Paul Kimmage: Drogheda bike shop offering sneak peak into a glorious past
"You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realise that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing." - Luis Bunuel
There are no clues from the opposite bank of the river. You stand between the bronze statues of Joey Maher and Tony Byrne - two of Drogheda's sporting heroes - and the thing that strikes most as you gaze across is how ordinary it looks; the kid's BMX in the window; the plain yellow façade; the invitation to 'Bike to Work' and 'Join our Christmas Club'.
Push through the door and the proprietor, Austin Walsh, is waiting - politeness personified - by the counter.
A new bike?
"Step this way, sir."
A spare tube?
"What size is the wheel?"
A problem repair?
"Leave it with me, sir."
And there's a chance that will be enough and you'll be swiftly on your way, or there's a chance it will suddenly hit you . . .
And you will want to stick around.
One of my favourite programmes as a kid was Mister Benn, an animated TV series that aired at lunchtime on BBC. Mister Benn wasn't your average superhero. Middle-aged, he went to work every day in a black suit and a bowler hat but got his kicks from a costume shop he happened upon once on his journey home.
He picks an outfit and is invited by the shopkeeper - a moustachioed fez-wearing dude with a friendly gait - to a changing room at the back with a magic door. He opens the door and enters a world filled with wonder and adventure, and passes the afternoon being a cowboy or chasing a princess or fighting a dragon. Then the shopkeeper appears and guides him back to his bowler hat.
Mister Benn returns the next day. And the day after that. And the day after that . . . which is kind of how it feels after that first visit to Drogheda. Austin Walsh does not wear a fez and has never claimed to do magic but his bike shop is a lot more than it seems.
The third of three children born to Tommy and Breda, he grew up in Trinity Gardens, a short walk from the Boyne, and liked nothing more than fishing until a summer's day in '86 when the opening stage of Rás Tailteann came flying through the town. Smitten, he asked his father to get him a bike and started racing as a boy with Jim Gorman and Drogheda Wheelers.
The late Gabriel Howard was another early mentor and regaled him with stories about the history of the game on long trips to races up and down the country.
In 1991, he left home and spent a season - his first as a 'senior' - at Manchester Wheelers, the most successful team in England at the time. A year later he moved to France, and spent the next four seasons "chasing the dream" to turn pro.
There was no Plan B when he returned home in 1995 but he knew a lot about bikes and the local shop was for sale: "It wasn't so much a good idea as the only idea," he smiles. He kept the name 'Quay Cycles' and decorated the walls as most bike shops do with photos and portraits of the stars.
In 2014, when it was announced that the third stage of the Giro D'Italia would pass through Drogheda en route to Dublin, he decorated the shop-front with tributes to the three Irishmen who had won stages - Shay Elliott, Martin Earley and Stephen Roche.
"That's how it started," he says.
People started giving him things. A niece of Felice Gimondi, the great Italian champion, was living in Mary Street at the time and popped in one afternoon with a selection of old magazines. A brother of Stephen Roche sent the bike - a green Motobecane - Roche had used to win his first Tour de France stage in 1985.
Martin McKenna sent a jersey his brother, Ben, had worn during his race-winning Rás Tailteann in 1959. Shay O'Hanlon sent a Rás yellow jersey from 1965. Ian Moore, the second Irishman to ride the Tour de France, sent a signed green jersey. Peter Crinnion, the first Irishman to win the Route de France, sent a Margnat Paloma tunic.
Bob Reynolds, a grand-nephew of Ireland's first world champion, Harry Reynolds, sent a couple of rare portraits. Walsh has the bike Mariano Martinez used when King of the Mountains at the 1978 Tour de France, a track bike used by the Englishman, Cyril Cartwright and a TT bike that was given to him recently by the extraordinary Graeme Obree.
Barry Hoban, eight times a Tour de France stage winner, sent photos, jerseys, a selection of Tour de France race manuals and some bike plaques.
Walsh has a replica of the bike Tom Simpson used to win the world title in 1965, a signed portrait of the Englishman on the podium and signed rainbow jerseys from the 1983 World Champion, Greg LeMond, as well as the 2013 champion, Martyn Irvine.
Every inch of wall space is adorned by a portrait of a former local, national or international great: Peter Doyle, Debbie Kane, Paddy Flanagan, Colm Nulty, Denis Devin, Mick Nulty, Gerard Campbell, Noel Clarke, Sean Kelly, Martin Earley, Seamus Kennedy, Alan McCormack, Gene Mangan, John Lackey, JJ McCormack, Robert Millar, Deno Davie, Sean Yates, Paul Curran, Fausto Coppi, Jim McQuaid, Steve Bauer, Brian Robinson, Bernard Hinault.
But it's the tribute to Shay Elliott that shines.
Walsh wasn't born when Elliott - the first Irishman to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France - died in 1971, and first heard of his exploits during those road trips with Gabriel Howard. But word about the shop had spread and people - old bike riders mostly - were calling regularly with advice and encouragement.
"You've got to get more on Shay."
"I know a guy who has his racing shoes."
"Did you know the last bike he raced on has been in Drogheda for 50 years?"
He tracked down the bike - a splendid pink 'Mercier' - the shoes and the jersey Elliott had worn during his last season in France in 1966. Then, one afternoon when the shop was really busy, he took a call from a woman he had been chasing for months: "Is that Austin? You've been looking for me."
Bridie Elliott was the widow of Shay's older brother (and last remaining blood relative), Eddie, who had died in 2000. Walsh explained what he was trying to do and asked if she could help.
"I was told you might have some of his trophies," he said. "Is there any way I could take them on loan?"
"I'll give them to you," she said. "When can you come down?"
The Quay Cycles tribute to Shay Elliott will be officially unveiled on Tuesday afternoon when two of Shay's old pals - Phil O'Brien and Peter Doyle - drive down from Bray. It could be that you'll call to the shop next week and be surprised at the shrine and adornments on the walls . . .
Or it could be that you won't notice.
"I had a chap in the other day looking to buy a turbo trainer," Walsh says. "He looks at the MBK on display and says 'Who the fuck is Stephen Roche?' And that's probably true for a lot of people under 30. I think it's important to remember what Stephen did; I think it's important to remember Shay Elliott."
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