Searing account of the sick soul of cycling still sadly relevant

Between the lines: Paul Kimmage’s A Rough Ride remains one of sports’s seminal books

Summer 1990, and somewhere between finishing my Leaving Cert and going to run in college in America, my dad arrives home with a sports book under his arm, as he often did, hands it to me and says: “You might enjoy that”.

The book is A Rough Ride.

On the front cover is a lone rider on his bike, on mountainous tarmac under a hot sun, jersey unzipped and face flushed with pain, just about gripping the handlebars, oblivious to the gaze of onlookers either side of him.

The rider is Paul Kimmage.


Under the title is a small inset of another rider freshly laid out on the roadside, head on the ground, clutching his right arm in agony, and the subtitle: An Insight into Pro Cycling.

The first and lasting impression of the 200 pages that followed is exactly that, a still startling account which reads as if riding a long and treacherous descent from bright hope and innocence to sheer loathing and regret – and all told straight from the heart of that same rider.

What set it apart then as now is both the writing and the telling of it: by turns darkly humorous and tortuously bleak, Kimmage doesn’t just strip down pro cycling to raw tales of punishment on the bike, utterly devoid of any glamour off it; he also introduces the reader to the needle and the damage being done, of amphetamines being handed around like Smarties to such reckless extent he eventually answers to them, in the end presenting pro cycling as a largely poisoned culture where doping is rife and the governing body appears to turn two blind eyes.

All written, in other words, in a way no other rider of the time had even dared.

In 1990, Kimmage is already known to me and most fans of the sport as one of the Fab Four of Irish cycling, along with Stephen Roche, Seán Kelly, and Martin Earley. In his final season in the pro peloton, in 1989, Kimmage and Roche were riding on the same team, Fagor, both abandoning that year's Tour de France, and taking decidedly different paths from there.

First published that May of 1990, it didn’t take long for A Rough Ride to make an impression, only not in the way Kimmage had ever planned or hoped.

Over 30 years and two updated editions later (the title sharpened to Rough Ride for the 1998 edition) it remains one of the seminal books not just in cycling but in sport, talk of which still finds Kimmage at his most passionate and unabashed, starting with our slightly differing judgment on that original front cover.

“I actually don’t like the cover of the original edition,” he tells me. “And it’s maybe why you like it, because it is me suffering on the bike. Here’s a fella, you can see the fillings in his teeth, getting it hard on Alpe D’Huez. But to me, that was something for my detractors, mostly the Irish cycling community, who could say ‘look, he was never any f***ing good, there he is on Alpe D’Huez f***ing hours behind everybody, he’s no f***king good, he’s a moany c***, and this is just a begrudger because he’s no f***ing good’.

Complete involvement

“And that cover lent itself to that prejudice. Sorry, that f***ing ignorance. Now the last cover, which came out in 2007, is for me a truer reflection, of both my own personality, which is dark, and what the book is all about.”

Kimmage was 27-years-old when he started writing Rough Ride, his four seasons in the pro peloton cut short when he abandons that 1989 Tour de France. Parts of it are written in diary form, and as a distance runner starting out at the same time some of the grind felt appealingly familiar; it's also a read that demands complete involvement, as if experiencing every pedal of the rough ride with him.

Most of my cycling experience had come from books on Roche and Kelly, glamorising the more successful side of the sport, only this is more about the squalid lodgings and crappy food and the desperate need just to make it through, often far away from the Tour de France. Kimmage gets out relatively unscathed but not certainly unchanged, hence the immediacy with which it is written.

That’s a story in itself: “I’d started writing the Tour diary in 1989, with the Sunday Tribune, which led to the offer of a job, in January 1990. That would have been six months, after I finished the Tour, on July 13th, to that December, when I actually wrote it.

"I think I met with the publisher (Stanley Paul) around August or September, had agreed with them by that stage. But the idea really started with conversations that I had with David Walsh about the doping problem within the sport, and the best way to address that. What wasn't being spoken or written about, and what I had discovered.

"So I wrote Rough Ride in the six months, the easiest thing I've ever written. We [his wife Ann] were still living in a little village outside Grenoble, and I'd managed to get a laptop off Vincent Browne, but had no idea what I was doing, really. I'd written a few diary pieces for the Tribune, but I wasn't a writer, so I just did it. There was no agonising about it, it's still astonishing to me how that seemed to come so easy, and everything I've done since has been so agonisingly hard.

“I wasn’t trying to be any good. I had a story, something I wanted to say. It was honest, it was raw, I am still curious, and hugely gratified, why even now 30 years later people still say nice things about it. My other books are much better written, and I’m a very different person now, but if you only ever do one thing in your life, A Rough Ride is more than enough for me.

