Sunday, March 31, 2013

The "Rough Ride" of Paul Kimmage

In 1990 Paul Kimmage, a recently retired Irish cyclist, published "Rough Ride," as honest and insightful of a book about life in the pro peloton as has been written. He describes in graphic detail how hard that life is, much harder than he ever imagined, and how most of the pros resort to drugs of one sort or another to survive.  He was determined to remain pure, but he succumbed as many do.
His professional career lasted four years beginning in 1986, the year Greg LeMond won his first Tour de France and ended in 1989, the year of LeMond's second Tour win.   Kimmage was the 131st of 132 finishers of that 1986 Tour.  Two hundred and ten riders started the race.  Kimmage called arriving in Paris the happiest day of his life, not only to complete the race but also to end the ordeal.  Every finisher is given a medal. That medal meant more to him than anything he had ever won, even winning the Irish national championship at the age of nineteen, the youngest ever, or competing in the 1984 Olympics. The last race of his career was the 1989 Tour, which he abandoned on the twelfth stage after fifty-five kilometers, not injured, but totally done in and incapable of finding the will to keep going.

When he retreated to the broom wagon he buried his head in his hands and cried.  He didn't realize he would never race again, but it was a decision he did not regret.  The effort to compete, the pain and suffering one must endure to keep up, was just too much.  He had begun writing for an Irish newspaper and saw that as his career, which it has been.  He, along with his fellow Irish sportswriter and benefactor, David Walsh, has been at the forefront of trying to rid the sport of drugs for years.  It was Kimmage who Floyd Landis opened up to about his drug taking in a remarkable seven hour interview when he decided to bare his soul.

During Kimmage's time vitamin injections were standard practice and not against the rules. Kimmage resisted them, as he considered such injections a minor form of doping.  But after nine stages of the 1986 Tour, he was utterly depleted, "on his hands and knees," as he phrased it, and gladly accepted an injection. "I dropped my shorts," he wrote, " and abandoned my virginity without a second thought."  But that was as far as he was prepared to go, at least for a time.

It wasn't until a year later before a post-Tour criterium without dope controls that he went over the edge and took an injection of amphetamines, as he was concerned about being able to keep up with all the other charged-up riders.  If he did not put in a good performance he feared he wouldn't be given his 250 pound appearance fee that he desperately needed.  Only two other times in his career did he take another such an injection, and both under similar circumstances.  But he continued with the vitamin injections and occasional caffeine suppositories, which weren't illegal, but which he still considered doping and gave him qualms.  He even had regrets about starting every race with two vitamin C tablets in his water bottle.

He tells of team directors letting riders know before a race if there would be no dope controls, implicitly advising them to dope.  He said riders were always happy to know, as taking drugs made it easier on them.  It was such a charade that the riders in team meetings would let out a good chuckle at the good news that they were free to charge themselves.  Kimmage said he felt more like crying.

Tears come out time and time again.  This book, as well as any, illustrates how intrinsic tears are to the sport.  They reflect the deep emotional commitment riders have to succeeding.  Both winners and losers express their feelings with such bursts.  Kimmage may have been extra prone to them, as he acknowledges he would erupt into tears of rage as a kid when he would lose a race around the block to his neighbor Davy Casey.  But he also acknowledges that "men are not supposed to cry," and that he would hold his feelings in, unlike his girl friend, who would cry when he would have to leave their home in Ireland to go race.

Tears marked all four of his Tours de France, even the 1988 Tour when he was left off the team roster.   When he learned the news that he had lost a position on that year's team to a German teammate who had just won his national championship, he was shattered and spontaneously found himself crying.  The depth of his disappointment surprised him.

It was no surprise though that he cried when he abandoned the l987 and l989 Tours.  It l987 he was struggling horrifically up the Galibier.  Tears filled his eyes as he contemplated quitting. He found the energy to keep going but not very fast.  He was so far behind that a bearded cyclist with panniers rode past him, completely demoralizing him.  "A bloody Fred," he calls him.  He makes it over the Galibier but  quits after the descent as he begins the next climb up the Col de Telegraph.  His director Thevenet tries to console him but he breaks down and "weeps as I have not done in a long, long time."

