Former national champion. Olympian. Former professional cyclist. Sports journalist of the Year. Five time Sports Interviewer of the year. British Sports Book of the year winner. William Hill Sports Book of the Year winner. There are plenty of things Paul Kimmage could have put on his Twitter bio. Instead, it comprises two words.
“Well that’s who I am,” he says pointing to a picture on the wall behind the desk in his home office in North County Dublin. “There he is, winning into Gorey in ’61, the year he rode the Rás. That’s who I am and it’s something I’m very proud of. You know what . . . I was going to change it a while ago, because Christy had four sons and I’m only one of them, so I should change it really to one of Christy’s sons. Certainly Raphael, who is sadly gone, Kevin and Christopher might take umbrage at the notion that I was his only son,” he laughs.
“I brought my mother into the Mater hospital a few weeks ago for a check-up. The Mater is opposite Eccles Street and Number 71 is now taken over by the private consultants who have their rooms there now. Number 71 is where I was born into, where my mother and father got married and had a room there. One of the tenement rooms. It’s f***ing tiny. I mean, it is unbelievable that they reared three kids in there between them.
“I think Kevin was almost five by the time we moved out to Ballymun. That really enforces ‘Christy’s son’. When you see where they lived and what little they had, I have absolute and total respect for both of them and that’s not unique to me. I’m sure most people feel the same about their parents. But that’s it, that’s who I am. That’s where I come from . . . that’s where everything comes from really.”
The photo had previously hung on the wall of Kimmage’s childhood home in Coolock and is one of the reasons he began to race.
“Look at the crowds, from top to bottom of the street,” he says. “It’s an incredible photograph. So there was a very glamorous notion of cycling and of my father as a star. My first living memory of him is in the Phoenix Park flying over the crowd and landing on his back after hitting a car. Peering through the legs. Watching him.
“People coming around to see was he ok and me telling my mother it was him. He had this distinctive blue leather hairnet helmet, that I actually used myself when I started racing for the first time. We went everywhere with him. My mother would pack everybody up and we’d follow him around the country racing. That’s what gave me the urge to race really.”
Kimmage’s competitive nature also came from his father and the need to impress him, although he admits it took him a while to figure that out.
“It’s a very curious thing . . . my relationship with the sport, you know. I didn’t really ever understand what it was about. Look, I loved cycling from the day I started, but racing and trying to achieve and be a great racer . . . that all came from him. That all came from trying to make him proud of me, and trying to gain favour with him. I didn’t actually understand that until I did an interview with Marian Finucane on RTÉ and we were talking as we’re talking now about where I came from and the whole thing about racing and going up the ladder.
“It actually struck me while I was talking to her. That’s really what it was all about. It was really about him. Raphael was much more talented than I was and he was the golden boy. I suppose, subconsciously, a lot of it was me wanting be the golden boy. But it was only when I was talking to Marian about it that the penny dropped.”
He clicks his fingers. “F***! That’s what it was! It was just about my father. All I wanted to do was please him and make him feel about me the way I felt about him. That’s what was driving me. Through everything, that’s what was driving me.”
In hindsight, a bad day in the French Alps on the 1987 Dauphine was a clear indication that he didn’t need to impress anyone.
“That was in my own mind,” he admits of the yearning to impress. “I remember in the Dauphine in 1987, he came over with my mother and Christopher. We came up the Glandon and then turned left to go up the Croix de Fer. I was gone. I got it terrible on the Glandon, was really struggling.
“As I was going over the Croix de Fer I could see them up ahead, at the side of the road. Christopher has a picture of me stopping to see my parents. I actually had it on the tip of my tongue to say, ‘Listen. This is what I am. I’m a domestique. I’m never going to win the Tour de France. What you’re looking at is the reality.’
“I didn’t say it and I’m glad I didn’t say it because he had a bottle for me. He gave me the bottle and gave me a shove and it was great. But that’s what was on the tip of my tongue to say to him. The next day I had a great ride over the Izoard in the front group almost and he was there for that. He just got me on a bad day the day before.”
From his early days on the bike through his years as a pro, cycling meant Kimmage had a label. An identity. He was somebody.
“What cycling gave me was a great sense of pride in being . . . not a cyclist – I was a champion cyclist. I was road race champion when I was 19 and working in the airport as an apprentice plumber. I was the youngest ever to win it at that stage. In terms of your own self-respect, it gave you . . .” he hesitates for a second.
“Nuala O’Faolain was in a shop one day and was recognised by a couple of women. One of them looked at her and asked ‘Are you someone?’ I was someone. I won the road race championship. My father was someone and I wanted to be someone and that’s what cycling gave me, a chance to be someone.
