Wednesday 16 October 2019

Paul Kimmage: 'The fame is fleeting, but the memories are lasting'

'A life without fame can be a good life, but fame without a life is no life at all.' - Clive James

Paul Kimmage, Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and Martin Earley in jubilant mood following Roche’s victory in the 1987 World Championships in Villach, Austria
Paul Kimmage, Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and Martin Earley in jubilant mood following Roche’s victory in the 1987 World Championships in Villach, Austria
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

It was a glorious Friday morning on the Algarve and I was heading towards Almancil and the hills above Loulé when I remembered something that needed to be fixed.

'The Bike Shed' at Quinta do Lago was a short detour where Nuno - a top-class triathlete, gifted mechanic and regular cycling pal - was waiting with his trademark smile.

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"Hello friend," he said. "Everything okay?"

I showed him my helmet. I'd crashed a month before - a first since the 11th stage of the Giro d'Italia in 1989 - and somehow managed to damage the clasp. He had it sorted within minutes, so we shuffled next door for an espresso where Anna was tending the bar.

"You know Paul, don't you?" he said, by way of introduction, and I laughed because it was obvious she didn't. They conversed briefly in Portuguese, then he said: "Paul is famous . . . famous Paul."

And now Anna was laughing.

"Famous Paul," she smiled. "Your life will never be the same."

Two weeks ago

It's Wednesday afternoon at the PGA Championships in Wentworth and Conor Ridge, the managing director of Horizon Sports, is standing on the range watching the buzz around Shane Lowry. Ten years have passed since they started working together after the Irish Open at Baltray and the chubby-faced kid from Clara has come a long way.

It's Lowry's first appearance in Europe since he captured the Claret Jug and he's being mobbed by well-wishers and fans as José María Olazábal, a two-times Masters champion and Ryder Cup hero, comes ambling across to offer his congratulations.

Lowry can't see him. Some fans have stepped in front and shut the Spaniard out with flags they want signed and Ridge watches in horror as Lowry turns and hastens towards the exit. It's at the very last moment that he catches a glimpse of Olazábal and Ridge watches them embrace, relieved and a little saddened by the vagaries of fame.

How quickly they forget.

Three decades ago

I was kinda famous once. Nearly. Almost. The month was August 1987 and a month after his historic win at the Tour de France, Stephen Roche was back in Dublin for a race around the streets with his band, the Fab Four, starring Roche as John, Seán Kelly as Paul, Martin Earley as George and yours truly as Ringo.

You can scoff, but that's how it was. The crowds were six-deep on St Stephen's Green that night. We showered after the race in an old Georgian house and I remember looking out the window at the crowd banked at the doorway wondering how we would ever get out. It was mayhem.

Ten days later we travelled to Villach, Austria, for the World Road Race Championship. If the Claret Jug is the loveliest trophy in sport then the rainbow jersey has to be its loveliest tunic, and from the moment I started competing no race excited me more.

I used to dream - even for years after I'd retired - that I had broken clear on the final lap and was racing towards glory. It was always raining. My legs were always covered in snot and grit and the finish was always within touching distance . . .

'Keep going.'

'Don't look around.'

'One last push.'

But I could never fucking get there.

I'd keep waking up.

Two weeks ago

Lowry is playing with Rory McIlroy and Francesco Molinari in the opening round at Wentworth. It's the marquee draw and his first real test as the Open champion. "You could sense it in him this morning," Ridge says as we stand near the first tee. "He played a month in the States and was very relaxed but this feels different."

A huge crowd follows them off the tee. He starts with two solid pars and makes a bogey on the third but is under par and playing nicely when he reaches the 13th. Wendy Honner, a nurse from Laois, watches from the gallery. She's been a nurse from Laois pretty much all her life but she's known as something else these days.

A face in the crowd has just introduced himself: "You're Shane's wife," he says. "I'm from Offaly too."

"That's great," she beams. "Are you enjoying the day?"

She's still smiling a moment later when I nod towards her husband.

"So, it's not just his life that's changed." "No, but it's nice. It's all good," she says.

Three days ago

I spend the morning in the hills above Loulé wrestling with the pedals and thinking about Villach. There's a photo at home taken two laps before the end and we're sitting at the front of the race - John, Paul, George and Ringo - waiting for the final move. It's been raining. Our legs are covered in snot and grit. The finish is almost within touching distance . . .

But this is not a dream.

Paul: "On the final lap, everyone was nervous and tired. We knew that it might take just one well-timed attack to win the race. (Moreno) Argentin was glued to my back wheel. He would have got into my back pocket if he could. He was following me everywhere and I knew he'd react if I tried anything. I rolled alongside Stephen and we agreed to take turns following the attacks.

"We hit the last climb with about three kilometres left and I was in a group of a dozen or so that was still together. Every time there had been an attack, a green jersey followed. We'd played it perfectly, now we just had to see out the finish."

John: "A couple more attempts are neutralised, then van Vliet attacks and (Rolf) Golz takes off after him. A gap starts to open so I accelerate away from the back of the line, jump onto Golz's wheel and we join up with van Vliet. (Guido) Winterberg and (Rolf) Sorensen are quick to follow, making it five at the front.

"I'm expecting more riders to respond, but guess that everyone is waiting for Argentin to commit himself. He's the favourite, he's the only rider from the race's strongest team and he's defending the title. But the gap widens and I start wondering: 'What am I going to do?'"

Ringo: "Behind, the race was over, and we all knew it. I tuned my ear to the PA system and tried to work out what was happening up front. I said a prayer that Kelly might win. With both of them up front they had a great chance. The logical tactic was for Stephen to hold it together for Seán in the sprint."

John: "With about 500 metres left I took one last look behind and decided that Kelly's group was not coming back in time and so I prepared for the attack. The remarkable thing was that there was still something in my legs and when I went I tried to use every available ounce of energy. I was turning a big gear when I attacked and just kept turning it.

"After about 300 metres I glanced under my arm and got the most beautiful surprise of my life. The others were well behind me and I was going to be world champion."

Kilkenny were playing Galway in the All-Ireland hurling final that day. It's not often other sports are beamed into Croke Park, but the cheer that greeted Roche's win was one of the loudest of the day.

It was later that evening when I touched the rainbow jersey. We drank Champagne and laughed until midnight and felt the moment would never die.

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