Paul Kimmage Interview

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Paul Kimmage in New York City, December 2012. (Photo by Eloy Anzola)

The following interview originally appeared on Bicycling.com in December 2012 with the title “Paul Kimmage and the Long Crusade.”

By Daniel McMahon

“If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out.” —Oscar Wilde

Paul Kimmage 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 pro 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 me. 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, or UCI.

Daniel McMahon: Paul, it’s been 22 years since you wrote Rough Ride. Is there a scene in it that stands out for you to this day?

Paul 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.

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?

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, an 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.

Why didn’t you put that in the book?

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.

Roche was upset by your book and essentially dismissed it.

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.

How do you look at the careers of Kelly and Roche today?

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.

Some say the same about Armstrong. Floyd Landis said that doping aside, Armstrong was still a badass bike racer.

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.

How did Rough Ride change your career?

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.

If you had never turned professional, Rough Ride would never have been written. How do you think your life would have turned out differently?

It’s scary, isn’t it? You think about fate and the decisions you make and the turns you take in life. God knows I’d still be a plumber! I’d probably have a Livestrong wristband on me. I certainly would have had one up to a couple of months ago. I probably would have been a big Lance fan and wouldn’t have any idea about the reality of the sport. Would I have been happier? Who knows. I’m not unhappy now.

I wouldn’t change anything. All the experiences, even the bad ones, were great, in terms of forming you as a person and as a character. I got so much flak for admitting the three times I used amphetamines on the radio—“Kimmage is a doper!” I got so much flak for that. People said, What if you had just left that out? People would have so much more respect for you. But I wouldn’t change any of that now. It was good to have that experience—knowing how powerful the drugs were, the impact they had on me when I took them, the impact they had on me when I had to stop and race clean. I was psychologically fucked—psychologically fucked—knowing that you’re riding against guys who were juiced liked that.

I always talk about Plumelec. In my first year I rode the GP de Plumelec and I finished eighth. It must have been about two months later that I realized nearly everybody in that race was on amphetamines. I didn’t know it at the time, and because I didn’t know it, it was fine. When I knew, I thought, I couldn’t go back and finish eighth knowing these guys were doping.

There seem to be no gray areas with you. You’re very sure about the things you say and write about. Is that a result of having to defend yourself after writing Rough Ride?

Yeah … I’m probably by nature a black-and-white kind of person. [Laughs]

You’ve been criticized for that too.

Yeah, probably justifiably. I keep coming back to Floyd Landis and the interview I did with him. Black-and-white says, Floyd cheated and that’s it; there are no gray areas. But you sit there and you talk to him about why he did, and then you start to get the gray. You get the UCI, you get Verbruggen, and now you’ve got gray in there, and it’s not so simple as Floyd’s a bad guy. I mean, look … [reads last line of Rough Ride, the revised and updated edition]: “Poor Floyd; a scapegoat for the morons; the media is killing him; it’s our fault. Plus ça change … ” That’s it. There you go.

Can you talk about your relationship with David Millar?

My relationship with David is kind of interesting in the context of what we’ve been talking about with black and white. In 2004 I had no doubt he was doping. I could read what was happening at Cofidis. He had to be involved in that; I was sure of it. So when I tried to go and interview him, I knew he was doping—absolutely convinced of it. And he refused to give me the interview. I said that’s fine, that’s your right; you don’t have to. I didn’t have a problem with that. And then his sister tried to arrange it and it didn’t work. She was putting pressure on me, like, If he doesn’t give you this interview, you can’t write anything. And I said of course I can.

What would you have asked him?

I would have taken all the information that was out there about Cofidis and I would have asked him, You didn’t know about this? Is it plausible that you didn’t know this was happening? Tell us about doping in your sport.

So the bottom line was, I told his sister, Fran, that I don’t care if he talks to me but it’s my right to write a piece, and I’m going to write a piece. So he got a solicitor’s letter from his lawyer threatening us, that if I wrote about David Millar they were going to take action. And so I started the piece with the letter from the solicitor. That was the red flag to the bull for me—his trying to put pressure on me with his solicitor. So our relationship got off to a very bad start. [Laughs] If he had just refused to talk to me, I wouldn’t have felt so bad about him as I did. So a couple of months later, obviously, he’s busted and he serves a two-year ban, and he comes back. No contrition really—never apologized to me really in any way, shape, or form. It was a bit galling for me in that a lot of the English writers were being so generous to him when he hadn’t been very contrite about what he’d done, or explained it in any great way.