“So cycling was very important to my self-esteem and continued to be, right through the various phases until I wrote Rough Ride,” he says of the seminal biography that peered under the covers of professional cycling, revealing some of its dirty laundry. “Then I was ‘no-one,’” he laughs. “I was ‘never any f***ing good’. So yeah, it was important and again another driver not unrelated to my father. I wanted to be someone.”
After the publication of Rough Ride in 1990, and the unexpected backlash from his peers that followed, Kimmage’s relationship with cycling changed and the bike was thrown aside for a while.
“I wasn’t sick of it, it was just . . . the way I’d explain it is . . . it’s all of your life. It’s everything for so long. I mean you’re just possessed by it. Every waking thought of your life, certainly from the time I was 19 until I stopped at 27, that’s all I thought about. And then I stopped in ‘89 and wrote the book, started work in the newspaper.
“The great break I had, and this was a huge break . . . The sportsman has two deaths, his natural death and his sporting death. I didn’t live the sporting death because I transitioned straight into another job, which was brilliant but I had to make that work, had to work pretty hard, had to concentrate on that. For a while I’d say I felt a bit of a pull to ride a bike and maybe race again but it was very short and then I just left it.”
Although he still rode a couple of hours a week to clear his head, it wasn’t until the Irish Hospice Foundation asked him to do an ad campaign for a fundraising ride in 2014 that Kimmage got back in the saddle in earnest and his relationship with cycling evolved again.
“That gave me a focus really to start riding again. I really enjoyed that and started riding a lot more. I spend a lot of time in Portugal now. I’ve got pals over there that I ride with and Jaysus, I f***ing love it now!”
His eyes light up and a smile spreads across his face as he speaks.
“I just love it in a way I’ve never loved it before. I absolutely love it! I was over there about three weeks ago and was out every second day, some days doing 100km. It’s hot now, and hard roads over in the Algarve, but I just love it. When I stopped, cycling was always therapy. The two hours was always a way of thinking and also a release, but now it’s much more. I love just riding the bike and how it makes me feel. My relationship with it is totally different than it was.”
Now 60, Kimmage admits the last embers of the competitive fire in his belly are slowly beginning to burn out.
“I have got drawn into battles with fellas that you meet on the road and they start throwing the wheel out at you,” he smiles. “I still do get pulled into that, drawn into that, but what I find myself more and more saying to these guys who have no idea what it’s like to race is, ‘Look, just stick a f***in’ number on or f*** off and leave me alone. If you want to race, put a number on! Otherwise, just sit there and take it easy.”
He laughs again at his change in mentality.
“When I’m out now, a coffee-stop is absolutely compulsory. You have to stop for coffee mid-way through, take off the gloves, sit there for half an hour, get back on the bike and doddle home. Great! So, my relationship is totally different with cycling now and I really love it.
“I suppose I just didn’t understand it really. It was a different relationship I had with it when I was trying to be a pro and trying to win. It was all about winning then. That’s all that f***ing mattered. I was obsessed with winning.
“My whole relationship with it was based on that and now it’s the complete opposite. I just love it for the pure love of riding a bike. It’s absolutely great. But you’ll never see me riding in the rain again. There’s times you’ll get caught out in a shower, but the idea of going out when it’s wet, there’s no chance.”
While he has a group of friends to ride with in Portugal, at home he finds himself riding solo, or sometimes in the company of his daughter Evelyn, the eldest of his three children.
“I prefer going out with a few pals but I don’t have any problem riding on my own. It’s always therapy. My big cycling buddy is my daughter Evelyn. Evelyn is great. She started ten years ago. I love riding with her.”
Riding with his own father after retirement though is something Kimmage regrets not having done.
“I find it really sad that when I finished as a pro I was 27, so my dad would have been around 51. Evelyn is 32 now and I’m 60 but she started when she was 22 and I was only 50. I wonder why I never rode the bike with my father, because he brought me out when I was 12. He taught me the game, taught me everything. I just find it insane that we never rode together. And sad. It is a regret, something I really would change.”
He thinks about it a bit more and then realises his father was probably fed up of the bike by then.
“He was smoking cigars,” Kimmage laughs. “He did a couple of maracycles with his pals but he wasn’t riding the bike. God. What craic we would have had, if we’d just gone out for a few spins together. I suppose it was just different then. I don’t know.”
Like most sons, Kimmage catches himself doing things and hears himself saying things that he didn’t lick off the ground.
“What I laugh about now is I sometimes find myself saying something to the kids and turning into him. Evelyn has just bought a house and instinctively I thought ‘Right! She can get all her s**t out of my garage!” he laughs heartily. “That’s exactly what my father would have said. I’m not sure if I learned that from him but there’s a lot of him in me and it’s not all good. Of all of us, Kevin is the most like my father. I have a bit of my mother in me. Raphael had more of my mother in him. Christopher is a bit like me, but Kevin is the spit of my father. Jaysus, God help him!” he laughs heartily again at the thought.
