‘Yesterday’s rose endures in its name, we hold empty names.’
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
Breakfast at 10 rue Kléber in Courbevoie, west of Paris, followed a pattern. An early morning walk to the patisserie, a dawdle at the newsagents on the way home and then the luxury of strong coffee, warm croissants and L’Équipe. It is August 1984 and sitting across the breakfast table is Paul Kimmage, a young Irish amateur cyclist who my wife and I have rescued from a hovel in Vincennes on the east side of Paris. I’ve known Paul for four years, since I was a rookie sports reporter covering the bike races he rode. He was moody and headstrong then and still is, but he is also intelligent and honest. It’s an easy trade-off.
We became friends quickly. When Paul went to Paris to pursue his dream of being a pro bike rider I followed him soon after. I’d agreed to write a book about my hero, the cyclist Sean Kelly, and I wanted to live in his world. As Paul and I were both in Paris, it was always likely I would bump into him. He had come with his brother Raphael who was also hoping to turn pro and they rode for the best-known Parisian amateur team, ACBB. Raphael fell sick a lot, missed races and then he just got sick of being sick. So he went back to Dublin, leaving his brother alone in Vincennes. It was then Paul came to live with us.
He and I shared a love of cycling; he was born to it while I rode in on the bandwagon fuelled by Kelly’s success. But by this point I’d been at the Tour de France three times, covered all the spring classics, Paris–Nice, the Tour of Switzerland and could read the cycling pages of L’Équipe. I considered myself virtually French. It was however the minor accomplishment of my literacy that brought tension to the breakfast table on that August morning in 1984.
‘Bloody hell! Roche isn’t riding the Worlds, an insect bite or something,’ I say, speaking of the Irish cyclist Stephen Roche and guessing the meaning of les mots that I don’t understand.
‘Look, I’d rather read the paper myself, after you’re done with it,’ Paul says.
‘What’s the difference? I’m telling he’s out of the Worlds.’
‘I’m telling you, I’d rather read it myself.’
‘That’s just stupid.’
‘Okay, it’s stupid.’ And we mightn’t then talk for an hour or two. And then we would talk for an hour or four. He told stories of the hardship and indignities that came with riding as an amateur and I brought stories back from Hollywood. What Kelly and Roche were up to, what it was like at the Tour de France, what a talent this young American Greg LeMond was, whether Laurent Fignon was right to taunt his French rival Bernard Hinault, but mostly we talked about Kelly and Roche.
I told Paul about the Saturday afternoon after the Amstel Gold race in Holland when we waited for Roche to finish at drug control so we could get on the road to Paris – they were giving me a ride back home while Kelly’s fiancée Linda would drive his car back to their home near Brussels. As we sat around in the car park waiting for Roche, Linda leaned against Sean’s immaculately clean Citroën and placed an open palm on the bonnet. After she moved away, Sean sidled over to where she had been, then discreetly took a tissue from his pocket and cleaned away the little hand-stain left by his wife-to-be.
Catching this unspoken reprimand, Linda wasn’t impressed. Only half-joking, she said, ‘Sean, that’s so typical of you. In your life it’s the car, the bike and then me.’
Kelly never blinked an eye, nor offered the hint of a smile. ‘You got the order wrong, the bike comes first.’
Where we were from defined our allegiances: Kimmage, like Roche, came from Dublin, and was in his camp. I sprang from the south-east of Ireland, no more than 20 miles from Kelly’s home town. He was my man. But Kelly’s hardness had a universal appeal and there wasn’t a Kelly story that Kimmage didn’t want to hear.
He was interested in journalism as well, would check what I wrote and say whether he thought it was any good. And he railed against my refusal to speak the little French I had. One day in the kitchen he pursued this theme in front of a few visitors.
‘He reads L’Équipe, but won’t speak French,’ he said.
‘I don’t know enough French to speak it,’ I said.
‘You know enough to try. Once you start, it gets easier.’
‘It’s okay for you, you’re in a French environment at ACBB, you have to. I’m mixing with English-speaking journalists.’
‘No, you’ve got to try because you do have enough vocabulary. French people like it when you try to speak their language.’
