Rough Ride, Paul Kimmage (1990)

A compelling, warts-and-all, account of the author’s short career as a professional cycle racer, written partially to expose the sport’s drug culture

Yellow Jersey Press 0224 051 458 £8 261pp

There are bookshelves and bookshelves of biographies and autobiographies of enormously successful sports people. The testimonies of those who came close to the top of the game, but did not quite make the highest echelons of their sports, however, are few and far between.

When someone with the journalistic skills of Irishman Paul Kimmage does so, therefore, he does a genuine service to those with a serious interest in what it is to compete.

Kimmage was a professional cyclist, riding for a major European team, in the late 1980s. It was a golden age for Irish cycling – Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche were at the pinnacle of their powers, and they were by no means the only compatriots in the peleton. Nonetheless, Kimmage came up the hard way. After a successful amateur career in Ireland, he joined ACCB in Paris as so many had before him. From there he clawed his way to a professional contract – and then rode with enough success to stay in Europe for four seasons.

It is a painful picture that he paints – insufficient money to eat and a lonely life in miserable, shared flats. Even when success comes, life seems to be so hard that he rightly questions why on earth he is carrying on.

Part of his reason for writing the book is to expose the drugs culture in the sport – and to do this, he made himself a persona no grata with many of his former colleagues. In truth, the drug taking that he exposes is small, small beer compared with what has come to light since then. Indeed, given that there is no reason to suppose that Kimmage trimmed his facts, his testimony is arguably evidence that drugs were far less rife that one might have imagined in the 1980s.

During the monstrous Bordeaux-Paris, he is offered ‘something’. On a few other occasions he took some kind of amphetamine ‘charge’ before a small town crit. He was also put under pressure to ‘charge up’ on days in stage races when his team had a lot of work to do to protect their leader.

Lifting the lid on this level of abuse, and the conviction that runs through this book, that such drug use is wrong, make Rough Ride valuable. More interesting, though, is the light that Kimmage shines on the lifestyle of the journeyman professional sportsman. His experience is probably similar to the majority of the peleton – not to mention the leagues of young men who labour in the lower reaches of the football divisions, or try to break in to the big time boxing ring.

PS August 2008

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