Tuesday 12 December 2017

Kimmage's superb film a sad story of unrequited love

The Couch

Irish sports journalist and former professional cyclist, Paul Kimmage.
Irish sports journalist and former professional cyclist, Paul Kimmage.

Tommy Conlon

Standing on a blasted mountain slope in the French Alps, Paul Kimmage finally got to the moral core that's been at the heart of his hurt for over 20 years.

He was speaking beside a granite memorial to the English cyclist Tommy Simpson, who died at that spot in the 1967 Tour de France. Dehydration, heat exhaustion and a lethal dose of amphetamines had led to heart failure as he struggled up Mont Ventoux.

Last year Kimmage and a documentary film crew followed the Tour on its three-week odyssey. One of the stages was through Ventoux's barren stone landscape. Simpson's memorial has become a shrine. Kimmage felt that cycling's pilgrims could choose a more appropriate place of remembrance.

"I would bring them (to) a small little graveyard in Holland, to the gravestone of Johannes Draaijer, a young Dutch kid who I raced with as a professional in 1989. A year later he's at home in Holland and his (wife) wakes up in the middle of the night and he's stone cold in the bed beside her."

Draaijer was 26. He'd died from cardiac arrest, possibly brought on by ingesting the blood-boosting drug, EPO. Some 20 cyclists died in similar circumstances during those years.

"And you think, what utter fucking madness. What utter fucking madness! And no one said stop. No one said stop."

Except, of course, Kimmage said stop. He was one of the first. He shouted it off the rooftops in his 1990 memoir Rough Ride, a book that has become a classic of sports literature and which remains in print to this day.

The documentary film Rough Rider had its premiere on RTE last Monday night. It is a superb piece of work. It captures Kimmage in all his naïve courage, fierce intelligence and unfiltered emotion.

And in passing too it offers a comforting reminder that one book can still wield so much power. Rough Ride went off like a bomb inside the Masonic guild that is professional cycling. It broke the code, it exposed the secrets of the cult from within.

Kimmage quit the game before he wrote the book. In doing so he swapped the suffering of the long-distance cyclist for the loneliness of the long-distance whistle-blower.

He was born into cycling's community. Cycling was family. It was a way of life. It was all the ties that bind. And after the book, those ties were sundered. He was banished from this world. His own society shunned him. He was stigmatised, smeared and traduced. And he has remained on the outside since. It has been a long exile from his own people and, one imagines, it has left a lingering psychic wound.

It is in many ways a sad story of unrequited love. Because while cycling tried to give up on him, he has never given up on it. He sees the damage it is doing to itself and he wants to fix it. But he will only go back when they've given up the drugs and gone clean. They've tried rehab a million times only to relapse again, and again and again. So he watches and waits.

"At what stage," he asks in the film, "given how often we've been betrayed, can you start believing again? At what stage can we make that leap of faith? We don't know. And that's the tragedy of it now. We don't know."

As relationships go, it is a perpetual purgatory of mistrust, confusion and insecurity. It is heartbreaking, in contrast, to see the innocence and delight on his face as he's interviewed on television after completing the 1986 Tour. As the peloton rolled into Paris on the final day, Kimmage caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. "It was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen, and one of the happiest days of my life."

Within a couple of years, everything had changed. On the cover of Rough Ride is a photo of Kimmage on his bike labouring up a mountain. Behind him is a figure in white, another young penitent of this dark trade, Johannes Draaijer.

His brother Kevin says Paul had a vibrant sense of humour when young that has since faded away. But it must be said that he remains, perhaps unbeknownst to himself, a natural comedian. During last year's Tour he is filmed driving a camper van up the famed Alpe d'Huez. He is beeping the horn manically through the insane traffic. An amateur cyclist squeezes past. As he does, he grabs the van's wing mirror and shoves it back on its hinges. Kimmage isn't best pleased. "Fuckin' asshole!" he yells. And then, for good measure, "Prick!" Personally, I was in knots.

The 2013 Tour was the 100th edition. To mark the occasion, its organisers invited back every cyclist who'd ever finished the Tour to view the final stage. They would watch from a special stand as the peloton rolled down the Champs Elysees. Kimmage was there among all the other old pros who'd accomplished this magnificent feat of athletic endurance.

He says that people in cycling have slowly come to understand why he wrote the book, given all the scandals and tragedies that have occurred in the years since. There is maybe now a thaw in the relationship. And his presence in Paris that day among all the other old soldiers seemed like a homecoming of sorts.


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