‘Course they do. So look, don’t be afraid to just speak it.’
Paul can be persuasive and suddenly I felt emboldened.
‘Okay,’ I said, ‘I’ll do it. I’m covering the Blois–Chaville classic on Sunday and I need to get a hotel in Blois for Saturday night. I’ll just ring up and book one.’
Picking up the thick Michelin hotel guide in the next room, I rifle through the options and come up with a perfect resting place in Blois: Hotel La Renaissance, 150 francs (£15) for the night. ‘Right,’ I say to the half-full kitchen. ‘I’m ready to go for this.’ A respectful hush falls and I dial the number for La Renaissance.
‘Hello?’ the voice says.
‘Hello,’ I say, triumphantly.
‘Oh . . . je m’appelle David Walsh, je suis journaliste irlandais, je voudrais une chambre avec salle de bains pour une nuit, cette samedi.’
‘This is a fucking private house,’ the guy says.
I want to die but I do worse than that.
‘How did you know I spoke English?’
He hangs up. And there it ended, my life as a French speaker. From this moment on I will accept only non-speaking parts in French movies.
I got to Blois and followed the race to Chaville, hoping that Kelly might win his third one-day classic of the year, for he’d been the season’s dominant rider and, as his biographer, I wanted it to finish well. Paul had ridden the Grand Prix de L’Équipe earlier in the day, that race finishing in Chaville, and he waited by the final corner to see the finish to the pros’ race. Kelly came around that last corner in 10th or 12th place and Kimmage thought it would be a miracle for him to get in the top three. He won easily.
In the salle de presse that evening, there was the now customary procession to where I sat. ‘Parlez-vous avec Kellee?’ Everyone knew Kelly spoke to me and because he wasn’t always the most forthcoming interviewee, this gave me status. That evening back at rue Kléber, Paul and I sat up talking, about how good Kelly had been, about whether Paul would get to realise his dream of riding with the pros, and no matter how much we talked there was more to say.
That was how much in love with cycling I was back in those days. The truth is that I thought of little else and dreamed of little else. If I read a paper it was for cycling news. Ditto the television. If I thought of a double entendre it invariably had to do with bikes rather than sex.
The 1984 World Championships were to be held in Barcelona early in September. Sean Kelly was always conflicted about his preparations for the Worlds. He needed some good three- or four-day stage races, but he preferred to pocket the guaranteed appearance fees earned in small-town criteriums. For Kelly getting paid was important. That’s why he did what he did.
So it was that he came to be racing in a small-time mid-week criterium in August in the one-horse town of Chaumeil in Limousin, central France. He was the star. The prize money meant nothing. The appearance money meant a lot. To me, as his Boswell, the criterium was an opportunity. I contacted the various Irish media I was working for and sold their bemused sports editors the idea of me travelling to Chaumeil. I guaranteed that I would have unhindered access to Kelly. And as I was writing a biography about Kelly it was good to combine the needs of the newspapers with my need to get material for the book. Better if the newspapers paid for the trip, which they did.
I agreed with Sean that I would travel down, watch him race and meet up afterwards to do the interview. Apart from material for the book our chat would serve up some preview material for the forthcoming Worlds. Two birds. One stone. All on expenses.
Not surprisingly it was an incredibly hot day. When is central France not hot in early August? I watched the race from a grassy bank out on the course. We Irish have never really learned to handle extreme heat with much grace or dignity. Not being familiar with either performance-enhancing substances or the subsequent work of Bear Grylls, I began to wilt.
I had brought with me the paraphernalia of the Irish survivalist, a packet of Jaffa Cakes and a bottle of Lucozade. I stood in the August sunshine, my skin turning crispy, my mouth turning to sandpaper. All this happened at a time long ago before mankind had invented the screw-off cap. The unreachable contents of the Lucozade bottle were getting warmer the longer I sat there.
Near the end of the race, just as dehydration was bringing me past confusion and towards a coma, I sprang into action. Confusion was fine. A coma would almost certainly impair my interviewing style.
