Book review: Unflinching look into the eye of a needle

Book of the Week: 'Rough Ride: Behind the Wheel with a Pro Cyclist' (The Yellow Jersey Press, Paperback pounds 8.00) By Paul Kimmage
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Rough Ride: Behind the Wheel with a Pro Cyclist

(The Yellow Jersey Press,

Paperback pounds 8.00)

By Paul Kimmage

IN THE current climate, it's unlikely that yesterday's final stage of the Tour de France featured a repeat of the scene witnessed by Paul Kimmage in 1986 - a rider injecting himself in the shoulder with amphetamine as the mad dash on the Champs-Elysees drew near. Yesterday, no one would have dared.

The drug storm that engulfed this year's Tour has been characterised by breathtaking disingenuousness - as if a sport hitherto distinguished by its Corinthian cleanliness had suddenly been besmirched by a few cheats. Anyone who has read Kimmage's book - first published eight years ago and now, with remarkable presience, reissued in paperback - will know that drugs have been in cycling for as long as there have been drugs to take. Ask Tommy Simpson. Rough Ride might have been subtitled "How I tried to be a successful, drug-free pro cyclist - and failed."

The Irishman, who rode the Tour three times in the 1980s, rose through the ranks via the classical route of a couple of years of hard amateur grind in France, then signed as a professional and immediately hit the wall he would spend the rest of his brief career banging his head against. His team-mates used freely; he would not even have vitamin injections.

Nobody takes drugs to win in cycling. Stage winners and race leaders are tested, so what would be the point? Kimmage's colleagues took them either to survive, to reach Paris in one piece, or to put on a show. Winners for one-day Criteriums were decided beforehand, but the promoters wanted plenty of attacks and breakaways. Amphetamines conferred that power.

Kimmage held firm against the needle until just after his second Tour. "The bag is produced... a glance is thrown in my direction... If I walk through the door with only the hotel lunch in my system I will crack mentally... I can't face any more humiliation. I need the money... I nod in acceptance."

He did it twice more, but resolved thereafter to stay clean. At least he didn't shoot up during races, though no one could have blamed him if he had. Team managers would be told what doping controls were in operation that day and pass the information on with a nod and a wink.

The one-day Classics were known as the Grands Prix des Chaudieres, (Chaudieres being the word for users). Three fixes in four years? Kimmage should be proud of himself.

He was never going to be a star, drug-free or charged-up, and writing came to feel like a better option. When the book first came out, though, Kimmage found out what happens to those who "spit in the soup", which he recounts in the new introduction: he was publicly attacked by his old pal, Stephen Roche, and shunned by many more of his former comrades-at- arms when he returned to the Tour in 1990 as a journalist. If occasionally he sounded bitter, perhaps it is not so surprising. He concludes the discussion of doping in sport with sadness in his voice: "Would I encourage my child in the pursuit of sporting excellent?" he asks. "No. I don't think I would."

Chris Maume