Wednesday 21 March 2018

Paul Kimmage: In Sean Kelly's world, the real dirty stuff started and ended with Lance Armstrong

Sean Kelly: ‘Well I think with Lance Armstrong, when he started out there was . . . as time went on there was a bit of doubt and that gathered momentum until the end’
Sean Kelly: ‘Well I think with Lance Armstrong, when he started out there was . . . as time went on there was a bit of doubt and that gathered momentum until the end’
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

My syringe is prepared. As it's my first time it is decided that 7cc will be enough. Ten to fifteen is the average dose, but the real hard men often use double or treble this.

Amphetamines work strongly for about two to three hours, after which the effects diminish. The criterium will last just two hours, which means we can take them in the privacy of the hotel room before going out to the start. I roll back the sleeve on my jersey. No turning back now. The needle is slipped under the skin of my left shoulder. I'm charged.

Here's how it starts: it's Friday evening and I'm driving home thinking about the day. The interview has gone well; I have four hours of tape that will take a week to turn around but I think it will be worth it. It's raining heavily. I have the radio on and flick back and forth between Drivetime and The Last Word.

Something is bugging me.

Hugh Linehan is standing in for Matt Cooper on The Last Word. It's the Friday evening sports slot and he's talking to Tony Cascarino and Tom English about the Charity Shield - or whatever they call it now - and the return of the football season.

Arsene Wenger, apparently, is not happy with Jose Mourinho; and Brendan Rodgers, apparently, is not happy with Mario Balotelli. But Liverpool might finish top-four and Arsenal could do well and Chelsea will definitely get more of a run for it and . . . Sheeeesh! I'll spare you Van Gaal.

Linehan and English are fine journalists: Cascarino is a fine analyst and one of my dearest friends, but seriously gentlemen? Is this all we have to look forward to for the next nine months? Last year's waffle! The same oul shite! I flick to Mary Wilson.

Something is bugging me.

Sean Kelly
Sean Kelly

It's almost 8.0 when I arrive home: I spend two hours mulling over a column I have to write and am straight out of bed when the alarm sounds at four. I brew some coffee and make some toast and watch the cursor blink on the screen and what was clear in my mind is suddenly foggy.

There's a guy I need to reach on the other side of the world. I can't write the column without speaking to him, and there's no chance I'm going to reach him before my deadline expires. Can I tell the story anyway? Possibly. Do I want to make that compromise? No. I close the laptop and decide to go back to bed.

But something is bugging me.

It's a week ago. I've been invited by the Pattern Festival to St Paul's church in Ardmore to talk about some books I've written. "I've done four-and-a-half," I announce. "Three that I'm really proud of (Rough Ride, Full Time and Engage), one that I'm a little embarrassed by (Andy's Game) and a half-a-book (Brian O'Driscoll) that I'm not supposed to mention at all."

They laughed.

Rough Ride, the story of my life as a professional cyclist, was the reason they had come. I spoke for 40 minutes about the background and how it had been written and then the floor opened to questions - some that I'd been asked before, and one, right at the end, that surprised me.

In August 1987 - the second of my four years as a pro - I had used amphetamines three times. The questioner was curious about the reaction of (Seán) Kelly and (Stephen) Roche. We had raced together a month later in the World Championships in Austria. Did they say anything? Were they disappointed? Shocked? Surprised?

But what if they didn't know?

"I learned things from Paul's book that I never knew," Roche 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. Paul talks about everyone being 'charged up' on the last stage of the Tour de France on the Champs Elysees. That's completely false."

And Kelly? Well, Kelly didn't react at all; not when Rough Ride was published, not when he was questioned by a former soigneur, and not when Lance Armstrong was winning his seven Tours. But lately he has been more vocal. On Thursday, he was a guest on the Ray D'Arcy Show and was asked about the controversy surrounding Chris Froome.

RD: "I've been reading about him and the question about whether he is clean or not . . . What do you think?"

SK: "Time will tell."

RD: (laughs)

SK: "I think he's clean but we're coming out of an environment where anybody that does a performance in cycling, or in sport, there's always that suspicion."

RD: "Yeah."

SK: "Especially in cycling, but I think yes . . . now I'd put my life on it but . . . "

RD: "Yeah but isn't it odd? Isn't in terrible? Because there is so much doubt - it's taken the good out of it, isn't it? Like he was abused by the spectators, he got a glass of urine thrown . . . "

SK: "Thrown at him, yes . . . spat at . . . "

RD: "And David Walsh said that if he isn't clean it's a bigger lie than Lance Armstrong."

SK: "Yeah."

RD: "Probably because of everything that's gone because of Lance Armstrong, everyone is expecting that people would be clean."

SK: "Well I think with Lance Armstrong, when he started out there was . . . as time went on there was a bit of doubt and that gathered momentum until the end when he finally put up his hand. Now I think people are more experienced. Froome has said 'Time will tell.' He said 'This Tour will stand in five years' time' - that was the one two years ago, and the one he's just won."

RD: "The last time we spoke you had your biography out, Hunger, which is a great read, and that was before Lance Armstrong came out and did the confessional with Oprah Winfrey."

SK: "Yes."

RD: "Did you watch all that and have you watched the documentaries?"

SK: "No, I haven't watched it all but I think as time went by it was pretty proven before he did actually come out."

RD: "What's your read on Lance Armstrong? What type is a man is he do you think?"

SK: "Well, he was always a Texan, he was always very arrogant; when I finished up my career, in my final year he was coming into the sport and even at that time, as a young guy, he was that way."

RD: "And I suppose you have had to answer allegations of drug taking, I suppose, over the years and you were found with sorta codeine and . . . like, reading, doing research again I read the book, and yours was sorta petty . . . it was sorta nearly by mistake."

SK: "Yes . . . well, by mistake . . . the codeine was a cough bottle I received in Belgium from a pharmacist that was, you know, into the cycling so . . . yeah, I specifically asked him for something I could take during competition and he gave it to me and then it was a product that came on the list and he hadn't followed it closely enough. But codeine . . . yeah, you can take it as being a positive (test) but as a performance enhancer it's not."

RD: "So there's no sort of spectrum - you're either found with something that you shouldn't have or not."

SK: "Yes."

Conclusion? His two positive tests weren't really that positive; the real dirty stuff started and ended with Lance. And that's been bugging me.

On Monday, a 27-year-old Irish amateur, Ciaran Kelly, was banned for four years after testing positive for Clenbuterol in April 2014. Was the source, as he insisted, contaminated meat? Or a habit he'd picked up during his time spent racing in Belgium as an aspiring pro?

On Thursday, I was told about another top amateur who had travelled through the same minefield and almost been destroyed. And there are plenty more like him. I tried to put them out of my head last week and write something different. I listened to Kelly stick it to Lance and resolved not to react. And that was wrong. I was wrong.

And it's been bugging me.

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