Behind me on a slight hill there was a row of attractive bungalows. The little town of Chaumeil was about a two-mile walk away. So I abandoned my post and walked up the tarmac drive leading towards the first bungalow. The front of the bungalow showed no promise of life. I wandered around the back.
A woman emerged from the house. Mid-twenties. Very attractive. Friendly. I hit her with my smooth pidgin French, something along the lines that I was trés desolé for the trespass but I needed an opener for my Lucozade. I showed her the bottle and simulated the act of taking off the top.
She understood. Told me not to worry. She disappeared into the house and re-emerged with the bottle opener. She watched as I sucked the Lucozade from the bottle with the elegance of a man who had spent too many months in the desert.
‘What brings you to Chaumeil?’ she asked.
I explained that I was a cycling journalist from Ireland and that I was here to interview Sean Kelly. She seemed oddly unimpressed by these details. She made some more chat. She asked where I lived.
‘Paris,’ I said.
It always feels good telling somebody that you live in Paris.
Ah, Paris. Her husband worked in Paris. He would leave Chaumeil early on a Monday morning and not return again until Friday.
This was Wednesday.
‘I get very lonely,’ she said.
I nodded sympathetically. I offered some words along the lines of, ‘Oui, oui, c’est tres difficile.’ She said that if I wanted to come in for coffee, I was welcome.
Sacre bleu. She had understood nothing. I was thinking of Kelly and starting to panic. I backed away offering thanks and wondering how long it would take me to walk back into Chaumeil. Kelly was heading on to Limoges where we’d agreed to do the interview. I needed a lift and the one certainty was that Sean Kelly wouldn’t hang around waiting for a late reporter, not even his Boswell. This was a lot to convey by means of gesture for a man with Jaffa Cakes in one hand and Lucozade in the other. Missing the lift would be a professional and personal disaster.
It was a year, maybe two years later, when I was telling a friend about the bottle of Lucozade and the interview and how nice the woman had been, that I realised the story could have had another dimension.
‘Phew!’ said my friend. ‘That’s like the plot of a porn film. You must have been tempted?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘The heavy hints. Attractive but lonely French woman. Husband away until Friday. Dead summer heat. What do you think I mean?’
‘Oh Jesus, do you really think so?’
Talk about regret: how many nights has that nice woman of Chaumeil lain awake wondering what might have been with the sunburned Irishman and his Jaffa Cakes?
As for me? Just another innocent abroad.
• • •
It was a terrific year, 1984.
Mary loved Paris. We went with two children and came home with three, as Simon was born in a small hospital about a half-mile from rue Kléber. That’s another story. On the Saturday night of his arrival, his mum lay on her bed in rue Kléber writing letters and saying there was no need to call the taxi just yet. It would be hours. I did as told until it got close to midnight but then began to worry about getting a taxi so late. Eventually I was given the go-ahead to walk across to the taxi rank outside the Pentahotel in Courbevoie and arrange for one to come round to the house.
When Mary put down her pen and got out of bed to dress for the hospital, she was reminded that things had progressed more than she’d realised. The contractions were serious. From the front door to the cab was perhaps ten metres but my wife had to take the journey in three stages; four metres, contraction; three metres, bigger contraction; three metres, massive contraction. She whispered that it was okay, that her time only seemed closer than it was.
Aghast, the taxi driver watched and then motioned me round to the other side of the car so I could examine the cleanliness of his back seat.
‘Monsieur,’ he said in French I could easily understand, ‘I keep this taxi very clean. Look, see for yourself. It’s not possible for me to take your wife.’
I tried to sound nonchalant. I needed to convince him that I was an expert in this field and that he was just misreading the signs.
‘Don’t be stupid,’ I said. ‘The baby will not come for four or five hours and we have an eight-hundred-metre journey to the hospital.’
While the argument went back and forth, Mary stayed upright with support from an open rear door. ‘Three minutes and we’ll be at the hospital,’ I said. He demurred, I insisted, and, reluctantly, he agreed. Every traffic light was green, the ride took maybe two minutes, and a minute and a half after we got there Simon was born.
