The Big Interview: Paul Kimmage
As a writer at the Sunday Times, Paul Kimmage is one of the most prolific and outspoken crusaders against doping in cycling. His critics, however, would argue heís a bitter and twisted journalist, still hung up on a failed career as a professional racer.
After several years of racing on the European circuit Ėincluding the Tour de France- in the 80s, the Irishman hung up his wheels and published Rough Ride Ė a tell-all autobiography that recalled the trials and tribulations of his life in the peloton. Most significantly the book broke the pro-sceneís code of silence, lifting the lid on some of the sportís doping practices.
Since then attitudes in the peloton seem to have changed little but the Dublinerís career as a sports journalist has blossomed. He penned footballer Tony Cascarinoís award winning and confessional biography and as in his current position of Chief Sports Interviewer has shown a knack for penning candid insights into the lives of many top sports personalities. What seems to rub a number of cycling fans up the wrong way, though, is his frequent and high profile lambasting of the doping culture in professional cycling.
What originally made you come out and publish a Rough Ride?
There are two interpretations about why I did that. One side would say I was a failed cyclist who needed to make a name for himself. I knew it was going to cause me a lot of problems and cost me some friendships but the truth of the matter is that I felt a duty to the sport and young kids coming into it.
Did you think your book would make a difference to the practices in the peloton?
I was naÔve and idealistic: I thought it would change the world, I really did. I thought people would pick that book up, recognise the errors that weíd made and sit down to address it. It really hurt that nothing came of it. And now I think the sport is really paying for that.
Why didnít it change anything?
One of the reasons it changed nothing was that it was too easy to dismiss me. The [then UCI president] Hein Veinbruggens of this world quite frequently used the argument that people like myself and Gilles Delion were just failed cyclists. Itís a very hard to see a way forward for the sport given that people like myself, who in good faith tried to help it ,were ostracised. The people whoíve done it the most damage are held up in high esteem in the sport. The sport cannot move forward unless this is addressed.
Do you still feel ostracised?
I went to interview Bradley Wiggins last year at the Etoile de Besseges and we sat down in one of the hotels. Bradley mentioned after I left the hotel that Yvon Madiot [Francaise des Jeux direcor sportif] came up to him and said Ďwhat you talking to him for?í Yvon Madiot is reportedly of the new anti-doping regime yet thereís still this attitude. Itís as if Iím held responsible for some terrible thing that happened when all I did was what they should have been doing. Thatís a classic example of the mentality that exists.
Do you still like the sport?
I still ride my bike. I did four hours on Sunday. Iíve got back into it again and I do really like it but thatís not the same as liking professional cycling. Like a lot of professional sports, it is totally rotten.
But last year you documented in the Sunday Times how covering the Tour de France was starting to grip you againÖ
I saw some things last year that were encouraging me to believe in it again. That was one of the problems with the 90s - the Indurain era and the Armstrong era. I couldnít identify with any of that in terms of what I did. Youíd see these guys going uphill and they werenít even opening their mouths.
Last year I saw certainly more examples of what I recognised as real cycling. Until, of course, we had Mr Landis and his ride to Morzine. I was like ĎSorry but I just canít believe that.í
Did you think last yearís Tour was cleaner than previous years, though?
Absolutely. No doubt about that.
Who stands out to you in the fight against doping?
I like Bradley a lot. I really do. He says the right things and is trying very hard. As much as I admire Bradley, I have complete disdain for David Millar. He should never be allowed to race again. Heís a classic example of whatís wrong with the sport.
My all time hero is [outspoken rider] Christophe Bassons. What he was subjected to was an absolute disgrace. What I donít understand is how people point the finger at me and Bassons while the man who presided over this sport right up until last year, Hein Verbruggen is still the UCI Vice President. And then thereís Pat McQuaid, the new UCI president. Heís saying all the right things about all these doping confessions but itís the exact opposite to what he was saying nine years ago when the Tour de France came to Dublin. He was telling journalists that Paul Kimmage is bad for cycling. Someone will have to ask him what he meant by that.
Do you think professional cycling can ever become dope free?
Given that in 1998 [with the Festina affair] cycling had a chance to re-invent and it didnít happen, I really feel it will very difficult. Whatís happened with Telekom/T-Mobile is the classic problem They come out with great intentions Ėnew anti-doping regimes, strict controls etc- but theyíre all prisoners of their past. Aldag raced in 96 with drugs. The team doctors in place were the ones administering EPO in the 90s. And those guys exist in every professional team. You canít have situations where there are former pros on TV who put theyíre head in the sand every time the doping question comes up. Unless youíve got a situation where there are people who will not tolerate any form of it, the sport canít move forward.
Given that outlook, have you not been tempted to just completely wash your hands of the sport once and for all?
I have. Thatís whatís happened. I wrote Rough Ride and covered a bit of cycling in the early 90s but essentially I have washed my hands of it. I went back last year because my boss asked me to do it. I hadnít been on the Tour for a long time and Iím only doing it again this year because it starts in London and thatís a big event for the Sunday Times. Even last week I was trying to argue the case of not going back. I want to turn over the chapter in my own life and just walk away from it. The perception that Iím bad for cycling really hurts me. Itíd be easy to say it doesnít bother me but it really does. I only go back to it because itís my job.
Your critics wonder why youíre always focussing on doping when you do go back to cycling.
If you look at the piece I did on Bradley Wiggins I think youíll find doping isnít mentioned in that piece.
But the topic does come up a lotÖ
It does. But I canít name a Tour de France winner going back toÖwell, Iíve got be careful here or Iíll get myself in trouble. I know one that Iím prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to. When you know whatís going on in this sport, how can there be any other issue than doping until itís sorted out. How can I hold these people up to be authentic champions when I know and Iíve listened to the lies that are now coming to the surface?
Your past has obviously given you a lot of insight. Do you frustrated by not being able to publish things that are legally contentious?
That is a frustration and the easy way round that is to say nothing. Youíre duty is to get as close to the truth as you can. I stand close to the wind with pretty much everything I write. Youíre always getting into areas that are difficult. Iím not just talking about doping here but personal lives, psychologies and peopleís make-up. Iím always trying to get as deep in as I can without getting into trouble.
Itís very frustrating for writers but too many of them take the easy option of opting out rather than taking the more difficult option of pursuing it and doing a good job. As much as I protest about how responses to my writing hurt me, it isnít my job to be popular. Itís not what Iím paid for as a journalist. Too many forget that.
This is what you were referring to during the Tour last year. You upset a few members of the press room by labelling them Muppets. You obviously think the press have a far greater roll in the fight against doping?
Yes I do. There are some very good writers in that press room and in hindsight I didnít mean everybody. There are some people I really respect but there is easily a majority that I donít. And I donít just mean the written press; the broadcast media too. Phil Liggett would be way down my Christmas card list, as would Paul Sherwin. In fact there isnít a broadcaster I respect at all.
How do you respond to criticism from cycling fans that itís always their sport being dragged through the mud with regard to doping? What about football or athletics?
Itís a fair question. In my defence in1996 we had a triple Olympic gold-medal swimmer called Michelle de Bruin here. She was the biggest personality in the history of Irish Sport. When she won those Olympics medals I was in no doubt that she was using drugs and wrote a very critical piece. Subsequently she was caught and banned for life. But in 1996 and for two years until she was exposed I continued to write those pieces and got a hard time for it. I interviewed [Spanish tennis player] Rafael Nadal two weeks ago in Hamburg. Before I went to meet him I looked into who his trainer was and I tried to get some sort of conclusive evidence that he was in the Operation Puerto files but I couldnít get my hands on it. All I could do was ask him the question and all he did was give me a not very satisfactory response. Itís not only cycling with me. Whenever there are grounds to ask the question, I do so.
What sports particularly interest you now?
Iíve always liked all sports. But as an event I still think the Tour de France is the greatest in sport. Thereís nothing that comes near it. Itís an absolute travesty whatís happened. It really hurts that the racing is not believable anymore.
How does your current job compare to that of a professional cyclist?
During the 90s I was chief sports writer in Ireland and covered a lot of football World Cups and Olympic Games. The nature of my job has changed since joining the Sunday Times in London. Now itís is specifically interviews. Thatís what interests me. Iíve always been interested in people and what makes them tick. Iíd like to get beyond the veneer. And get in where it matters.
Itís very, very hard work. When I was racing and riding the Tour I thought that would be the hardest thing Iíd ever do. But Iíve finished pieces here where my wife has had to scrape me off the floor. Iíll be completely mentally hammered. I would never appreciate that at eth time I was riding my bike. I wouldnít change anything in my career. I did enjoy my professional cycling life and it was a great school for what I do now.
Suffolk, June 2007