“I’ve got to say as well I was really, really lucky. Because, again, I didn’t understand anything about journalism, the job I was going into and the job I’ve done since, and that’s why when six or seven years later, I had made a full disclosure about my time in pro cycling, with all the doping stuff, and that enabled me then to do the things I did later, in journalism.”

On my first reading, in 1990, the parts about doping certainly seemed paramount, only not to the extent they override everything else. The prologue is about his abandoning of the 1989 Tour, and there are jolting shifts in mood throughout, only it’s not until later on, chapter 15 titled One of the Boys, when Kimmage, unable to “face any more humiliation”, admits to his first injection of banned amphetamines at the Chateau-Chinon criterium, not long after also abandoning the 1987 Tour. By the time it was printed, naturally, this became the far wider exposé.

Great umbrage

“Well I still have the poster for The Sunday Tribune, they’d put a poster up on the telegraph poles in those days. They’d bought the rights to it, and published extracts that May (1990), and it was ‘the untold story, Kimmage breaks the silence’, so it was certainly marketed in that kind of way.

"And oh yeah, the backlash was immediate. I went on the Late Late, which was the tradition even back then whenever you had a book. That was an experience. Gay Byrne didn't become Gay Byrne by avoiding the hard questions. I remember I was in Easons the next day, signing copies, and the first edition of The Evening Press comes in, and front page in big fucking block capitals 'Roche may sue over Late Late'.

“I thought ‘for f*** sake’. This was basically because Gay had read the book, and asked me about the other lads, Stephen and Seán, and I wasn’t going to say ‘well, Stephen has never seen drugs, none of this pertains to him, or to Sean’.

“Of course that’s exactly what Stephen wanted me to do, say ‘ no, no this is just me, it’s only the small guys like me who take drugs, and it’s only the small fellas like me who’ve ever seen it . . .’ Which would have been preposterous. And of course Stephen took great umbrage to this, and led to that front page the next day in The Evening Press. That’s when I realised ‘oh sweet Jesus’ . . .”

There is some brief respite when firstly A Rough Ride is shortlisted, then wins the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award, only going back to work at the 1990 Tour brings it all back home again.

“For the two or three years after, whenever I talked about the book, I kept saying ‘we’ all the time. I wasn’t going after any individual, the sole purpose of it was that UCI would address the problem, it wasn’t about X or Y is doing it. Of course Kelly had tested twice at that stage, that was the dilemma, I could easily have given myself an out, when Gay Byrne asked me, I could have said why are you surprised at this Gay, Seán has tested positive twice. But that would have been wrong, because it wasn’t about he does and he doesn’t. It was about the problem, highlighting the problem, and addressing the problem.”

It’s over 20 years since Kimmage last spoke with Roche (“which is kind of sad”) and he does sometimes wish he’d shown him the book in advance. Still, it’s the reaction closest to home that still grates.

“My mother and father had no idea I’d ever taken anything myself. Were they shocked about it? My mother probably was. My father, I don’t think he was shocked by it, but he was really, really hurt by the way I was treated by the cycling community.

“You have to remember, and I didn’t know this at the time, I still have set of articles here that Shay Elliott wrote, in The People, in the late ’60s, talking about the exact same thing, amphetamines and all this stuff. And yet it was as if I’d f***ing invented all this. This was the reaction I’d got. My father had cycled with Shay, his peers, and suddenly it was like ‘Paul has invented all this stuff’, and that really grated with him.

The omertà

“Of course there was also the omertà, I was aware of that, 100 per cent, from the moment I started. Craché dans la soupe (spitting in the soup). It wasn’t spoken about, everybody understood that, and to this day they understand. Nothing has changed, that omertà absolutely has not changed. And that’s what kills it.

“One of the problems for me was it wasn’t published in French. It’s been published in German, in Spanish, in Japanese. But all of these accounts in France were from team-mates, all second hand, and all from Stephen. He was like ‘the f***er has betrayed us’. So that made it really difficult. It wasn’t really until 1998, and the Festina affair, that I got some sort of acknowledgment about it, that I had told the truth, and hadn’t made it up.”

It's obvious it didn't make a difference and that's the most disappointing thing for me

Somewhere between starting and finishing A Rough Ride, that summer of 1990, my perception of pro cycling is changed in first and lasting ways, only for Kimmage that’s not where the story ends.

“Well it’s obvious it didn’t make a difference, and that’s the most disappointing thing for me. I really wanted to change it, but that’s how f***ing naive I was. I didn’t want the next generation who were coming after me to face the same things. Perception is great, but the point was to make the sport better, and it didn’t make it better. All I can say is I tried.”