In mid-September Paul and I went to beautiful Senlis, about twenty miles north of the capital for the start of the Paris–Brussels semi-classic. It was a working assignment for me but we both went there as fans, wanting to savour the atmosphere and hoping to catch up with Kelly before the race left town.
We got to him about thirty minutes before the start and as he sat and chatted with us, we could have been speaking to the lowliest rider in the peloton, not the number one. Through those years people continually asked, ‘Kelly, what’s he like?’ My favourite answer was that he was the kind of fellow that if he found a geyser he wouldn’t come back and tell you he’d invented hot water. Paul had grown to love him too.
After shooting the breeze for twenty minutes or so, it was time for Kelly to get himself to the start line. He stood up, hopped on his bike and, as he was wont to do, he bounced the rear wheel off the road a couple of times to check he had the right pressure in his tyre. As he did, there was the unmistakable sound of pills rattling inside a small plastic container in his back pocket. I looked at Paul, silently asking, ‘Did you hear that?’ He had. Then Kelly was gone and we were silent; kids who had got close to Father Christmas and seen the glue that held his beard in place.
‘Could it have been anything else?’
‘No, it was definitely the sound of pills.’
‘Why would he need those in a race?’
I wondered if they could be supplements but we knew no rider was going to use supplements during a race. It should have been a seminal moment. We had inadvertently seen the realities of professional cycling, but we weren’t ready for that. I had a biography to write, one in which the hero is a farmer’s son from Carrick-on-Suir, a man who as a boy had eaten raw turnips when hungry.
He got to the top because he never lost that hunger and he was loved because he remained true to the modest background whence he had come. Pills rattling against plastic didn’t fit into the story. When you’re a fan, as I was, you don’t ask the hero about the sound that came from his pocket. Still, Paul and I could never forget it.
Kelly finished third that day, went to doping control and failed. The banned drug Stimul was found in his urine. What I remember now is how Sean Kelly looked that evening. A small semi-circle of journalists stood around him at Rhode-Saint-Genèse asking about his third-place finish but it was his deathly white face and the enlarged pupils that struck me. He didn’t look like himself.
When the news of his positive test was made public, he did what all cyclists did: denied using Stimul and said there had to have been a mix-up in the doping control room. One of his arguments was that there were six or seven people in the room when he was giving his sample as opposed to the stipulated two. If Kelly had used Stimul, he had behaved very stupidly because it was an easily detectable drug and by finishing third he had ensured that he would be tested.
Robert Millar, the Scottish rider, was dismissive of the charge, not on any moral grounds but on the basis that Stimul was passé, a seventies drug no one used any more. Karl McCarthy, international secretary for the Irish Cycling Federation, flew into Brussels to plead on Kelly’s behalf, and when the Belgian Federation still insisted he was guilty, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) sent the case back to them and asked them to reconsider.
Sixteen months after the race, the UCI confirmed the original result stood.
Kelly was fined 1000 Swiss francs, which was approximately one sixth of what he earned for showing up at a village race, and given a one-month suspended sentence. When I wrote about the 1984 Paris–Brussels in the biography, I didn’t mention the rattle of pills in the morning and I tried to make the case that it was hard to believe Kelly had used a substance so easily detectable. I chose to see the ridiculous leniency of the authorities as proof that, at worst, it was a minor infraction. It wasn’t how a proper journalist would have reacted. At the time I knew what I was doing.
• • •
Things changed over the following fifteen years.
We returned to Ireland in 1985, reluctantly leaving Paris, and I went back to covering the entire range of major sports. Paul stayed for a second year on the amateur circuit in France, achieved better results and earned a pro contract. It was a dream for him, something we had talked about over so many teas and coffees at rue Kléber. I couldn’t wait to see how his career would turn out. It was to be a bitter-sweet experience for him, a four-year collision with the reality of professional cycling. He experienced the joy of finishing the Tour de France but that, in the end, was overwhelmed by the certainty that if you didn’t dope, it was virtually impossible to compete.
In those years we spoke on the telephone a lot and Paul’s despair at cycling’s doping culture was palpable. He rode the Tour in 1986 and on the day at Alpe d’Huez that Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond held hands as they rode across the finish line, I interviewed him for a piece commissioned by Magill, a current affairs magazine in Dublin.
