IT IS Monday afternoon, a sunny, breezy, summer’s day by the Irish Sea and Malahide Castle is crowded with families, day-trippers, tourists, ladies who do lunch and a ‘giant of the road’.
The ‘giant’ is actually five foot eight inches tall, casually dressed in a polo shirt and jeans and able to slip through the cafe at the rear of the building unnoticed. At 52, he’s best known these days as a journalist who helped bring down Lance Armstrong – a teammate of David Walsh.
Yet before he was chasing Armstrong with a pen and a cause, Paul Kimmage spent his life pursuing other cyclists, struggling to make ends meet as a journeyman pro and struggling harder still to get from one end of France to the other on the back of his bike.
And while he proved it was possible to compete without using drugs, in collating the evidence that a widespread doping programme was going on in the peleton, he lost a part of himself. The young man who left Ireland for France with a suitcase and a dream came home six years later with “a van full of junk” and a broken heart.
It stung that the sport he loved was rotten to the core and, some would argue, still is. Yet whereas people watch it now with their eyes wide open, refusing to believe what they see or what they’re told, back in 1990 when Kimmage blew the whistle on the cheating that was polluting his sport, no one wanted to listen.
“Men who were once friends practically spat at me,” he recalls. “Teammates stood in front of me and said ‘what have you done? You have spat in the soup’.” And others – who didn’t know him from Adam – called him embittered and a liar.
“All that still hurts. It’s 24 years ago but I’m still pained by what went on because it’s so personal. I love cycling. I got into it when I was three. I followed my father [Christy, a champion cyclist] around.
"I chased a dream and then reached a phase of my career where it was obvious there was doping going on around me and the realisation came that this was unfair and that I had a choice to make that I shouldn’t have had to make it. There is an injustice in that and that is where the hurt comes from.
“So I stood up and tried to address that problem. And I got kicked for it. I couldn’t believe that bit. I thought – naively – that I’d publish a book (Rough Ride) and people would do something about the problems. But the complete opposite happened. I was seriously naive.”
Ostracised, he began a new life working for the now defunct Sunday Tribune, encountering a new pack who also distrusted him because of his willingness to go against the grain. And for eight years he wrote about cycling’s doping regime and few believed much of it.
Then, in 1998, the Tour de France came to Ireland and the Festina Affair happened, when customs officers discovered hundreds of capsules of anabolic steroids, EPO and syringes in the Festina team car as it crossed the French border to enter Belgium. All of a sudden, cycling’s mask was taken off and a monster was exposed. And all of a sudden the “embittered journalist” was viewed differently.
“Festina was definitely a turning point. People then said, ‘no you were right. I didn’t believe you but now I can see that there was a massive problem in the sport.’ For the eight years from writing the book until Festina, I was really hurting a lot. It has been much easier since then.”
And yet to this day it still nags away at him. An intelligent, sensitive man, his pain is visually evident whenever he speaks about his past, avoiding eye contact to instead lower his head and stare at a point in the mid-distance as he discusses the fall outs with friends and the abuse he took from strangers.
“I didn’t understand it. I kind of expected there would be a bit of a backlash but I didn’t envisage people coming up to me and sneering right in my face. That really hurt then and still does to this day.”
Redemption has been a long time coming. Festina and its aftermath provided balm to his wounds but then in November 2011, two weeks after being made redundant by The Sunday Times, he woke up one morning to find a solicitor’s letter on his hall floor, the contents of which told him that the UCI (cycling’s governing body) was taking legal action against him.
“At that moment I was thinking, ‘I’ve lost my job, I’m being sued, and Ann [his wife] is going berserk and I’m asking ‘what was this all for? I felt like a f***in eejit and thought ‘what was the f***ing point?’ I felt the whole thing was worthless. I had just brought grief upon myself.
“And then a few guys set up this defence fund – Help Paul Kimmage Defend his Case – and that was easily the most gratifying moment of all because it is one thing people saying, ‘I’ve always liked your writing, Paul, well done’ but it is another thing for people to put their hand in their pocket. That was humbling and there was a sense then that what I was doing was worth it.”
What he was doing was telling the truth. Nothing more.
But why he did it is a different story.
Paul Kimmage was born in 1962, a month and a few streets apart from Martin Earley, a neighbour who’d also compete in the Tour de France, two of only eight Irishmen to do so.
A successful amateur, Kimmage was champion of Ireland and an Olympian when he got head-hunted by the Parisian nursery club, ACBB, where Stephen Roche had served his apprenticeship. When he first travelled to France in 1983, he believed it to be the land where dreams were made.
“And that idea soon got blown out of the water,” he says. “My first race there gave me a real sense of the gulf that existed between where I was as a competitor and where I wanted to be.”
