Paul Kimmage: The Salman Rushdie of cycling journalism?

Dallaglio Cycle Slam blogger Andrew Croker interviews him

When Ex-England rugby captain Lawrence Dallaglio and his Cycle Slam team rode into Murrayfield Stadium in Scotland yesterday it marked the end of an epic 3,000km slog across Europe.

Many of those who joined Dallaglio on the charity ride had barely slung a leg over a bike before, but there were a few more experienced riders in the ranks, including former Tour de France racer Paul Kimmage.

Andrew Croker, who has been keeping us up to date on the Slammers' progress via the Cycling Plus blog, took the opportunity to quiz him about the 'cycling fatwah' imposed on him in the early Nineties, his post-racing career and 'hatred' of cycling.

Paul Kimmage has ridden with us all the way from Rome, and while his name pops up regularly in the blogs, I suspect many of you have no idea who he is. Some will recognise him from The Sunday Times, where he has been a feature writer in the sports section for the past nine years. He didn't volunteer for this ride; his editor Alex Butler, for whom Lawrence also writes, suggested it.

We all hope the money we raise will change the lives of others, but it has also affected many of the riders, and perhaps most surprisingly, it's changed Paul. You may know the headlines, and what he has been tarred with: bolshy little Irish domestique who walked away from a sport he hated and dished the dirt in his book, Rough Ride, for a few quid. See if you agree.

'Spitting in the soup'

"The real low spot was at the Tour de France in 1990, just after the book came out," says Paul. "Thierry Claveroylat, my former RMO team-mate, spat in my face. We call it biting the hand that feeds you – the French call it 'spitting in the soup'."

My wife Joanna and I were sitting having lunch with Paul in the Seashell restaurant in Stranraer, Scotland, and considering how much he's written about us I thought I should turn the tables.

A year before the incident with Claveroylat, on 13 July 1989, on the 13th day of the Tour de France near Toulouse, Paul got off the bike and turned his back on cycling, aged 27. He'd ridden a strong Giro d'Italia but internal strife was eating away at him, and anybody will tell you that you can't ride if mind and body aren't speaking to each other.

He'd been doing some writing since early that year and, encouraged by his friend, and journalist, David Walsh, he could tell he had the chance to be a better writer than cyclist. (I know the feeling, but I'm a crap cyclist, and while people say 'I love your blog', nobody has marvelled at my climbing. Yet.)

Pressure was coming from both angles. He had briefly gone over to the dark side in 1987 (amphetamine injections in irrelevant fixed one-day races), and people such as Gay Byrne, the veteran Irish broadcaster, whose opinion he valued, were raving about his column.

Centre of the storm

A four-year journeyman professional was not going to go any further, buried in the peloton, but in print he had a voice. So he and his wife Anne left Grenoble and headed back to Dublin. Not with any intention to write about cycling because it wouldn't pay, but to broaden his horizons. Rough Ride, a warts-and-all tale of life as a pro cyclist, was first published in 1990 and instantly caused a storm.

"Having become a journalist made the choice [to publish or not] more difficult," he says. "Of course I had friendships in the sport but I had to do the right thing. After I wrote it I was Salman Rushdie for eight years; it was like a cycling fatwah."

The 'fatwah' weakened considerably in 1998 when the sport was blown wide open by a succession of police raids and widespread exposure of drug abuse – most notably the Festina affair and the revelation that riders were dosing up on a drug called EPO. Its use had led to the premature death of many fit young men

"How could one possibly justify not exposing that?" says Paul. "I had nothing to gain from writing the book. People thought I hated cycling. I didn't – I hated the drugs in cycling." In fact he only named two drug takers – himself and Andre Chappuis, who is still his friend. Paul turned round on a filthy day to see Andre on his wheel with a syringe clamped between his teeth.

Paul knew he had to go to the 1990 Tour, as an accredited journalist, but the book had not been published in French so many of the riders, press and organisers knew little but assumed plenty. And that's when Thierry spat in his face.

Heads in the sand

While the professional cycling world hated Rough Ride and ostracised Paul, the media world was more impressed. He was appointed senior sports writer at the Sunday Independent, Ireland's biggest paper.

Six years after Rough Ride, drugs in sport and Kimmage collided once again. At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Ireland's Michelle de Bruin (nee Smith) came from nowhere to win three gold medals in the pool. Her husband and coach was a Dutch discus thrower serving a drugs ban and Kimmage was instantly suspicious.

He chose to let the Irish public – delighting in De Bruin's success – know that he didn't believe her improvement was natural, urging them to "take your heads out of the sand". Although De Bruin's Olympic medals still stand, she was banned from competing in 1998 after being found guilty of tampering with a drug test. "If I hadn't written Rough Ride it would have been grossly hypocritical to write about her," says Paul.

There is still a perception that Kimmage is obsessed with writing about cycling drug cheats, but this is grossly wide of the mark. Most of his acclaimed sports journalism has concentrated on other sports – see Full Time, the autobiography he helped footballer Tony Cascarino pen.