It was a long interview, almost four hours, as we had so much to talk about. Kimmage wasn’t able to speak about doping because if he did he would have been drummed out of the sport the next day, but he spoke about the race like no one I had ever heard speak about the Tour de France. Honest, human, unromantic, but packed with insight. On the Monday morning that the race ended, the magazine editor Fintan O’Toole rang.
‘Where’s the piece?’
It wouldn’t be the last time I would hear that question.
‘How much do you need and when do you need it by?’
‘Five thousand words and by two-thirty this afternoon.’
It was a little after nine in the morning, and I had yet to listen to the tapes.
‘Fintan,’ I said, trying to sound authoritative, ‘this piece will work as a first-person piece, directly from the mouth of a rookie.’
‘That’s okay. I will send a bike to your house for two-thirty. Okay?’
Then the strangest thing happened. I sat down, played the tape and started typing. Every other minute there was something that had to be in the story. Paul had the gift of storytelling; gritty and unromantic but wonderful for that. It was by far the easiest five-thousand-word piece I’ve ever written: the Tour de France as you had never seen it. I can still remember his description of the pain as he struggled up the Col du Granon. So wasted he could barely keep the pedals turning and in danger of being outside the time limit, his slow progress and tortured face were an unspoken plea, ‘Poussez-moi, poussez-moi.’ And the fans did, pushing him forward as they have done for those in difficulty since the Tour began.
Of course it is against cycling’s rules to accept a push and in the team support car directly behind, a man known to Paul only as Robert screamed at the fans to stop. Confused, they stepped back, and after this had happened a few times Paul mustered up the energy to turn his head back to the car: ‘Robert, for fuck’s sake, let them push me.’ And Robert, embarrassed by the mistake, then yelled at the fans to help Paul.
After Kimmage’s first-person account of the race appeared, Fintan O’Toole called to say that in his time as editor it was the best piece he had ever run. I knew from the ease with which I’d extracted five thousand words from the tape that Kimmage could be a journalist and told him so. He didn’t believe me but that would change.
In 1988, two years after that Magill piece, Paul began writing columns about his life as a pro cyclist for the Sunday Tribune, the paper where I was working at the time. Given that he had no sports-writing experience, the columns were absurdly good. Vincent Browne was an outstanding editor at the Tribune and a man who didn’t often doubt his own judgement. He read the Kimmage columns and felt he knew the score: Kimmage told his story to Walsh who dressed it up as journalism.
‘Vincent, Paul is doing these columns entirely on his own.’
‘Yes, David, but you’re editing.’
‘I’m not, and if I was I couldn’t make them as good as they are.’
‘I still don’t believe he’s doing them on his own.’
‘Okay, Vincent, when Paul calls in with his column this week, you go and sit by the copytaker and see what he dictates.’
Vincent stood over Rita Byrne as she tapped out Paul’s words on her electric typewriter, scanning each sentence as it appeared on the page. This little exercise didn’t last long. Next time Paul was back in Dublin, Vincent offered him a full-time job as sportswriter. Paul’s writing was going better than his riding and he was enjoying it far more. We would speak on the phone about pro cycling and I now knew enough about the sport’s doping culture to understand he hadn’t a hope.
He retired in 1989 and then wrote a masterful account of his life in the peloton, Rough Ride. His memoir became the definitive tome on doping in cycling but Paul was vilified for writing it. And the criticism came exclusively from within the cycling family. It was shocking to hear the lies people told, distressing to watch the self-serving assaults on Paul’s character. His one-time teammate and friend Roche was one of those complaining the loudest. The other great Irish hero of the roads, Kelly, studiously avoided passing any critique on the book or on Paul.
‘I’d like to read the book but I just haven’t got round to it yet,’ Kelly would say to enquiring journalists for years afterwards.
