Paul Kimmage: Navigating the rocky road
Cycling gave Dave Kane some of the best and most challenging times of his life
Published 04/05/2014 | 17:00
Dave Kane has never had much time for rabble-rousing or politics but this is Belfast, and we're not far from Sandy Row, so it comes as no real surprise that within minutes of shaking hands we're talking about the guns and the shootings and his religion.
That was the crack of the starter's pistol, his favourite sound in the world: "When the gun went, I was up the road all day," he says. "It didn't matter where I finished, I just wanted to play a role and be part of the race."
That was his commitment to the cause: four World Championships, three Commonwealth Games, 13 Tours of Ireland, six Tours of Scotland, 12 Manx Internationals and 32 Irish jerseys: "They would have had to shoot me to make me pack (not finish) a race with an Irish jersey on my back," he says.
He has known, or raced with, most of the best Ulster Protestants: 'Big' Morris Foster, 'King' Billy Kerr, Billy Dowds, Ian Moore, Noel Taggart, Dave Gardiner, the Caldwell brothers, the Chivers, the Talbots. And most of the best Ulster Catholics: Seamey Herron, Joe Smith, Pat McGibbon, Martin McQuillan, Conor Henry, Paul Slane, Bo Graham, the McCanns, the Downeys. But he has only ever worshipped cycling. And after a lifetime of service and devotion, he has reached the Promised Land: "The Giro starting in Belfast. Who'd have believed it?" he says.
We meet on a grey Monday afternoon at his bike shop on the Upper Newtownards Road. He sends Paul out for coffees, grabs a pack of chocolate biscuits from behind the counter, and ushers me into a tiny storeroom at the back, heaving with spares and Lycra and with no place to sit. The plan was to take him out and sit him down at a local café but he seems reluctant to leave the shop. No, he won't leave the shop.
Dave Kane cycles . . . he always has.
His father, Joe, was an ex-army man and hailed from the Shankill Road; his mother, Nina, was from Gortin in Co Tyrone. Dave, an only child, was raised on the Shore Road but lost his mother, young, to cancer. "So there was only me and the oul' lad," he says, "and he was very regimental. You wouldn't have got lying in your bed to miss work unless you had a broken leg."
The work started in 1956 when he left school at the age of 15 and took a job with his father at a local warehouse. He was riding an old BSA at the time, and thought all bikes were the same, until he spotted his first racing machine. "One of the boys in there, Ronnie Jackson, had this bike and I couldn't figure out why it was so light. 'Have you not got a bike?' he said. 'Come out with me and the club'."
That first ride with the Northern Cycling Club would change the course of his life. He had tried boxing, his father's love, and enjoyed cross-country running but nothing had compared to the thrill and camaraderie of racing a bike or riding in a group.
"Cycling breaks down all borders," he says. "Even going back to those days before the Troubles, there was always a stigma about religion; people had their own areas and their own community but the Northern was a mixed club. People were never asked what their religion was and one of my first heroes when I joined was Seamey 'Fish' Herron."
His first 'proper' machine was a track bike that he used for work every day and raced in Lisburn and Portadown but it didn't take long
before he had gravitated towards the road. At 17, he raced his first Tour of the North and went clear on the climb to Spelga Dam with three of the army team and John Lackey, one of Ireland's biggest stars. He exploded a few miles later, and finished half an hour down, but the buzz of being in front stayed with him for days.
In 1959, he made his international debut at the Manx International and started thinking about going to France to pursue a professional career. Three years later, he joined an amateur team in St Brieuc and became friendly with one of the locally-based pros – the charismatic Englishman, Tom Simpson. But a lot of what he saw made him scared.
"There was a young lad at the time called Macarena, I'll always remember the name, a young Italian, and he was like ourselves, trying to get in there (as a pro). But at 22, they found him dead in bed one morning and that was it for me. There was so much stuff (drugs) those boys were taking . . . Jesus Christ! There was no way I was getting involved. I enjoyed my bike."
The following winter, at a Miami Showband gig in Belfast, he caught the eye of Margaret McCall from Sandy Row and knew, pretty much immediately, that he had met the girl of his dreams. "She gave up the money she'd saved for a new coat to buy me two tubulars (tyres) to go to the worlds," he laughs.
The World Championships were held in San Sebastian that year. He was married now, and working as a corker in Harland and Wolff but his passion for racing hadn't waned. In 1966, he finished sixth at the Commonwealth Games in Jamaica and returned home to news that he had been selected for his second World Championships at the Nurburgring.
"At that time there were was no such thing as team managers," he says, "and you had to pay £10, a lot of money at the time, towards the cost of the trip yourself. I remember getting a flight from the old Nutts Corner airport to London, changing in London for Dusseldorf and getting a train to Cologne.
