Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Tale of Three Irishmen

He was, he writes, disappointed to learn that he had been always a good boy.  His mother could leave him playing on the kitchen floor, run to the store for flour, and when she returned expected him to find him still there.  Reliably.

When his father, a bike racer, lost control in a criterium, struck a car, and was thrown to the ground, he was almost excited that his own father had been the victim of such violent danger.  "Ma," he shouted, pointing at the motionless figure of his father, "it's Da!"

His dad had been a professional in France for two weeks.  Arrived, struggled, never rode a race, never spoke a word of French.  Packed up, returned to Ireland, proposed marriage, got a job, had three boys, and kept racing, but as an amateur, until he was 34.

And never regretted it.

At 11 he built his son a bike, with which the boy took overnight trips with Rochee, riding across the countryside and camping in the rain--carefree journeys made impossible today by car traffic and decline of social trust.

Later, the two would look back sentimentally on these trips as the high point of their life on the bike

They rode together and for the country, and under the guidance of a fellow Dubliner who'd won the very same national title seven years previous, the boy won the national championship.  This manager also came from an Irish cycling family, their fathers and brothers all had competed with each other for a decade and more.  He went from managing the Irish national team to the presidency of the UCI.

The boy and Rochee, meanwhile, rode into the professional peleton, and they remained close friends, and even after one retired because he eventually became unable to keep pace.  The other remained, exceeding that new, galloping pace, faster than ever, triumphant and winning.

The boy began writing, tried to describe his failure, assuming some might be interested in more than the pictures or clips of winners, raising their hands in triumph.  His book was little read at the time, but it is now a classic, a beautiful struggle with misery and failed dreams and corruption.

The book stripped the clothes off the sport.  It ended the writer's friendship with everyone still in the sport, including his old friend.

The writer stood by it, though, insisting professional cycling was a sick institution, the furthest thing from his childhood memory of riding through the Irish countryside with friends.  His former friend, still in the profession, still winning races, stood up as the sport's defender, insisting the sport was healthy and clean.

They became antagonists, and remained so for 20 years.  And the world mostly agreed with the winner, the one we'd seen in the pictures, raising his hands in victory.  The sport was clean, he insisted, and we agreed and dismissed the sore loser.  He should have accepted his weakness and admit his inferiority.  The others, the ones he accused of doping--they were our heroes.
Stephen Roche
But he kept writing and speaking his mind.  Over time, the public grew tired of his jeremiads.  The sport's most heroic character labelled him a cancer.

The boy lost his job.  The sport itself, led by his old manager and countryman, began proceedings for a lawsuit against him.

And then something happened.

Kimmage with Pat McQuaid
Everything he claimed about the sport's reliance on dope turned out to be true.  Stars switched sides, and came out in support of him.  The public donated $70,000 to his legal defense fund, and the sport's governing body dropped its case.   Millions of people around the world--and this is truly a miracle--changed their minds about him.

The good boy remained where he'd been all these years.  Paul Kimmage was vindicated.

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