As part of our Summer Cycles special, Paul Kimmage reflects on what cycling means to him and his family
"Cycling always starts with a miracle.
For days you tremble, you hesitate, you tell yourself that you’ll never be free of that hand guiding you, under the saddle. My mother and father took it in turns to hold onto me… They’d taken the stabilisers off my back wheel, and I followed the meadow in front of our house, in the direction of the gentle slope, to build up momentum.
And then, one morning, I no longer heard the noise of running behind me, no more rhythmic breathing on my back. The miracle had taken place. I was riding. I never wanted to put my feet back down for fear that the miracle wouldn’t happen again. I was jubilant."
– Paul Fournel, Need for the Bike
It’s a spring afternoon in North County Dublin and we’ve come over the hill from Naul, dropped down to Ballyboughal and turned right through the potato fields on some flatter roads towards Oldtown. The month is April 2004. My son is 12 years old.
“You okay, Eoin?”
It’s a stupid question. His father, grandfather and uncles were cyclists. It’s in his genes. Okay, so his gloves don’t fit and his jacket is oversize but the bike — a red Paganini — is perfect, and it’s obvious from his oily-smooth pedalling stroke that he’s a natural. And that he loves it. But don’t take my word for it — check the photo, look at his face. The contented grin. The twinkle in his eyes. The camera doesn’t lie. But what if it did?
We had just moved from Eccles Street to a flat in Ballymun when my father showed me the miracle. He whipped off the stabilisers and shoved me across the car park and I wobbled once or twice but didn’t want to get off. I was sitting on a magic carpet that would open up the world.
The first stop was my aunt Carmel’s house on Dundaniel Road in Coolock. I’d grown bored of the car park and whizzing around the flats, so I took off one day for Santry Avenue, found the turn for Coolock Lane and arrived on her door almost three miles later.
…she was speechless.
I was seven years old.
Three years later, during a summer trip to the Gaeltacht in Carraroe, I pointed my little red Barum — fat tyres, stretched seat, back-pedal brake — towards Costelloe and the Sky Road to Oughterard. That’s as tough a 40 miles as you will find in Connemara and I was feeling pretty pleased until the hysterics from Bean Uí Dhomhnaill as Béarla that greeted my return.
“We’d no idea where you were!”
“We sent out half the village to look for you!”
“We should really send you home!”
A month later, I noticed my father putting some new parts on an old racing frame. I hoped but didn’t dare ask if it might be for me, but a week later we went for our first ride together. A ‘training’ ride. My instructions were to stay behind and count to 20, and then to ride as fast as I could while he tucked in and counted to 20. “Bit and bit,” he called it.
It was a lot harder than riding to Oughterard. We finished with a sprint for the old Tayto factory sign on the Malahide Road — he just pipped me, but he was clearly faking it — and I was absolutely shattered when we got home.
There was no, “Are you okay, Paul? Did you enjoy that?” Because he knew I’d had something else on my mind. “Now,” he smiled. “Do you still want to race?”
We cycled together regularly for the next five years. He taught me every trick in the trade except how to beat him. I could never hold him on a climb or better him in a sprint. Winners weren’t built on charity or mercy, and winning was his creed. His favourite joke went something like this:
‘He wants the coup de grace?’
‘I’ll give him f**k all!’
Racing became an obsession for the next 12 years. It brought me the highest highs and the lowest lows until July 13, 1989, when I abandoned the 12th stage of the Tour de France and decided I’d had enough.
A year later, our daughter Evelyn was born. Two years after that we had a son, Eoin. And in 1997 we had another boy, Luke. They all got bikes and were taught how to ride.
It didn’t mean as much to them.
I was on the road for chunks of their childhood and it was simply as a bonding exercise that the racer was bought for Eoin. There were a couple of white-knuckle moments. He got his braking wrong once outside the cemetery in Balrothery and pulled a move — a flawless two-wheeled triple salchow — that I’ve never seen before or since.
But cycling can be a hard sell for kids and it was obvious after a while that Eoin wasn’t buying. He didn’t enjoy it. He actually hated it. So I stopped pushing and decided to let him and his siblings find what they loved and be who they wanted to be. Eoin is an artist. Luke is a footballer. And Evelyn is the twist I never foresaw.
Ten years ago, I was away for a month with Lawrence Dallaglio on a charity ride from Rome to Edinburgh via the 2010 Six Nations grounds — Stadio Flaminio, Stade de France, Twickenham, Millennium Stadium, Croke Park, Murrayfield — for Sport Relief. It was our last week. We had just left Cardiff and taken the ferry to Rosslare and she decided to follow the stage to Croke Park and offer some moral support. There were about 60 riders in the group and some of the best were girls, but the spark that ignited her flame was how much they were enjoying it.
“Dad,” she said. “Is there any chance I could ride tomorrow’s stage to Dundalk?”
I organised a bike and some kit, and the next day my father was waiting at the refreshment stop in Termonfeckin. He had watched Evelyn running and playing football and winning trophies at school but this was different. He was almost glowing: “Well done Evelyn! That was brilliant.”
It brought a lump to my throat.
We’ve been cycling together regularly ever since. It feels odd sometimes when she is putting me under pressure and half-wheeling me on the climbs, but I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed cycling with anyone more. There’s no ‘bit and bit’ or sprinting for signs but it makes me think of Dad and how special he was. How special that was.
The wheel coming full circle.