Friday 6 December 2019

Paul Kimmage: Journey through our back pages is like a trip in a time machine

Memories flood back for Paul Kimmage but it takes a little time to recapture the joy

French magazines from stall
French magazines from stall
Magazine stall in Paris
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

Rick: If that plane leaves the ground and you're not with him, you'll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.

Ilsa: But what about us?

Rick: We'll always have Paris.

Humphrey Bogart

and Ingrid Bergman, Casablanca

They take the RER line to Charles de Gaulle Etoile and emerge from the underground at the base of the Arc de Triomphe. It's a crisp November Sunday on the Champs-élysées and they're retracing the steps of a romantic evening in the summer of '84. France were the European football champions; Johnny Halliday was on the cover of Paris Match; Laurent Fignon was about to win a second Tour de France and Against All Odds (en version originale) had opened at the Gaumont.

"Do you remember?" he asks.

"Yeah," she smiles.

"Jaysus, it was awful crap."

"Your choice if I recall."

"I liked the theme song," he says. "And the lead actress was gorgeous; I remember the poster - she was ridin' Jeff Bridges on the sand. What was her name again?"

"I don't remember."

"Rachel something."

"It was 30 years ago, Paul."

"Thirty years! Was it really? It doesn't feel like it."

They find a terrace café close to the Lido and sit for a while, gawking and reminiscing. She was a student that year, training to be a teacher; he was a qualified plumber chasing a sporting dream. Two years later, he completed his first Tour de France. A year after that, they were wed.

"Wouldn't it be great if we could turn back time and see ourselves?" he says.

"What do you mean?" she asks.

"Well, if there was some sort of time machine where we could sit and watch ourselves walking by here in '84."

"Yeah, that would be interesting," she says.

"I'd love to be able to watch myself racing up and down here in the Tour."

"You've got it on video."

"I know, but to actually see it."

"Let's just ask for the bill and see some of Paris instead."

They continue down the Avenue towards the Place de la Concorde. She's thinking about Montmartre, Notre Dame, the Musée du Louvre and the places she likes to visit when she returns here. He's thinking about the Tour and that final stage in '86; the first sight of the Eiffel Tower as they swept into the city along the bank of the Seine. The roar from the crowd as they crossed the Place de la Concorde and entered the Champs-élysées.

The goose bumps on his arms and legs as they raced towards the Arc de Triomphe on the final circuit. The tears in a veteran team-mate's eyes when they embraced after the line: "Now you know what it is to finish the Tour de France." The undiluted joy coursing through his veins when he realised it was over and that he was now, officially, a 'Giant of the Road.'

What happened to the joy? How did his sport become so broken?

A guy on the Place de la Concorde offers them a trip up and down the Champs in his Ferrari for €89. They continue on foot to the Jardin des Tuileries, turn right for the Quai du Louvre and cross the Seine on the Pont des Arts, adorned by a million locks.

"Let's buy one," he says.

"What?"

"Let's buy a lock and put our names on it and leave it here for eternity."

She laughs and shakes her head.

The Quai de Conti is lined with artists selling artefacts and prints. She's drawn to a stall laden with books about Notre Dame and old copies of Vogue. He's drawn to a stall manned by Ludovic, an "amateur du Velo', and his extraordinary collection of old cycling magazines.

The joy is here in black and white in the pages of Miroir Sprint. The heroes with first names: Charles (Pelissier), Andre (Leducq), Antonin (Magne), Roger (Lepebie). The heroes without: Bartali, Coppi, Bobet, Anquetil, Merckx. The courage that created the bond between a nation and its great race.

He asks the vendor if he has anything from the '67 Tour and Tom Simpson's death. Ludovic flicks through a pile and hands him a copy with Roger Pingeon (the eventual winner) on the cover. "This is a report of the stages in the Pyrneees," he says. "I think it's the edition after Simpson died."

The inside cover, 'Ceux Qui Rest En Course' lists the 130 starters and the 39 (this far) who won't be racing into Paris. There is no reference to Simpson's death anywhere in the magazine - just a line drawn through his name like the other abandons.

Another edition, two months later, carries a remarkable photo of Jacques Anquetil on the cover, moments after he has set a new distance (47.493 km) for the 'Hour' at the Vigorelli track in Milan. Anquetil's eyes are blazing from his head like spotlights but there is no mention of stimulants in the six-page special. And no reference to the fact that the record wasn't sanctioned because he refused to take a dope test.

He pays for the magazines and suggests to his wife that they take the Metro to Pere Lachaise, the most famous cemetery in France. She's thinking Oscar Wilde, Frederic Chopin and Edith Piaf; he's thinking of 1986 and a man he once raced in the Tour. Laurent Fignon died in August of 2010 after a year-long battle with cancer. He was 50 years old.

The cemetery is a 30-minute ride. They find his plaque in the columbarium, offer up a prayer, and are just about to leave when a guided tour rolls through: "This is Laurent Fignon, the winner of the Tour de France in 1983 and 1984."

He feels sad.

They find the other gravesites, and retire to a hostelry on the Avenue Gambetta for coffee. A woman at an adjoining table is reading Paris Match. Johnny Halliday is on the cover. The 71-year-old rock star is still wearing leather and riding his Harley Davidson. His wife smiles and gestures at the cover: 'There you go," she says. "Your wish has come true."

"What do you mean?" he asks.

"There's your time machine," she laughs. "This could be 1984."

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