I only took up cycling in 2011, so I’m relatively new to it. A lot of history was made before I was born. For example, some readers grew up admiring Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche in their prime. To me, the former is a laconic TV commentator while the latter is just the father of a pro cyclist.
Paul Kimmage’s Rough Ride gives insight into a world I’ve never seen: the peak doping days of pro cycling. Kimmage, an Irishman, rode for 3½ seasons during the 1980s. His career highlights included helping Roche win the rainbow jersey at the 1987 World Championships. However, Kimmage himself never won a professional race. Instead, as a domestique he struggled to remain competitive in a peloton where doping was the norm.
From dreamer to doper
Rough Ride is an autobiography of Kimmage’s short-lived cycling career. Early on, it documents his first ride on a new bike with his father, when he was introduced to the brutal reality of racing:
When we got back to the house I was shattered, absolutely wrecked. Da sat me down in a chair and asked me if I still wanted to race. After getting the bike, I didn’t think ‘no’ was the right answer so I said that I did.
‘Well, that’s fine but you must remember, Paul, that in cycling you will experience more heartbreak than happiness.’
As Kimmage pursues his dream of becoming a pro, his dad’s quote becomes the refrain of his career. The thesis of Rough Ride is to paint riders as victims of a systemic doping culture. For Kimmage, pros in those days had only two choices: dope or quit. He blames the administrators for creating a perverse incentive to dope by awarding world ranking points for races without drug testing.
So I played the game by their rules. To survive, I was forced, against my will, to take drugs. It happened three times. I was never caught. If I had been caught I would have been branded, as all drug takers are branded, a cheat. Isn’t that ridiculous? A cheat, an ‘unfair player’. I was never a cheat. I WAS A VICTIM. A victim of a corrupt system, a system that actually promotes drug taking in the sport.
As the story unfolds, slowly but surely Kimmage crosses ethical boundaries. First, taking vitamin pills; then, accepting vitamin injections; and, finally, crossing into the dark world of banned amphetamines.
Empathy for the dopers
Regardless of where you stand on Kimmage’s moral culpability, it’s easy to empathise with his predicament. For me, given the choice between doping and quitting, I probably would have quit racing altogether. But I can see how that would be a difficult decision if cycling was your sole livelihood and your childhood dream, as well as that of your teammates and friends.
Reading Rough Ride also helps me understand the cynicism of older cycling fans. Nowadays, whenever a rider takes a dominant win, keyboard warriors are quick to play the “he must be doping” card. While I’m not sure how you can enjoy cycling while holding such a dim view of it, Kimmage’s account of near-universal doping helps me see where these jaded opinions come from. I’ve yet to become disillusioned from seeing my childhood heroes confess to doping, but I can only imagine how I’d feel if it happened.
Kimmage’s style is frank and easy-to-read. Between the serious stuff, he keeps the story entertaining. I enjoyed the description of his first amphetamine experience:
There is a metal crowd-control barrier blocking the entrance to the podium. I am in full buzz and, feeling full of energy, I decide to jump it. I clear it by at least ten feet but land on my backside. I look up to see if anyone has noticed. Thierry Clavet [Kimmage’s teammate] is fighting hard to hold back his laughter. ‘For God’s sake, take it easy, Polo.’
Pro cycling’s hard knock life
If, like me, you’re not into all the doping stuff, Rough Ride is still a fascinating behind-the-scenes account of life as a professional cyclist. Kimmage writes about racing the 575-kilometre Bordeaux-Paris with just five days’ preparation in a bid to secure a pro contract. He yearns for a beach holiday while racing past crowds along the seaside. He recalls contract negotiations, internal team politics and washing his knicks and jersey in the bathroom sink.
His image of professional cycling is far from a glamorous one, and Kimmage dispels the myth in amusing fashion. His day-to-day accounts of Tour stages are laden with self-deprecating humour:
Stephen [Roche] rode a great time trial yesterday and is now third. Don’t know how he does it, for a few days earlier he assured me he was having trouble with his left knee. He said he was riding on one leg. I wish I had his bad leg.
A (recent) history lesson
After retiring, Kimmage became a writer and journalist. He first published Rough Ride in 1990 and became somewhat of an anti-doping crusader. Later editions include postscripts outlining the cycling world’s reactions to his book, most of them dismissive:
The absence of adequate [doping] controls in France is common knowledge, but rarely highlighted. The papers and magazines know about the problems, but choose instead to fill their column inches with portraits of the stars of present ‘greats’, Fignon, LeMond, Kelly, Roche…
I found this to be the saddest tale of all: that despite widespread knowledge of the doping problem, there was a denial of the issue and a deep reluctance to change.
I read the 2007 edition, which still predates WADA’s biological passport and Lance Armstrong’s confession. Certainly, the sport’s administrators should take credit for acting against doping in the last decade. However, recent episodes including Froome’s salbutamol controversy show that the doping discussion will not be going away any time soon.
Does Rough Ride speak of a bygone era? Is the sport clean now? I don’t know the answers, and I can’t know for certain. I’ve only come into cycling recently, and for the most part I’ve had little reason to doubt what I see. Whatever the case, Rough Ride gives new fans like me an enlightening and engaging insight into the pro peloton’s dark past, a past that’s still in the living memory of many.