And the fan who had followed Kelly from race to race in 1984 was having his eyes opened, slowly and painfully. At the 1988 Tour de France, the raceleader Pedro Delgado tested positive for the drug probenecid which was banned by the International Olympic Committee because it masks the use of steroids. Conveniently probenecid wasn’t due to be banned by cycling’s authorities until ten days after the Tour ended. There was no legitimate reason for any Tour rider to use probenecid and after the news broke the director of the Tour de France Xavier Louy went to Delgado’s hotel and asked him to leave the race.
The Spaniard refused, saying he hadn’t broken any rule. Technically that was the case.
The following morning I wandered through the corporate village at Limoges still angry that a guy caught using a masking agent was about to win the Tour de France. Standing there alone for a moment was Dutch rider Steven Rooks, second overall and the one who would have won the Tour had Delgado been sanctioned.
‘Do you not feel cheated, that you are the true winner of the Tour de France?’ I asked, wanting him to agree.
He looked at me as if I was an alien with no understanding of anything human.
‘No, not at all. Delgado has been the best rider in the race, he deserves to win. It is okay for me to finish second.’
‘But he has used this masking drug?’
‘He is still the strongest guy in the race.’
Rooks wanted me to know that doping wasn’t any of my business. He resented any line of questioning that suggested he was the legitimate leader of the Tour de France. Effectively, there was an understanding between him and Delgado of what was permissible and his rival hadn’t breached that. As for you, the journalist, just stay out of it.
Cycling wasn’t the only sport with a drug culture.
Two months later I was in Seoul watching Florence Griffith-Joyner break a world 200m record while decelerating. Though she passed the tests, and said she was clean, the performances didn’t make sense. Many of those who wrote of Flo-Jo’s brilliance on the track were faking it. Then a couple of nights after the men’s 100m final Doug Gillon from the Herald in Glasgow knocked on my apartment in Seoul. It was 3.30 in the morning.
‘Doug, what’s up?’
‘Johnson’s tested positive. Get dressed.’
I could have kissed that Scot for thinking of me and the rest of the Seoul Olympics passed in a blur with only Johnson in focus. After it was all over I followed the path beaten by so many journalists to Toronto, the gym where Johnson still worked out, the track where he used to train and the office of his then lawyer Morris Chrobotek working to show Ben in the best light.
Chrobotek was funny, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. At the suggestion that one of of Ben’s rivals was clean, he threw his head back, then brought it forward: ‘I may be ugly,’ he said, ‘but I’m not stupid.’ Afterwards when doping suspicions arose I tried to apply the Chrobotek principle: it was okay to be ugly, not okay to be stupid.
But there is a choice for the sportswriter and it’s not straightforward. Most of us have chosen journalism because we love sport. We say we love our jobs but it is getting paid for going to big sporting events that we love. Enthusiasm for the game is what drives our work. When doubts about the worth of the performance arise, they drain our enthusiasm.
This is why so many refuse to ask the obvious questions.
I was lucky when it came to Lance Armstrong.
Most things are a question of timing. Perhaps if the right questions were asked during the 1980s and ’90s, it might have emerged that EPO, which was then in widespread use and undetectable, had changed the sport. I saw many of those Tours and never asked a question.
So why, when Lance Armstrong won the first of his seven in the Tour de France, did I have such a different reaction?
I’ve always thought of my enthusiasm for sports-writing as existing in a well; you draw from it, it replenishes but not quite at the level that you have drawn from it. This used to be a worry. What if the well went dry? That thought doesn’t bother me any more because at the 1999 Tour, when the story of Lance Armstrong first announced itself, my enthusiasm for professional cycling was at a very low ebb.
Lance, Tour champion extraordinaire, came into my journalistic life at precisely the right moment.
My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong
Seven Deadly Sins
My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong
Walsh's gripping and moving personal account of his struggles is a revealing insight into the murkier end of professional cycling - a place where having the right doctor can make all the difference and where there existed a conspiracy of silence. As he shows, it never was about the bike. However, spurred on by a few brave people who were prepared to speak out in the hope of saving the sport they loved, Walsh continued to probe, and eventually he was vindicated when Armstrong's reputation was ruined. Seven Deadly Sins takes the reader into a world of doping and lies, but shows that there is always hope for a better future.
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