Then we patched things up again and then July [and the Tour de France] came. What he wrote was also part of it. I don't want to say too much about it out of respect to him, his kids, my kids. I don't know if I will ever speak to him again. We fought in the same trenches for a long time but the difference is that I rode the Tour three times. It runs real deep with me."

You get the feeling that Kimmage is feeling the pain of the loss of Walsh from his life but, for better or worse, he has always been a hostage to his convictions and prepared to sacrifice writing gigs, friends and even the most important relationships of his life for them. At times he seems proud of his unbending mettle -- and he does have quite an ego -- at other times he seems weary of his own doughty nature. To take perhaps the most glaring instance, at one point during our conversation he gestures to his wedding ring and tells me about the "closest I've ever come to going off the rails".

"That's been on my hands for 25 odd years. It came off once. I was doing a book about quadriplegic rugby player Matt Hampson [for which Kimmage won the 2011 William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award] and it was putting huge pressure on me professionally and by extension, personally, and Ann said, 'look you have to step back from this, this is hurting us'. And I lost the head with her and said 'f**k it' and [the ring] came off -- bang! I slammed it down on the f**king table and it was like 'I'm f**king doing this f**king book.''

"It was irrational, irresponsible and wrong. The ring only stayed off a few hours. It was a crazy, stupid thing to do. Nothing was worth that."

Family has always been the motivating force behind Kimmage. He grew up in the 1960s in Dublin, living for part of his childhood in one of the infamous Ballymun tower blocks. His father Christy was a keen amateur cyclist and Paul, the eldest of four boys, revered him. "Being his son growing up, that was massive," he recalls. "I wanted to be him. I wanted to do it from the moment I saw him. We went to the Phoenix Park to watch him race. And as he came to the finish line he shot across the top of the crowd and landed in a heap. And I'm peering through the legs. And I see this distinctive blue leather crash helmet of his and I ran back to my mother who was distraught. Basically I wanted to be him."

In his teens, Kimmage pursued cycling with an almost maniacal zeal, forsaking girls, discos and drink, going to bed every night at 9pm. The goal was to become a professional, and Kimmage was steeped in the sport. His father had managed Sean Kelly during the Tour of Ireland and Stephen Roche was a contemporary of Paul's -- they would go to youth hostels together as teenagers. The three men remained close as Kimmage settled into their professional shadow, a decent journeyman who was once road race champion of Ireland and rode in the Tour de France, but never a star of their calibre.

The spoils were commensurate with this. His career in pro cycling began with a suitcase and ended with a van full of "crap" furniture. After that he moved into journalism and his income "trebled overnight". There would therefore have been no need, he tells me, to write an expose of cycling, thereby alienating almost everyone he knew, but it was something he felt he had to do. "I was naive," he says, of Rough Ride, his first book. "I thought it would change things. I actually thought it would make a difference."

For many years Kimmage wrote for the Sunday Independent but left after an incident in 2002, in which he felt a quote from an interview with Roy Keane (in which Keane joked that he got his kids names tattooed on his body but not his wife's name, since they would always be his kids but she wouldn't necessarily always be his wife) was taken out of context. Keane was one of the ones that got away -- Kimmage has called him the most fascinating figure in sport and would have loved to have co-written his autobiography -- and another is Olympian-turned-barrister Michelle de Bruin. "I would love to have (De Bruin) sitting opposite me and have her really explain why she did it," he says. "I bear her no malice whatsoever. She never understood that it wasn't about her. She cried on the Late Late about how badly she'd been treated by Paul Kimmage. I wanted to tell her: it was never personal. It was about the issue in her sport."

He left the Sunday Independent for The Sunday Times and had a decade there before being laid off last year. The background to his losing his job was his stance on doping in sport, he says. After his famous confrontation with Lance Armstrong, which took place during a press conference before the 2009 Tour of California, Kimmage wrote a piece on Armstrong and says, he was told it couldn't be run, "even though everyone was talking about it". Kimmage added: "Then he made his comeback and I was told I had to write about him and then when I did write about him the pieces ended up being butchered. In 2010, I wrote about Sky, a Murdoch company, and was told 'we can't run that'. In 2011 this was happening more and more. They were saying 'no' or I was saying 'no'. And when cuts were made obviously I was going to be the person to go."

Despite being named as one of the top ten most influential sportswriters in Britain and "thinking I was one of the greatest gifts that sportswriting ever had" he was reduced to walking into the unemployment office in Ballbriggan to draw down the dole. "I'm tempted to use the word 'crushing'," he recalls, "but one good thing that came out of it was that I became a lot closer to my kids [he has a 16-year-old son and a son and a daughter in their twenties]. My youngest broke down crying after [I lost my job]. That really put things in perspective for me. They pick up on the negativity very quickly."

He rebounded with a column in the Daily Mail, although that period too was marked by clashes with editors over willingness to publish hard-hitting stories about doping, and he is now once again writing for this newspaper.

He seems so dogmatic about his principles that I can't help wondering if he himself understands what his breaking point is. "You mean do I have a price?" he laughs. "I would love to say I don't have a price, that nobody can touch me." We glance over at Santa. There is a little boy on his knee who has leaned in to whisper. Kimmage looks back to me. "Of course I have a price" he booms. "Just don't ask me what it is."

Irish Independent

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