Welcome Back, Kimmage

A few weeks ago, during the Tour, reader Ken asked what I thought of an article written by Paul Kimmage of the Times of London about Allen Lim, Slipstream-Chipotle’s team doctor/physiotherapist/nutritionist/power guy/guru. I replied that I didn’t think much of it, since it was more about Kimmage’s personal baggage than it was about its alleged subject. In that, it fit the mold of many of his other cycling articles. It’s not that Kimmage is a bad writer, or a bad interviewer, it’s that his first-hand experience as a professional cyclist in the 1980s left him with such a sour taste in his mouth that he’s been unable to create an even remotely objective story about the sport since he hung up his wheels in favor of a typewriter.

Kimmage’s career transition began promisingly, for both the sport and the man, when his book Rough Ride (which I highly recommend) was released in 1990. That book detailed the ills of professional cycling through the telling of Kimmage’s own experiences, and though he never explicitly named others who used drugs, the implications were strong enough to effectively blackball him from the sport. Back then, eighteen years ago, the book told cycling devotees what the rest of the world would learn in 1998 with the Festina scandal – that the sport was rife with doping. But back then, nobody was listening, and Kimmage was dismissed as a disgruntled never-was.

In the years since its publication, Kimmage has parlayed both the success of Rough Ride and the resulting ill-will into a steady career of being, along with compatriot David Walsh, one of the premier doping curmudgeons covering cycling. He reports on a variety of other sports for the Times as well, but he’s always saved most of his venom for cycling. As they say, it’s the ones you love that hurt you the most, and the stark reality he witnessed as an ‘80s pro, together with the sport's subsequent scandals, placed him squarely in the “they’re all doping, it’s a sham of a sport” camp.

Despite his distaste for the sport, he was drawn back to this year’s Tour de France by the “clean” claims of Jonathan Vaughters’ Garmin-Chipotle team - claims that, like many but more than most, he greeted with a healthy share of skepticism. He arranged to be a sort of “embedded reporter” with the squad, getting unrestricted access to the team and its staff, including inner-sanctum locales like the bus and bedrooms at any time he pleased. The articles that resulted were in many ways vintage Kimmage, taking every opportunity to delve into any sort of questionable past members of the team had, putting them through the doping wringer with regularity, and inserting a good bit of his own trademark editorializing.

And that’s what made his final installation so surprising. In it, Kimmage, almost confessional, describes how the Garmin-Chipotle squad, from its manager to its riders to its doctor to its guru, have restored some of his faith in the sport he’d written off long ago, and even made him a fan again. If you’d like to restore a bit of your own faith, you should read it yourself, but this paragraph sums it up well:

“I’ve spent a good portion of my past 20 years enraged by dopers such as Virenque, Riis, Ivan Basso and Hamilton and seized every opportunity to expose them. No apologies. They deserve our contempt . . . but not as much as the guys who are trying to compete clean deserve our support. I’d lost sight of that. To David Millar, Christian Vande Velde, Ryder Hesjedal, Will Frischkorn, Danny Pate, Julian Dean, Martijn Maaskant, Trent Lowe and Magnus Backstedt, thanks for the reminder."

Do I care that Paul Kimmage has had his faith in cycling restored? No, not really. It’s a good thing, of course, because he has a loud voice about the sport in certain circles, but he’s still just one man among many who became disillusioned by all the scandals the sport has put itself through over the last 20 years. There are a lot of people still out in the cold. But that’s what’s important about Kimmage’s piece – it proves that the sport and its image among fans and potential fans is still salvageable. Things can change, the sport can change, and even the most steadfast detractors can change their minds if they’re given a reason.

As Kimmage’s "I'd lost sight of that" epiphany in the quoted paragraph suggests, people can come back to the sport, but it’s going to take some leaps of faith by a lot of different players to do so. Jonathan Vaughters took one by granting unrestricted access to one of the sports biggest and most well-versed detractors, a move that could have easily backfired even if nothing shady were uncovered. Kimmage took one by choosing to believe that, over the course of his three weeks, he’d seen enough of the Garmin-Chipotle squad to publicly declare his trust in them.

Those leaps paid off big for both of them. Kimmage got to experience cycling as a joy again rather than a seedy underworld populated by cheaters and pushers. Vaughters got what might be the most surprising and valuable media endorsement of the last several years for his team - one that could lead many to be less skeptical of its claims. The result of the experiment, you could argue, is indeed the renewed enthusiasm of just one man, but looking more broadly, if more people involved in the sport are willing to take the big risks, as Vaughters and Kimmage have, the sport may yet be able to bring people back, bring people in, and turn the page.