Book Review: Rough Ride

Kimmage Rough Ride

Paul Kimmage’s book “Rough Ride” has been seen as The Doping Book, the text that exposed the use of banned substances in pro cycling when it was published 1990 but it’s much more than this. In the light of recent events I wanted to go back and read the book again.

For most of the book doping seems incidental and the consequence of a rotten system, a response to the environment riders find themselves in. This is much more the tale of a rider struggling to find their place in the sport. The times have changed and some practices in the book are unrecognisable today but much holds true and it is a good read because it offers a tale from the back of the peloton that’s distant from the podium, the prizes and glory.

“The justification for the writing of this book was that it would tell of the unglamorous life of the “back room” boy. The account of the life of an unknown among many unknowns.”

The story starts the same as many other cycling biographies. The first bike, the first race, the promising amateur but things are never as easy for Kimmage and by the time he’s an adult he’s starting to see through the glory of the sport. Take the first time he’s selected to ride for his country. Whilst this should be a moment of pride Kimmage gets a team jersey and finds it unwashed and the pockets contain food from the previous user. Before Kimmage can don the emerald green jersey he must first remove its rotten contents. If you want a metaphor for the whole book, there you go.

“To see him dirty, suffering and with that needle between his teeth turned my stomach.”

No, this is not an Irvine Welsh novel but the tale of the GP Plumelec ridden on a “wet and mucky day” as Kimmage and teammate André Chappuis are the last two riders at the rear of the race and Chappuis reaches for a syringe of amphetamines. But the tale isn’t riddled with drugs and doping, it crops up as much as talk of contracts or selection for a big race.

Kimmage gives us the well worn tale of how first a rider starts on vitamin pills, moves to vitamin injections and then crosses to banned substances, whether amphetamines or hormones like testosterone or cortisone. Kimmage himself accepts amphetamines for a post-Tour de France criterium, in part because of a lack of self-confidence, the fear of being dropped but also because he’s desperate for the money. There’s no illusion of winning the race, after all the results of these criteriums are fixed to please the crowd, something Kimmage exposes along with other things.

“We were up at six, for the longest stage of the race, 275 kilometres. But the race organiser, Vincente Torriani, got his sums wrong and the correct stage distance was 290 kilometres. After the stage we had an hour’s drive to the hotel where there was no hot water for showering.”

This isn’t unique. Ultimately the book is a tale of hardship, of spending years chasing a pro contract only to discover that a pro contract or elite racing licence isn’t worth much: a licence to be dropped, flicked and underpaid.

“I shook my arms and fingers, blowing icy breath on them for warmth. The cold had gone into my bladder, giving me the urge to urinate. I was almost surprised at the steam rising from the yellow liquid flowing from my body. I placed my fingers in the hot springs and warmed them.”

The racing is hard but offers some certainty, if you are riding a stage of the Giro in a blizzard and your hands are cold then you can pee on them for warmth. It’s not pretty but there’s a solution. But there are other problems that can’t be solved so easily and it’s life around the racing that seems harder. Kimmage tells how riders had to wash their own kit after a stage for whilst mechanics service the bikes riders spend time in the evenings hand-washing their shorts and jersey in the basin of a hotel bathroom, scrubbing and ringing the kit with the hope that it would be dry by the morning. This has gone today as squads have washing machines built into the team bus but the haggling over contracts, the constant short termism and finding out your employers plans for the future in the newspaper rather than in private are still in evidence today. Similarly Kimmage criticises the points system whereby a loyal helper without points might be of value to a team leader but not to the team which is as true today as it was in 1989. However Kimmage is clear with one problem: the lack of controls in some races that mean many of his colleagues resort to amphetamines, not necessarily to win but to be competitive and at least to avoid the misery of being dropped.

The difference with today is that whilst Kimmage describes the hardship, the doping almost sounds quaint. His peers are dabbling with the same chemical compounds used in discos or to treat an insect bite, albeit via a syringe instead of a pill or a cream and if it is allowing some to steal wins from others, Kimmage doesn’t tell of the order being turned upside down by it. You wonder what he’d have written if he was a pro a decade or two later, with EPO and blood bags.

The language is simple, the brutal prose feels like Kimmage is too tired to offer florid descriptions of landscapes or his state of mind. But this is all part of the story, he visits Rome with the Giro but laments there’s no chance to see the Coliseum or the Vatican instead the daily route of eating pasta and riding his bike awaits.

It’s not all misery but you can count the highs on your fingers because like the Irish jersey or taking amphetamines, a high is often followed by a low. Kimmage’s time coincides with the high point of Irish cycling and he’s part of the four-man team in Austria when Stephen Roche wins the world championship to add to his Giro and Tour victories. After the book was published some accused him of cashing in on the connection, if he was, say Canadian or Australian, then he wouldn’t have been so close to success, his name would have registered less. But that feels more like shooting the messenger, Kimmage’s words disturbed people more than Kimmage himself.

A good book that I enjoyed re-reading and it reconnects you to Kimmage the racer rather than the journalist or the terrier-like critic of the UCI. Published in 1990 the story is valid today because Rough Ride chronicles the tale of a struggling rider and if the technology has changed, the anxiety has not. Most sporting autobiographies cover the champions but here is the tale of a water-carrier. Bookshelves carry more writing from the few who win races than the thousands who never win much. We love winners but have plenty to learn from the losers as Kimmage’s book shows.