In his first season back, in 2007, I regarded him very suspiciously. So it was really only in 2008 when he joined Garmin and Jonathan [Vaughters] is saying all this stuff and I’m thinking, I’m not sure about these guys. They’re making all the right noises, but I don’t know if they’re genuine. So then I make a proposal to Jonathan. If you mean what you say, let me follow the Tour de France with you. And of course the problem with that was my relationship with Millar.

So they had a pre-Tour training camp two weeks before the Tour started. I drove down there with Jonathan. He introduced me to Millar, and I said, Look, we haven’t got on too well in the past. I showed him a blank sheet of paper: If you want to start again, I don’t mind. I’ll start again. And we took it from there. I interviewed him about his experience and the whole doping stuff and haven’t looked back. He later said something that was the most remarkable thing I had ever seen. He won a time trial in the Tour of Spain and he got off his bike and the TV camera went to him and he gave this impassioned speech. I have won this on bread and water. No syringes—nothing. For a professional bike rider to go on TV and say I haven’t used anything, I thought that was the best thing I’d ever heard. I thought, Fuck me, I can believe you now. I had never heard that before and I haven’t heard it since.

You said Millar should have never been allowed back in the sport. Do you still feel that way?

Ah, being held to account for stuff I’ve said. That feels uncomfortable. [Laughs] I do. I do feel that way.

Why?

Because I don’t believe a two-year ban is a deterrent. It’s not. This doesn’t apply to just David—it applies across the board. Obviously I like David; obviously he’s done well. Do I think I should make an exception for him? No. I don’t think there should be exceptions. I believe that David Millar and anyone who used EPO should have been in no way allowed back to the sport. I think if that had been in place he would have thought about it twice before doing it. A lot of the guys would. So I don’t believe he should have been allowed, but it’s not because it’s David, but that’s my view on it generally. It’s hard to say that about David because he’s done a lot of good since he’s come back, but I don’t believe he should be an exception in any way.

What about Jonathan Vaughters? He admitted to doping in his career and he’s still deeply involved in the sport as manager of one of pro cycling’s top teams, Garmin.

Obviously Jonathan has been anti-doping for a long time now, and he’s someone I admire because of that, and I believe he’s been totally genuine about that. So how do you compare him and [Saxo Bank manager] Bjarne Riis—they’re opposite sides of a coin. OK, they both doped in their careers, but since then they’ve been total opposites. Definitely Jonathan Vaughters has an important role to play. I don’t think Riis should have any part in the sport.

So you make an exception for Vaughters.

Well, that’s to say, that anyone who’s ever doped should have no part to play. Well, I’m not sure that’s going to work either. Maybe—I’m not sure. You look at politics in the north of Ireland. It was totally sickening for victims of the violence to see [Irish republican politician] Gerry Adams sitting down with [Northern Ireland politician] Ian Paisley. No one would have believed that would ever work given what they’d both done and what they’d said. But yet you look at what’s happened as a result of that and how much better things are in the north of Ireland. So it’s not the same in pro bike riding, but there is a lesson there. I’m going to have sit down with people I don’t like for the good of the sport in the belief they’ve changed. If they are genuine in their desire to change things, then you absolutely have to work with them. How do you gauge whether they’re genuine or not? I believe Jonathan is genuine. That’s not something I can say about a lot people.

How has the doping culture in cycling changed since the publication of Rough Ride?

There’s one difference: The products were different. The mentality was exactly the same. That’s the only difference. All this stuff now—the transfusions and all that—didn’t happen then only because the nature of the product was different. The mentality was exactly the same; the culture was the same.

Is professional cycling any “dirtier” than pro football or baseball? I’d say not. When you’ve got to bring an event on the road for three weeks, in order to dope for something like that you actually have to bring it with you; you can’t hide away in some dressing room where nobody sees it. So it’s been exposed, and the nature of it is, the Tour de France is physically the most difficult sporting event in the world. The demands of that made doping and the temptations to dope more prevalent. Now it’s been exposed and we need to address that.

