Sunday 19 November 2017

Paul Kimmage: But then the genie came out of the bottle and there was just bitterness and rancour. And now, people forget

‘I remember I loved Stephen Roche and would have followed him to the ends of the earth. But then the genie came out of the bottle and there was just bitterness and rancour. And now people forget’ Photo: Offside / L'Equipe
‘I remember I loved Stephen Roche and would have followed him to the ends of the earth. But then the genie came out of the bottle and there was just bitterness and rancour. And now people forget’ Photo: Offside / L'Equipe
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

Back in Ireland, Stephen's triumph was celebrated as a national victory. He was welcomed home to scenes of incredible adulation in an open-top bus tour of Dublin. Cycling was 'the' sport, and winning the Tour made Stephen the greatest sportsman the country had ever produced - and one of the most popular

- Rough Ride

There was a lunch in Dublin 10 days ago for Michael Kearney, the just-retired manager of the Irish rugby team. I've no idea what managing a rugby team entails but it's obviously a pretty big deal because Joe Schmidt and Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy and Jamie Heaslip were among the great and the good - perhaps 600 people - who gathered to pay tribute at the Ballsbridge Hotel.

The formalities had concluded and I found myself in a corner, draining the last of the Malbec with Ger Gilroy, the brilliant presenter of Newstalk's Off The Ball and Eoin Reddan, the gifted former Ireland scrum-half. It was one of those great conversations when the wine is plentiful and your belly is full.

We were going deep, picking Eoin's brains about rugby and the media and life after sport when something - possibly the Malbec - triggered a distant memory that made me reach for my phone. "What do you think?" I asked, showing them a photo that had been sent to me recently.

I thought they would glance at the bike race and the array of colours and call it immediately: "That has to be Villach in '87 - the World Professional Road Race Championships."

I thought they would study the shattered faces spread across the road - Moreno Argentin, Jean-Francois Bernard, Johan van der Velde, Theo de Rooij, Gianni Bugno, Erik Breukink, Bruno Leali, Eric Vanderaerden, Christophe Lavainne - and say: "Christ! Hammer time! The pressure is on there."

I thought they would focus on the Irishmen riding as a unit on the left side of the road and remember how it was: "Four Paddies taking on the World! What a fucking great day that was!" But no. It didn't register. None of it registered. And I felt like a fool.

But then, Eoin was only seven years old in 1987. And Ger had just turned 10. And people forget…

It was a gorgeous summer's evening in Dublin on Wednesday. I was out on my bike with my daughter, Evelyn, around the lanes of the North County, and we were climbing towards Snowtown from the village of Naul when I was drawn by a boyhood memory to the first time I'd gone up there.

I was 15 years old, and had taken off for the weekend with my brother Raphael and three friends towards Drogheda and the An Óige hostel at Clogherhead. We bombed through Naul and had almost reached Snowtown when Raphael snapped his chain. Was there a phone box in Naul, I wondered. We would have to call Dad. Then one of the lads pulled a link extractor from his pocket.

Stephen Roche had saved the weekend.

Roche was a wizard for most of my boyhood. I remember a wet Saturday in Roundwood, shivering with cold outside the 'highest café in Ireland' with not a dime in our pockets, when he produced a hot flask. It was the first time I had ever tasted coffee. I remember a Sunday morning outside the hostel in Baltyboys, gazing in wonder as he dissected a back wheel and grappled with 20 bearings and a broken cone.

I remember a dry ditch on the slopes of Glenmalure, feasting on fruit cake and tinned fruit salad for lunch, and joking about how lucky we were. I remember he had his in-growing toenails removed and determining to cut mine properly so it never happened to me. I remember he loved Abba and had a crush on Agnetha Faltskog. I remember his favourite drink was Cidona.

And what a bike rider.

I remember my father glowing about his fluid pedalling style and how well he sat on the bike. I remember when he won the Ras in '79 with his cunning and ability to time-trial. I remember his first season in France, and his first season as a pro, and the shock of his first big win in Paris-Nice. I remember Tramore in June of 1981, and the first time I saw Lydia, his drop-dead-gorgeous wife.

I remember we spent a week at his home before our first Tour together in 1986. I remember watching him suffering on the mountain stage to Luchon and throwing my arm around him on the Tourmalet: "Come on Rochey". I remember he came to my room after the stage to Alpe d'Huez. I remember the finish in Paris.

Six months later it was 1987.

I remember the morning of the 19th stage when he told me his plan to take the yellow jersey. I remember riding by his side the next day at Villard-de-Lans and feeling so incredibly proud that an Irishman - my friend! - was leading the Tour de France. I remember embracing him in Paris five days later.

I remember the euphoria when he returned to Dublin, and the crowds on the streets of Wexford and Cork when we returned for three races in August. I remember travelling to Villach and the bond that welded the four of us - Roche, Kimmage, Sean Kelly, Martin Earley - as we trained on the circuit on the eve of the race.

I remember the meal that night, and polishing my shoes, and feeling like a boy on Christmas Eve when I went to bed. I remember the rain the next morning pelting off the roof. I remember struggling in the early laps - I detested rain - and Stephen dropping back to encourage me and marvelling once again at the way he caressed the pedals.

I remember the pressure coming on, and some big names going south, and standing guard on Kelly's shoulder as we raced the penultimate lap. I remember the sound of the bell and the final climb and the sight - glorious - of Kelly and Roche dancing across to the winning move. I remember John Brennan of The Sunday World and his face when I crossed the line.

"He's done it! The bastard's done it!"

"Who?"

"Roche!"

"You're joking!"

I remember embracing my friend in his new rainbow jersey. I remember the joy we shared with Kelly and Earley and the laughter we shared with all of the Irish supporters at the team hotel that night. I remember thinking it was the greatest day of my life, that history had been made and I played a small part. I remember I loved Stephen Roche and would have followed him to the ends of the earth.

But then the genie came out of the bottle and there was just bitterness and rancour. And now, people forget.

An Evening with Paul Kimmage: 1987 and all that', a fundraising event for the Hospice Foundation and their 'Nurses for Night Care' service will take place at The Workmans Club, Wellington Quay at 7.30pm on Wednesday, May 17. Details on Twitter (@PaulKimmage)

Sunday Indo Sport

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport