Kevin Beirne talks Paul Kimmage, the journalist who had been trying to warn us about Lance Armstrong since 1999
In 1989, Paul Kimmage retired from professional cycling. His career had been largely unspectacular, with a completed Tour de France in 1986 being his proudest achievement. For all intents and purposes, Paul Kimmage was not going to be remembered as anything more than a former team member of Stephen Roche, former Olympian and the winner of the 1981 Dublin Road Race.
During his time in the peloton, Kimmage had not only seen, but experienced the effects of doping first hand. He knew that there was a problem with the sport that he loved so dear. It was a sport that he had been born into, with his father and his brothers competing in it too.
In 1990, he released a book called Rough Ride which details his exploits as a professional cyclist, including the dirty little secrets of doping. He admitted to using amphetamines before three exhibition races (in which the outcome is usually fixed) and was subsequently ostracised by the cycling community.
In 1998, the Tour de France rode through Dublin. It was nicknamed the ‘Tour du Dopage’ (Tour of Doping) due to the doping scandal known as the Festina affair, named for the Festina team whose soigneur was arrested in for attempting to bring large amounts of doping products into France.
The next year, Lance Armstrong completed an incredible recovery from the brink of death to win his first Tour de France. In the wake of his victory, many analysts said that it was too good to be true, but Kimmage meant it. He began to openly question Armstrong’s doping status.
Kimmage had been aware of Armstrong since his brother competed against him in the 1992 Olympic road race in Barcelona. He had been tipped off that Armstrong was a contender to win it, and he remembers: “He didn’t win that day, but he was obviously very good. He turned professional straight after that Olympic road race, and won a stage at the Tour [de France] in his first year as a professional. He was World Champion in his first year, and had exceptional ability and was a fantastic racer. But he was a racer who was fantastic for one day. He was never, ever, ever going to be a Tour de France winner.”
He continued: “When he came back in 1999… I think he’d only ever finished one Tour before then. To come back to win, having had cancer, it was remarkable, inverted commas, and it just didn’t stand up… The key thing for me was that Armstrong had competed as a professional from ’93 until ’96, when he got the cancer, and those were some of the worst years for doping.”
Another factor that alerted Kimmage to Armstrong as a potential doper was the fact that he was happy to sweep the previous doping cases under the rug. As far as Kimmage was concerned, any genuinely clean rider would have been enraged by his fellow professionals trying to cheat him.
He says that: “If [Armstrong] was what he purported to be, he would have been outspoken about the doping. He would have been vicious about it, almost. Instead, he tried to pretend it hadn’t happened and it wasn’t there. It was the classic signs of someone who had doped before and was still doping. It was actually very easy for me to call it.”
Kimmage never held back in his attacks of Armstrong. Over the years, he became increasingly frustrated with the powers that be, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), and their failure to do anything in the face of a doping problem that he felt was destroying the sport.
In an interview with Newstalk when Armstrong announced his comeback, Kimmage famously quipped that cycling had been in remission since Armstrong left the sport, but now the cancer was back. He knew how it would sound to people on the outside, but he also knew the truth of his statement. “I’ve always likened the problem of doping in sport to a cancer, which is what it is… He just represented that in so many ways. He has his first Tour win in 1999, when there was a chance that the sport could move forward, and he dragged so many fellas back into it,” he says.
The irony was not lost on Kimmage that he was now using the word cancer as a weapon, much like Armstrong had used it as a shield for so many years. His words, as ever, drew a mixed response from the public, but he does not regret them to this day.
The UCI, however, began a case in January of 2012 to sue him for defamation for his work for the Sunday Times. Led by his former team manager at the 1984 Olympics and current UCI President Pat McQuaid, they hoped that by suing him instead of the paper he wrote for that they could shut him up once and for all.
What they didn’t count on was the unveiling of Armstrong’s doping regimen by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). But UCI did not drop the case, so a fund was set up by cycling fans all over the world to donate to Kimamge’s legal fund in order to thank him for his hard work over the years.
UCI have since dropped the case, but Kimmage has now taken one against them, thanks to the supporters’ fund. Looking to the future, he doesn’t know if he will ever get back the innocence he once had with the sport, but he hopes that the next generation will have that chance.