By their nature, cyclists are often self-centred, selfish and even obsessive about their sport and it takes a special kind of partner to put up with that and Kimmage can see that in both his wife Anne and his mother. While his father may have got the plaudits, Kimmage’s mother, Angela, is the one who quietly kept everything running in the background.
“In a lot of ways, the dynamic wouldn’t be unlike my relationship with Anne,” he says of his parent’s relationship. “Anne, in company, would be the one who does all the talking. I just like to sit there and look around me. My mother and father would have been a bit like that. My mother would have been much more sociable, would have done all the organising. Selfless. Yeah, she is very selfless really. She has a very good personality. It’s hard to pull my mother’s traits (in me). She’s very caring . . . I’d hope I have a bit of that in me.”
For all the trials and tribulations Kimmage has endured on and off the bike, cycling he admits has, directly or indirectly, given him everything he has in life.
“It did get me everything,” he admits. “Absolutely everything. It gave me everything. I met Anne because her brother was riding Rás Tailteann in 1982. I’d come in from the Isle of Man that morning and I went up to see the Rás because I knew she’d be there. That’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
“So, everything else . . . I would not have been a sports writer or a journalist if it hadn’t been for the fact that, on the day I met Anne, she’d been going around the Rás with David Walsh. David Walsh came and interviewed me at the Tour de France in 1986. He used that interview as a ghosted piece, as if I’d written it myself. That opened the door into sports writing. My father was a cyclist, my brothers were cyclists. I have three great kids. I have everything from the bike. Everything.”
When asked for his best memory from cycling, he points to an array of photos on the wall behind his desk.
“When I finished sixth in the amateur world championships in ‘85, you see that picture? Johnny Weltz is about five back, Jeff Pierce is on my right-hand side. Olaf Ludwig is in there, all the Russians. Lech Piasecki won it. Fondriest was fifth, Weltz was second, so that was a serious ride.”
Another contender is a photo from Villach, Austria, where a small Irish team including Kimmage defied the odds and helped Stephen Roche win the 1987 professional world road race championship. “It’s hard to beat Villach I have to say, just for something that was monumental really and being able to share in that. That was huge that day.”
I lift his Tour de France finisher’s medal from 1986 and the piece of Waterford glass he got for winning his second national title in 1984, two more precious memories, before his mind fast forwards to this July and the roads of northern Italy.
“We did the Hospice Ride in Northern Italy and it went over the Stelvio,” he says. “There was a big group, maybe 55 of us, but I decided I was going to stay with Evelyn for the day. I wanted to go over the Stelvio with Evelyn. I’d never ridden it before, never raced over, it so it was on my bucket list. And the Stelvio was just magnificent, Oh my God! Panoramic. I’d advise anyone who loves cycling to go and do it.”
Used regularly in the Giro d’Italia, the summit of the 25km long Stelvio is located 2,757m above sea level, with 48 hairpin bends on the way up. The top professionals can take an hour and a half to get to the top but it can take double that time or longer for mere mortals.
“You set off and it’s kind of forested each side,” Kimmage explains. “We were going up for about 20km and everything was going grand. Then you come to the stage, maybe 6km from the top, where it opens out. Suddenly, you look up and you can see it in front of you, this amazing set of switchbacks for six or seven kilometres. Evelyn came out of the trees and saw this and it actually blew her mind. Oh my God! Having done all of that she still had all of that to do?
“Mentally, I could see she was thinking, ‘How am I going to get up this?’ We did another 3km and now she’s struggling, really struggling, so we stopped and she’s not the only one. There’s a lot of people really struggling.
“I said, ‘Right Evelyn come on, I’m going to show you how to do this.’ What she was doing was getting up, riding really hard and then pulling back and stopping. I said, ‘No, no, look what I’m doing. Pull yourself back and ride like I am. Just turn the pedals, ride within yourself. Just turn the pedals.’ So we’re doing this, and she’s getting it hard now, then we get to about two hairpins from the top and Anne starts roaring at her from the top.”
Kimmage’s voice begins to crack and he trails off for a second.
“When I heard Anne roaring at her ‘C’mon Evelyn girl!’ Jesus, it cracked me up. It was really emotional . . . just lovely. Jesus, it broke my heart. I started crying. I just thought ‘Oh my God! Her mother cheering for her! It was just amazing.”
The symmetry of his father cheering him from the roadside on a tough day on the Croix de Fer in ’87 and his wife cheering his daughter on the Stelvio 35 years later is not lost on him.
“That’s my father, me, Evelyn. It’s the same kind of emotional moment. I don’t know why it made me feel that way but I just thought, ‘This is amazing . . . to experience that with your daughter. It doesn’t get any better than that’. So that’s probably the best memory of all really.”
The facade of the hard-nosed journalist has long crumbled and his eyes begin to well up. Maybe there is more of his mother in Paul Kimmage than he realises.