"In Cologne, I had to get another train to the Black Forest and got out at a wee place called Adenau. It was eight o'clock at night; I was on my own, couldn't speak a word of German and nothing had been booked for me. I have a saddlebag on my bike with my kit but nowhere to stay. There was one hotel that the Brits had booked (out) so I went over and the wee man (manager) of the hotel said that I could eat at the hotel and stay in his sister's house across the road.
"The next day Liam (Horner, the other Irish selection) arrives and there's nothing booked for him, either, so they put a tent in your woman's garden. So I'm in a bunk bed, Liam's in a tent and we're about to ride the World Championships! Then Simpson and big Vin Denson arrive and we go with them for a (training) ride around the circuit and Tommy says: 'I think I'll have a little stimulant in me for this lap'. That was the way he talked."
A year later, he was dead. "It was devastating," Kane says.
He kept racing: two more World Championship appearances at Heerlen (1967) and Leicester (1970); two more Commonwealth Games rides at Edinburgh (1970) and Christchurch (1974) and a memorable experience with some cheating Spaniards at the 1977 Tour of Ireland.
"Do you remember the Super Ser team?" he asks. "I was going up Molls Gap and one of them had a needle (tucked) inside the jersey. That annoyed me. I was nearly going to talk to him: 'Look mate! See when you're finished with that? Well, stick it in my arse because when you go up that fucking mountain, I've got to go after you!'"
A year later, he retired from the sport. He was 37 years old, a father to three kids – Deborah, Mark and Paul – and had just opened a bike shop on the Newtownards Road. There were no regrets. The sport had given him some of the best moments of his life and he looked forward to sharing them with his boys. But it was his girl who first announced that she wanted to follow his footsteps and it made his stomach churn.
"I didn't want her to ride a bike," he says. "I didn't think it was a sport for women and wouldn't let her join our club. But she was determined. 'To hell with you,' she says. 'I'll join the Ards club'. And she did. She raced for two years with Ards before I relented and allowed her to join the Northern."
Deborah has joined us in the storeroom. She has brought her own chair. "I was never your girlie-girl," she says. "I always wanted to be out with my dad messing about with bikes. I went to an all-girls school and the girls would come back on Monday mornings talking about the disco or who they had met. 'I was out for 80 miles yesterday,' I'd say. It was all I ever wanted to do."
From the moment she started racing, Debbie Kane was turning heads. Most of them were boys. "The only women's racing at that time was in England," she says, "so they used to bung me in with the young buckos. It didn't make any difference to me, I just loved the buzz of competing."
She won five Irish road titles, three time-trial championships and in 1985 became the first Irish woman ever to beat the hour for 25 miles. A few months later, she completed her first World Road Championships in Italy. She was 19 years old and was reaching all of the milestones of her father's career.
The Commonwealth Games in Auckland was next. To qualify, she would need a top-five finish at the WCRA (Women's Cycle Race Association) 3-day International at Harlow, in England. The year was 1988. It was the May bank holiday and she was lying third overall on the morning of the final stage.
It was raining. She had attacked and was leading the field through the lanes and down a windy descent when her front tyre blew and she overshot the corner. The truck was parked on the exit. She crushed the radiator with her head and broke her shoulder, collarbone and arm. "But the only thing I remember is that I had beans for breakfast," she smiles.
Dave remembers . . . the RUC man calling to the door . . . the flight that evening to London with Maggie and the boys . . . the heartbreaking sight of his beautiful daughter's face . . . the unbearable news that she would never walk again.
"It almost broke me," he says. "All I could think was, 'How is she going to adapt to this? What are we going to do?' As she says herself, the first time they brought the wheelchair to her bed she didn't sleep. She just lay there and looked at it all night."
Debbie: "That was after I had been in bed-rest for two-and-a-half months. I thought: 'I have to get into this to move'."
Dave: "I went up to see her the following night and she met me at the door in the chair. There was a big 'L' plate hung on the back of it. I thought, 'We've won the battle here. She is not going to lie down'."
Debbie: "Well, I'd spent months, counting every square of those ceiling tiles from the bed so I thought: 'Well, you've got two options here, Debs.'"
The interview is drawing to a close. We retreat from the storeroom and step out to the Newtownards Road where the Giro d'Italia will pass not once, but twice next Friday evening. It won't matter to most of the riders. They won't notice the wiry ex-champion with his champion sons and his champion daughter, camped in front of the bike shop. But it matters to them. It is all that has mattered for months.
They have sprayed the shop pink to send the world a message . . .
"DAVE KANE CYCLES"
And always will.
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