Paul still thinks the best thing he wrote is 6,000-odd words on Ireland's match against Holland in November 2001 to qualify for the 2002 World Cup. It took him a long time to get it right: "I finished it and said, 'I can't do better than that', but I never think that now." His focus now is the big interview, and it's a shame his last two pieces on the Slam have only been published online, not least because they show how funny and observant he can be.

Inner demons

Favourite interview subjects? "I like obsessives, the ones with inner demons, the ones who are driven." I remind him of his recent interview with former England rugby player Brian Moore – a piece with revelations of child abuse and daily conversations with his Gollum alter ego. "Exactly."

In January, Paul and I went to Girona with Lawrence [Dallaglio], to meet Garmin Transitions pro David Millar and ride Rocacorba, a classic climb, for a Sunday Times preview piece. David was delightful, and has given me and our riders great moral and practical support on the Slam.

But he and Paul have history, with Paul asking for an interview in 2004 (David was at then at Cofidis), being declined, saying he was writing it anyway, getting a solicitor's letter before he'd written it, and then opening the article with the letter. David got caught in June that year by the police in Biarritz and the house came down. He admitted EPO use and was banned from the sport.

So, you may well ask, as I did, how did that get reconciled? "I thought he should have been banned for life, and I told him," says Paul. "Jonathan Vaughters signed him for Slipstream – the clean team. I didnt buy it. I met Vaughters and said, 'okay, let me come on the Tour, one month, full access', and he agreed. That was 2008 and David wasn't happy. I held up a blank page in my notebook and said, 'why don't we start with that?'. He agreed."

Reconnecting with the pure joy of cycling

It sounds like Paul is now back in love with cycling, particularly when talking about his plans outside pro racing. He says he never hated the sport, but he was certainly disillusioned: "In 20 years the most I've done is two hours, and I never go out in the rain."

This, of course, is not quite true, because he did ride the 2008 Etape du Tour (amateur day in the tour, like the London Marathon for cyclists) "because it was Alpe d'Huez". I rode it too, a sweltering 45 degrees on the famous 21 hairpins – just brutal. His very funny description of it is in the new edition of Rough Ride, but he told me: "I got off three times on the climb. It's the only time since I was 10 years old that I ever got off my bike on a climb. I hadn't trained, but it was humiliating."

And what of the Slam? "I'm going to keep cycling – I need a focus. I'll do more events, like L'Etape. It's reconnected me with the pure joy of cycling. I've got a real sense of wellbeing."

What I've seen is a man getting thinner (less to follow), faster (harder to follow), sucked into the world of the fast group and the Chuckle Brothers. "Jeez Andrew, my heart was at 182 on the run in to Dundalk, and your wife's stuck on my wheel. She's killing me." Joanna told me it was heaven.

I'd say he's mellowed over the trip: "Lawrence and I are opposites. He engages daily with everybody. I can't do that but you can see it works." Well, not quite true: he's enjoyed nothing more than getting his team organised each day and barking orders, and in no time it's smooth and fast. "What I haven't enjoyed, which reminds me of the old days, is the endless packing and hotel rooms," he says.

But let me tell you, there is no finer finder of a decent restaurant, and all those years cycling round France have meant he really knows his way round the business end of the wine list. Right now he's writing Matt Hampson's book called Engage. Matt is the ventilator-dependent quadraplegic who was injured on England Under 21 duty. "That's it though, no more books. I wrote Tony Cascarino's, but with the journalism it just puts too much strain on work and family."

In the blood

Talking of which, his 19-year-old daughter Evelyn has come from nowhere this week to take an interest in cycling. She joined us a week ago, saw Joanna and the girls riding, and insisted on joining in – very impressively. We have been cycling the roads in Ireland that the Kimmages have ridden for the past 60 years. Paul's brothers Raphael and Kevin both competed, and his father Christy, now 72, was road race champion of Ireland. He came to see us on Tuesday. I asked him if he still rides: "Oh yes, I do the 4k into Balbriggan every day."

I am fiercely protective of Joanna on the road, but if there is one person I've been happy to leave her with it's Paul. He couldn't have been more protective if she was wearing the yellow jersey. So while he says he never hated cycling, this double negative has now been turned into a positive, and his reconnection with the joy of it has been the thing. His daughter Evelyn on a bike, laughing at our antics, giving up trying to suppress the fiercely competitive nature...

Last night at dinner, he said: "We have unfinished business Mr Chairman." Well we do: he has to get Joanna to Edinburgh tomorrow, and I hope we have many days on the bike together to come.

Andrew Croker is part of the core team accompanying former England rugby union captain Lawrence Dallaglio on every leg of his epic 2,770km Cycle Slam which started on 12 February in Rome. They're riding between Nice, Paris, Twickenham, Fishguard on to Rosslare and finally Edinburgh. The aim to is to raise £1 million to be shared between Sport Relief  and the The Dallaglio Foundation. You can support the Cycle Slam at www.dallagliocycleslam.com.

Comments

Back to top