is best known as the former professional cyclist who wrote a book, Rough Ride,
about his experiences with widespread doping in pro cycling and the Tour de France, a race he first rode in his rookie year of 1986. Disillusioned with the sport, Kimmage retired from racing after three seasons and became a full-time journalist. In 2009, when Lance Armstrong returned to cycling, at the opening press conference of the Tour of California he and Kimmage had a heated exchange
about doping. Kimmage won the 2012 British Sports Book Award and the 2011 William Hill Irish Sports Book of the Year for Engage: The Fall and Rise of Matt Hampson.
On a recent visit to New York City, Kimmage, age 50, gave a talk at Bicycle Habitat
and later sat for an interview with BICYCLING
. In these excerpts from those two meetings, the Irishman spoke about how his life has changed since the publication of Rough Ride
(1990), pro cycling’s transparency problem, and his unfinished business with the sport’s governing body, the International Cycling Union.
BICYCLING: It’s been 22 years since you wrote Rough Ride. Is there a scene in it that stands out for you to this day?
Kimmage: I was riding the Dauphiné in 1987 and my parents have come over from Ireland for a few days. I’m having a really bad day on the Glandon and my dad is beside the road and I stop. He has a bottle for me and he gives me a drink. I’ve got so much to say to him, like, Look, this is the reality. I’m not a star.
I didn’t actually say that to him, but I felt that’s what I wanted to say. He just shoved me back on the bike and said Kick on; you’re doing good.
I don’t know why I get emotional about it, but I wanted to please my father. He was Irish champion and it was a way for me to impress my dad.
I couldn’t actually read the book for a long, long time. I hadn’t looked at it for nearly eight years before they came out with the updated edition, when they asked me to do an extra chapter and new introduction. It struck me as really raw because obviously it was the first big thing I’d ever written. I’d improved as a writer considerably in those eight years, and when I looked at it I thought, Oh god, why do people think this is good?
But it’s not a journalist’s story; it’s a bike rider’s story. The rawness of it was its power. I was actually a plumber, not a writer, so it’s a bit different for me. Writing doesn’t come easy for me and it never has. If I’m remembered for anything, that’ll be it, and I wouldn’t complain about that at all. I was so naive when I did it. I thought, There will be a little flak about it.
I had no idea what trouble it would cause—the controversy! But it’s really satisfying that 22 years later people are still coming up to me saying, Your book is great.
BICYCLING: You got your start as a sportswriter writing a Tour de France diary for the Sunday Tribune, a national Irish newspaper. How did the diary lead to the book?
Kimmage: I don’t know why initially I thought I could write anything. I was a plumber. I had been kind of good at English in school and writing essays. You know, you talk about fate. In 1982, I raced in the Isle of Man for a week, and the Rás Tailteann [the amateur Tour of Ireland] was finishing in Dublin on the Sunday I came back from the Isle of Man. So I went up to the Phoenix Park to see this girl who was a sister of one of the riders I knew who was riding in the Tour of Ireland. She had turned up at the start of the race a week earlier looking to follow it. There was a journalist there who needed someone to take notes for him in the car, so she spent a week with this journalist taking notes about the race. I go to the Phoenix Park and I get talking to this girl, and she says, Oh, I want to introduce you to this guy, David Walsh. I’ve spent the week with him.
So on that day I meet my wife and I meet this guy, David Walsh, who’s going to change my life, who’s going to introduce me to possibly writing and opened that avenue for me. On the same day in 1980 I meet my wife and I meet David. So it was true, because of that friendship with David, I decided I would try and write a few things. And then as a result of my experiences, and the positive feedback I got from those articles, I thought, Why not try and write a book?
As an amateur I went to Paris in 1984. David had been given dispensation to go write about Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche, who were just massive at that stage—Kelly was really, really big. We went out to the start of Paris-Brussels because David was writing about Kelly. I was just out to see the start of the race and head back into Paris and go training. We’re at the start of Paris-Brussels, Kelly’s there, we go up and have a chat with him, we watch the riders get ready. We’re standing by the start line and the riders are rolling up. And of course classic Kelly wouldn’t check his tire pressure or anything like that. His way of checking tire pressure was to bounce on his saddle and see if there was any movement in his tire. So we’re there and I’m standing just beside David, and Kelly’s looking down checking his back tire, and as he’s doing that I hear this jangle of pills in his back pocket as he’s going by. I look at David and say, Did you hear that?