You have been critical of Team Sky and Bradley Wiggins. Why?

The key things that I worry about with Sky are how dominant they were in the Tour—how dominant the whole team were. So it’s not one rider riding exceptionally well but a whole team riding exceptionally well—no bad days—and just incredibly thin and incredibly powerful at the same time. They’ve lost the weight but not the power. For me, that’s the question mark. It was interesting that [BMC’s] Cadel Evans—during the Olympics—sent out a tweet saying, Oh, I see the skinny guys are still winning time trials. How are these skinny guys winning time trials? Cadel’s a meaty fella—he’s got muscles. And he looks at these guys, these twigs, and how can they time trial so well? It defies logic for me.

And then the hiring of [Geert] Leinders just absolutely makes no sense to me. And if you look at their performance since 2010, if you look at the graph it’s gone like that [points finger upward]. Is it a coincidence that from the moment Leinders joins the team the graph goes up? I don’t know. I don’t like coincidences like that. That’s probably just an unfortunate coincidence that from moment that Geert Leinders joined the team they’ve put in these extraordinary performances. The blueprint for their success is the same Armstrong was using. They go to Tenerife, they’re trying to get altitude, all that sort of stuff. So you add that to their attitude in the press, to the staff members there, Yates, and you get a portrait that is, well, you have to be questioning anyway. The bottom line is, I don’t know. I don’t know whether Wiggins is clean. That’s a terrible thing to say, you know, but that’s the reality of it.

When Sky were launched in 2009, they were launched on the same, if you want, blueprint as Garmin. They were going to be transparent and anti-doping, and they made all these absolutely fantastic promises about how they were going to proceed with their team. And that was great. That’s what I actually wanted to hear. See, I actually don’t care about a team that wins the Tour de France. I don’t care about a rider who wins the Tour de France. I want a team I can believe in. I want a Tour de France rider I can believe in. And can I believe in Sky? No. Can I believe in Bradley Wiggins? I don’t know. And that’s terrible to say that now. I don’t know about Bradley Wiggins. You might say, Well, why not? OK, I’ll tell you why not. Transparency. Let’s talk about transparency. I was to come aboard and cover the Tour with Sky in 2010. I went and got myself organized; we had a camper van. And two days before the race [Sky manager] David Brailsford says to me, Sorry, Bradley’s not happy that you’re going to be here. OK, that’s a small point, you know. Maybe Bradley didn’t want me around for three weeks; he’s perfectly entitled to do that. At the Tour de France this year, you had a situation at the press conference on the very first rest day. Journalists are sitting there and Bradley Wiggins is sitting there, and the Sky press officer comes in and the first thing he says to the journalists is, We’ll have no questions about doping. No questions about doping. He tells all the journalists, We’ll have no questions about doping. Now what happened to the transparency? That doesn’t make sense to me. Since Wiggins has won the Tour they’ve fired at least three of their staff for involvement in doping. And what should be the crowning glory for Bradley Wiggins and British cycling is now a big question mark. People don’t know. I told this to David Brailsford a couple of weeks ago, that this should be your finest moment, and it’s a mess. And Brailsford is responsible for that mess. So I don’t know, and it’s really sad that we don’t know.

When asked at the 2012 Tour about doping, Wiggins lost his temper. What did you think?

He’s a very complex guy—really, really complex. It would take you a long, long time to try and make sense of Bradley Wiggins. So already he’s a complex guy. But again, you look at the personality change in him since 2007 when he was struggling. I saw him at the Tour in 2007. He was coming in 25 minutes down. And how outspoken he was about doping at that time compared to now! It doesn’t make sense. If he was as outspoken five years ago, why aren’t you saying the same things now?

Sportswriter John Feinstein has written that a big challenge for him as a journalist is maintaining objectivity with his subjects. Do you think there is always going to be a struggle between journalists and their subjects?

Absolutely. You know, David Walsh is coming out with a new book about Armstrong and in it he acknowledges is being a “fan with a typewriter” with Kelly. That was his introduction; that’s where he started out from. But I’d absolutely agree with Feinstein—that’s the constant struggle. Obviously to do well you need to be close to your subject, you need access, but how much are you prepared to compromise yourself as a journalist? So it’s finding that line, that balance between getting the information, doing what you need to do to get the information, without compromising yourself as a journalist. That’s the struggle.