If his first encounter with the French Alps was sobering then the cultural differences between Dublin and Paris were just as challenging.
“My first time there was daunting. The guy who met us at the airport stank of garlic. I didn’t know what the f*** garlic was in 1983 and this waft came off this bloke and made me think, ‘what the f*** is going on here?’ We passed by a cafe that afternoon and I saw people eating these big plates of mussels and chips.
"I was looking at them, thinking ‘f***ing hell, these people are barbarians’. I went to the shop and the stink of the f***ing cheese counter just blew me away. The culture shock was huge.”
But he embraced it. His first year in Paris was a struggle but his second season in Lille proved much more productive and in 1986 he took the plunge and turned pro for the princely sum of £7000-a-year. Ann, who he married in 1987, moved over and they rented an apartment just outside Grenoble, both of them immersing themselves in their new home.
“It was an absolutely fantastic experience for the pair of us.”
Yet life on the bike remained a struggle. During one race in Belgium, he went through the horrors and stopped at the side of a motorway with the rain pelting into his face and underwent “what people would call a nervous breakdown”.
But he got over it, got back on the bike and earned a reputation for being a hard man.
“There is nothing I would change, even the toughest times. All of those things have formed me and made me what I am. What a fantastic experience to live there, to experience that culture, meet a wide circle of friends. It was absolutely the best thing we ever did.”
Significantly, though, they made a conscious decision not to have children until his career ended.
“If we’d had kids when I was a pro, I’d have doped in a serious way,” he says. “I’d have needed the money.”
Instead he got by clean and in 1986 he made it all the way around France, completing the 2,544 miles of that year’s Tour in 131st place.
“That little medal I was given for finishing is my most treasured possession. It is not that spectacular but to finish the Tour, to come through those three weeks, tested to the limit every day, that’s something I’m proud of.
“To this day I remember seeing the Eiffel Tower as I came into Paris on the final day of the Tour and the buzz I got from that, the buzz of flying up and down the Champs-Elysees. That’s still with me. You can’t buy that experience. It was the biggest thrill I ever got.
"I went back last year for the 100th tour as a guest. Anyone who ever finished the Tour was put in a special stand by the Champs-Elysees and made a big deal of. They photographed us, told us we were giants of the road. It was f***ing great.
“I am welcomed back now. Almost. I get a very good reception. And it is night and day compared to 1990 when I went back after writing about the doping that was inherent in cycling. People I regarded as really good friends just blanked me. A lot has changed, thankfully.”
Yet it only changed because Kimmage and Walsh blew holes in the myth that the game was pure and that Lance Armstrong was an untainted hero. They took on the system and got a right bashing for their sins, receiving lawsuits and victimisation. Finally in 2012, when Armstrong admitted he’d been a cheat, they were vindicated.
That seemed like the perfect ending, justice for the rebels. But life is never that simple.
Last year Walsh published another book, this time on Team Sky, except this time the cynicism he traditionally expressed was missing. Instead “Inside Team Sky” read like a glorified press release and Kimmage couldn’t believe it.
“What he did was awful. Awful. I was appalled by it. Absolutely appalled. He got it wrong. We haven’t spoken in a year. That has been hard … really hard.”
So too is watching sport. The 101st Tour de France is ongoing but he isn’t engrossed.
“I look at it with a particular eye. I don’t watch the Tour like a fan would watch it. I look at it and say, ‘okay, I can have that … But not that … That makes no sense … Can I believe this?’ There are some cyclists I do believe in but they don’t win very much. I interviewed Chris Froome recently. He was very courteous and I would love to believe the whole sport is perfectly clean. But I can’t.
“And I can’t just look away because it is personal for me. I raced in this sport. I loved it. I’ve done it since I was three years of age. I followed my dad around. That is where it comes from. It is deep-rooted. I just can’t be dispassionate about cycling.”
Nor can he be about other sports.
“I don’t believe the World Cup is any different to any other sport. You are telling me there is no doping in football? With the money that is there. You look at the performances of teams, the distances players are covering over 90 minutes and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that some form of drug-related cheating is going on.
"Possibly, and this may sound ridiculous, cycling is one of the cleanest sports left because the controls are full on. But f***ing tennis, I find it nauseating to watch it on TV to see the McEnroes and all the commentators engage in this big love-in. And the bottom line is we are all getting rich here folks, lets not upset the apple-cart.”
Yet his journalistic career has been spent doing precisely that.
“I don’t get too excited about sport the way I once did. And that is terrible really, isn’t it?”
It is. But it would have been a hell of a lot worse if he’d kept what he’d seen a secret.