Even the greats are not immune to such tears.  He tells of Sean Kelly abandoning that same Tour in tears several stages before.  Stephen Roche was in tears during the l989 Tour in the mountains before he quit the race three stages before Kimmage did.

Kimmage describes tears of joy as well.  After finishing his one and only Tour in 1986 his teammate Bernard Vallet knew how much effort it took for Kimmage to hang in to the end and was so proud of him that he was in tears as he told him, "Now you know what it is to ride the Tour de France."  He had had to dig deep to keep riding on numerous occasions during The Race. He nearly quit on L'Alpe d'Huez.  "I wanted to get off the bike and kiss the road and sit down and weep my tears of defeat," he wrote,  but he kept going remembering the words of Roche at the start: "Whatever happens, finish.  If you are eliminated (failing to make the time limit) there is no shame--but don't abandon."

He cried tears of joy at the l987 World Championship when his teammate Roche won the race, but then a year later at the l988 Championship he cried tears of bitterness when he abandoned with five laps to go, unable to salvage a season that had been a "complete and utter disaster."

Tears also figure in some of his anecdotes portraying the racing life.  His fellow Irishman Martin Earley didn't know whether to laugh or cry when a German woman with large breasts pushed him up L'Alpe d'Huez for a spell in the 1986 Tour and her left breast kept hitting him in the face.  He tells too of a French teammate on the verge of tears, as he was so thrilled to be on a training ride through the fabulous vineyards near Bordeaux.  It was before Kimmage had gained an appreciation for wine.  Even after becoming a wine-lover, he resolves not to be tempted to continue living in France after his career when he sees a funeral with a hearse and a lone car following it.  "I didn't want to die in this place with just two people crying over me," he wrote.

He expresses a strong national pride.  He felt blessed to have a close relationship with the two Irish racers Kelly and Roche, who were a dominant force in the peloton, a benefit that not too many domestiques enjoyed.  Despite the many accolades he heaps on them in his book, his drug revelations cost him their friendship, even though he didn't directly implicate either.  Like many in the sport, they did not appreciate his breaking the omerta and "spitting in the soup," as is one of his chapter titles.

Even though the book was written over two decades ago and before EPO took over the sport, it still rings true, vividly giving insight into the racing mentality and what a demanding sport it is and how one can be drawn to taking banned substances to alleviate the suffering and to do one's job.  It had always been his dream to be a professional cyclist.  His father won the Irish national championship in l962, two months after Kimmage was born, and continued racing for years afterwards.  Kimmage grew up watching his father race.  His father warned him that he would experience more heartbreak than happiness in cycling.  He admits he was correct.  Still, he has made the sport his life and continues to be one of the best writers covering the sport.


Andrew F said...

Come on now George, fess up, you were the bearded Fred who overtook Kimmage on the Galibier in '87.

george christensen said...

Andrew: I know better than to hop onto the course until after the broom wagon has passed. There was one time though when on was on L'Alpe d'Huez and I thought maybe the broom wagon didn't follow the racers up this final climb as it had been such a long time since the last rider passed. Fans were starting to walk down the mountain a a few of us got on our bikes and started down as well only t o come upon a group of stragglers.

Matt said...

They could make a movie about this guy and call it 'Tears de France'.

Curious how many racers don't take some illegal substances. No doubt they are at the back of the pack.

Stuart said...

This account just further turns me off the Tour. Obviously, it is too difficult to be successfully raced without drugs. George, I also find your harping on tears, tears, tears a bit tiring. There's something bad in the state of bicycle racing. It's called doping. I think this sport is so corrupt, no amount of emotion can excuse it. Just my opinion.

george christensen said...

Stuart: Sorry to be harping on the tears. I know I've made my case by now and don't need to pile on the evidence, but my compulsive nature won't let me give up. I approach my reading as a researcher and feel compelled to share my findings. As a steady reader you know I can latch on to a theme and can't give it up, such as with Carnegie libraries. I try to freshen my approach and not take myself too seriously, but that isn't always possible.

As for the doping, I have long ago accepted that it is a part of the sport. That has always been the case. Even the greats Fausto Coppi and Jacques Anquetil admitted this. So far it hasn't soured me on the sport. I can still appreciate its beauty and the heroics of those who participate in it.