The difference from other losers who have short and inglorious careers is that Kimmage is often the observer and at times the outsider. Even his team mates call him le journaliste, he’s able to note things and concludes the book with analysis. Other books cover doping in greater detail, like The Secret Race or The Death of Marco Pantani. This is more a look at a bad system where bad choices are the result.

Finally if this is the story of Kimmage’s life as a professional cyclist perhaps the book will be updated one day to cover his career as a journalist and crusader against doping. But that story isn’t finished.

A list of previous book reviews is available here.

24 thoughts on “Book Review: Rough Ride”

  1. A good review of the book. Kimmage came across to me in the book as not the most likeable individual, but I certainly do respect what he has done.

    For example he has long sections vehemently criticising David Millar, but I personally saw parallels between them in the story of the athlete wanting to ride clean but being worn down by the realities of the sport. So in that I saw some hypocricy.

    • I have just recently read this for the first time and to me it wasn’t that Paul didn’t come across as likeable but that despite his talents he didn’t seem get or take opportunities that might have lead to more success (for example when he talks about National Suckers Days and failing to train when he was in Paris).

      Some of this may have been the the appalling neglect to the needs of a talented Neo-Pro in a new country by the teams he rode for and some of it may have been Paul’s seeming own inability to focus on training and remaining competitive. The later ran like a seam through the middle section of this book and the struggle he had keeping his weight down and training miles up made me want to scream at him on occasions to get his act together.

      However that said this book appears to me to be fundamentally about the failings of the team system into which Paul was thrown and how this lead to the decisions that many riders have had to face. Reading this book straight after David Millar’s book was interesting as most of the decisions both of these guys were faced with appeared have the same origins and even though they are very different people there were many parallel threads to both books

      • Yes, you can be frustrated by his lack of training but he’s honest here and explains exactly what was wrong. It’s the total lack of structure the sport that shocks, whether washing their clothes in the hotel after a race or the lack of support when it comes to training or planning a calendar of races. They’re just expected to show up for a race.

        • I lost respect for him when he told tales of not training because it was windy, not training because it was raining, not training because his girlfriend was in town, quitting ealry season races after 30km and then, when everyone else is so much faster than him, it can only be because they’re all doping. Sure, many of them were, but Kimmage seems to use the doping of others as an excuse for his failure to make it in the big leagues. It seems his own lack of focus, and commitment to training played a major role too and he really doesn’t seem to acknowledge this. All too ready to blame everyone else.

    • I read it some time ago, before Kimmage was canonised by the anti-doping fraternity. You’re right, he doesn’t come across as the nicest of people, he still doesn’t, but he certainly deserves respect. Where he loses it is in his almost total lack of empathy for people like Millar. I think they’ve kissed and made up since, but his single-minded, self-righteous fury has an ugly side. I hope that once this whole lawsuit farce is settled he finds some peace of mind.

    • Kimmage deserves an absolute ton of credit, he, Walsh, Betsy/Frankie A., Steven Swart, and the rest of them were telling the truth, and suffering greatly for it, while the world let LA get away with everything he did.

      Kimmage comes across as a bit of a whiner in the book, but he’s more than proved his integrity.

  2. A good read but short. For example he could explain much more on the Tour de France but each day it is a new complaint then onto the next day.

  3. To my knowledge, cycling is one of the only sports where an athlete can get dropped from the bunch. This might explain why doping is everywhere in the peloton. Getting dropped clearly shows that one rider is weaker than the bunch. The fear of humiliation probably pushes a lot of the domestiques into taking dope and Kimmage was no exception.

    Great book btw, hope the Secret Race turns out to be equally good!

  4. I came across a book by a kiwi rugby player who was playing around the lower leagues in France and England – making a crust and enjoying playing, but an odd life! On a 2 year contract spend the first year finding your way around your new club, and second year worrying about the next contract. And if a new coach comes in then everything is up in teh air!

    So cycling is not alone in being pretty chaotic below the very top level.

    Son of a pal of mine raced in Belgium for a year, great experience but he left and went to university. His point was that he had choices, lots of the other lads didn’t really have that advantage. And you hear stories of “apprentices” being prepared to give half their meagre salary back just to increase their chances of getting picked up by a team.

    In that context, not sure I’m happy with calling Kimmage and his peers “losers”, more that they are “non-winners”, maybe only a semantic difference but it plays better with me!

  5. Good re-review. There’s been some talk about Coyle’s Lance Armstrong’s War, and about how the author all but said that LA doped. I didn’t catch it the first time, but I’m planning to reread that book as well.

  6. A great book from a dreamer and a foot soldier of cycling. When I read it I felt that in the later sections he was very angry. Now I am just as angry – he saw what I didn’t want to see, now I can see it too.

  7. Most of us were dreamers and foot soldiers. With hindsight we all, in our own way, gave it our best shot, found our limits and then moved on.
    Kimmage had the problem of having just that little bit more ability than most of us, and clearly feels that he was never allowed to really know how good he could have been. Just like many riders. For me, this is what makes his position so important. He and a few notable others, are trying to ensure that the new generation get a fair shot. To do that the crooks, liars, bullies and cheats have to be removed.
    Hats off to Kimmage – the world would be a poorer place without his kind.

  8. “Kimmage had the problem of having just that little bit more ability than most of us, and clearly feels that he was never allowed to really know how good he could have been.”

    He hardly helped himself. Once in Europe on a pro contract, he appears to have got lazy, maybe thinking he’d made it and could ease off.

    His story doesn’t show the difference that doping makes. It shows the difference that doping and hard work makes.

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