People look upon the doping problem in our sport as black and white: They cheat, and they shouldn’t cheat. It doesn’t work like that. There are all sorts of people responsible for bike riders making choices they make, and one group of people who are not spoken of at all in the choices are journalists, people like me. You say, How does that work? Well, it works because you get cycling writers who are in the sport all of their lives and they know there’s all this stuff going on and it is their job to go and expose that and report on that, and they don’t do it. They become complicit in the problem. They become chamois sniffers or, more politely, fans with typewriters.

I’ll give you an example of the problem. I was sent by [London’s] Sunday Times to interview Floyd Landis [in 2010]. They flew me from Dublin to Los Angeles. I got a car and I drove out to sit down with Floyd. It cost our paper a fortune to do that, several thousand pounds. The transcript alone took me a week to do—that was another week’s wages. I wrote the piece; I brought it to them. It was like 5,000 words. I was really happy with it. Opening paragraph: Straightaway there is this mention of an association with Lance Armstrong. Oh, no, no—we can’t have that. You can’t associate Floyd with Lance. His lawyers are going to be on to us straightaway, so you’ll have to take that out. At the end of about a three-week period, I had so many lawyers say, You can’t say that about Lance, you can’t say that. The piece was absolutely utterly worthless. Useless! Probably the worst piece I’d ever written, and I was ashamed of it. I came away from that thinking, What is the point? Why do they do this? What is my job? Just incredibly frustrated. Because the truth about Floyd Landis was not in that magazine piece I wrote. It was just diluted pap. And what we’re getting a lot of in our media today, in our newspapers today—diluted pap. We are not getting truth because we’ve got newspaper owners whose only interest is profit and newspaper editors whose only interest is in keeping their jobs. I came out of this process with Floyd very annoyed. Thankfully, NY Velocity ended up publishing the complete transcript of my seven-hour interview with Landis.

Look, riding your bike the most beautiful thing you can do. I think it’s wonderful. And this is something that’s really annoyed me more than anything else: Because I spoke out against doping, people said, He hates cycling. Well, how ridiculous is that? You speak out against doping and you hate cycling? That is the most ludicrous thing I’ve ever heard. The reason why it’s important is that I have never encouraged my son to follow the path that I took—I would never do that unless I thought he had a fair chance of never having to make the choices I had to make.

In what way is your life’s story still being written?

Ultimately, Rough Ride is about the UCI. Rough Ride is about the problem in the sport that is the UCI. That hasn’t been solved yet. Until it is solved, I’m still in there. It’s still happening. I’ve issued a criminal complaint against both [Pat] McQuaid and [Hein] Verbruggen in Switzerland, and hopefully now the prosecutor in Switzerland will act on that and direct the Swiss police to investigate them. The endgame for me, while it would be very sweet to see them both behind bars, if they can actually remove them from our sport, force them to step down, that would be enough. There can be no solution until McQuaid and Verbruggen are removed from the sport. If that doesn’t happen, the sport has no chance. I believe there’s such momentum out there—anger across the sport—from sponsors to fans to riders, even though we don’t hear their voice. They are frustrated about it. I actually don’t believe McQuaid and Verbruggen can survive this.

When you put people in charge of a sport and they apply different rules to different people in that sport, you have a recipe for chaos, and that’s how our sport has been run for 22 years. There’s no fairness in our sport. It’s never been there. Until you put people in there who make the rules the same for everybody, then you have no chance of having a clean sport.

If the top guys at the UCI were removed, would you be content?

That’s the first step. What would make me happy is to watch a Tour de France and watch the Tour de France where the yellow jersey has some really bad days and it changes hands. What would make me happy is a Tour de France with guys like Dan Martin. The Tour de France with 190 Dan Martins and David Millars, who come out and win a stage, then lose 40 minutes the next day. That would make me happy. But these robots who ride for three weeks and go faster in the third week, that doesn’t make me happy. How great would our sport be then? If you could address the doping and take it out—Jesus! What a sport you’d have—the viewing numbers! It would just be fantastic.

On Twitter: @PaulKimmage, @cyclingreporter

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