You can imagine the impact that had on a 20-year-old, hearing this jangle of pills in Sean Kelly’s pocket. I’m thinking, Why would anybody have pills in their pocket riding a bike?
It absolutely just blew my mind.
I get the train and head back to Paris and Dave goes and reports on the race. A week later—“Kelly Positive in Paris-Brussels.” That was the moment, a eye-opener for me. Of course, when I went professional and saw it firsthand, I said we’re going to have to write a book about this and try and explain this.
BICYCLING: Why didn’t you put that in the book?
Kimmage: There are two reasons. The book was about me, really, my experiences. It wasn’t about He doped, he’s a bad guy, and he doesn’t dope, he’s a good guy.
I didn’t want to make it black and white. It was about a problem of the sport, the culture of it, the UCI’s role in that, and what they needed to do to address that.
They brought me on [Ireland’s] “Late Late Show” and I’m asked, What about our boys, Kelly and Roche?
It would have been the easiest thing in the world for me to say, Well, OK, Sean has actually tested positive twice.
I was already getting so much flak from people saying, You made this up; we don’t believe this.
I could have said, Yeah, Sean has tested positive twice.
That would be me saying, Yeah, Sean doped, but Stephen? No, no, he’s fine.
So I wasn’t prepared to hang Sean out to dry when I believed absolutely that Stephen was no different.
BICYCLING: Roche was upset by your book and essentially dismissed it.
Kimmage: I think it was the day after I did that TV program; there was a front-page story in the Evening Press
in Dublin: “Roche May Sue Over Late Late.” Because I didn’t tell [host] Gay Byrne, Stephen Roche doesn’t dope.
Byrne said, What about our boys?
My response was, Look, I’ve written this book about me and my experiences.
I could’ve said, Yeah, Sean did in fact dope—he tested positive twice.
But I didn’t want to hang Kelly out there when I knew Roche wasn’t any different.
BICYCLING: How do you look at the careers of Kelly and Roche today?
Kimmage: There’s two answers to that. It really, really annoys me that they think they have no responsibility for what happened in this era. They do have responsibility for that. They were a link in the chain—a link in the doping chain. They were both the best cyclists in the world. Kelly was the best cyclist in the world for years, the world No. 1. Does the fact that he doped change that for me, change my view in terms of what his ability was? No, it doesn’t. Maybe it should—I don’t know. It doesn’t lessen my view of him as a bike rider. Nor does it lessen my view of Roche as a bike rider. I thought he was absolutely classy, a superb, superb, superb bike rider. The only difference now is that the [doping] products are that much more powerful. You could make someone like Bjarne Riis into a Tour de France
champion; you could never have done that in the ’80s.
BICYCLING: Some say the same about Armstrong. Floyd Landis said that doping aside, Armstrong was still a badass bike racer.
Kimmage: There’s no question that he was. He won the world championship at 21. There’s no question that he was a superb bike rider. I wouldn’t dispute that at all. I would dispute that he was a seven-time Tour winner. I don’t think he would ever have won a Tour without doping. I think [Tyler] Hamilton said Armstrong may have been able to win one Tour. If you look at his career pre- and post-cancer, he never, ever, ever looked like a Tour winner before ’99. That would be my view—fantastic bike rider, but not a Tour winner. I would say no: He would not have won a Tour without doping.
BICYCLING: How did Rough Ride change your career?
Kimmage: Instant notoriety, that’s for sure. [laughs]
I started out in 1990 as a full-time journalist and there were all these other doping issues in other sports—’96, in particular, in Atlanta with [Irish swimmer] Michelle Smith. I never understood the importance of writing this book until 1996 and the Michelle Smith controversy at the Olympic Games, because I realized, If you had not written that book, what a hypocrite you’d be now to be talking about doping in other sports and pointing the finger at Michelle Smith!
And I didn’t actually understand that until six years later. From a career point of view, it was essential that I did it, absolutely essential.
It soured my relationship with cycling for a long, long time, like really soured it. Because I had set out to do what I thought was something good for the sport, to do a good deed for the sport, and to be treated the way I was, I just felt that was a terrible injustice. It made me feel very, very bitter. It made me very bitter about the people in the game for a long, long time. It’s only really in the last ... well, since the Festina Affair. Festina was really the watershed moment, because until ’98 it was too easy to say, Well, you made all this up. But after ’98, it was, you know, I believe you; you were right. That was a game-changer for me. It enabled me to get back to the sport again.