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Friday 24 May 2019

Paul Kimmage: 'Cycling for the love of it got me thinking...'

‘It was great to see Ruby Walsh get out in one piece and great to hear his enthusiasm for doing other things.’ Photo: David Fitzgerald
‘It was great to see Ruby Walsh get out in one piece and great to hear his enthusiasm for doing other things.’ Photo: David Fitzgerald
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

It must have been this time of year, because we rarely trained in Wicklow before April or May, and it would have been the usual suspects - myself, Raphael, Thompson, Delaney and Coll - drilling it across Sally Gap like a stage in the Tour de France.

There was another group ahead in plus fours and saddlebags and we were closing on them fast.

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The cycling community was small back then - every rider you'd meet was one you knew or could name - and we could tell straight away it was Seamus Shortall and the Dublin Wheelers. We were racing men - carnivores - driven by lust and ambition; they were touring men - vegans - driven by love and purity. We didn't mix.

"Hurry up there, Seamus."

"How'ye lads."

"Move over there, would yeh?"

"Ha! We're only touring!"

"Yis bleedin' Freds."

But I digress.

It was my late brother, Raphael's, birthday this week - he would have been 55 - and I've been riding my bike like Seamus did - for the love of it, for therapy - with a group on the Algarve: a Dutchman, Pieter-Jan; a Canadian, Brad; a Portuguese, Nuno; a Scot, Blair; a Brazilian, Marco; and three Irish, Emelia and two Johns.

I'm the only one in the group who wears XL and doesn't shave his legs and Peter-Jan is curious:

"How many Tours (de France) did you ride?" he asks.

"Three," I reply.

"When did you stop?"

"July 13, 1989."

"You remember the date?"

"Oh yeah. The 12th stage to Montpellier."

"How old were you?"

"27."

"Not old."

"No."

"And that was it?"

"That was it."

But I digress.

Nicolas Roche will be 35 in July. He's been a professional since 2004, raced for seven different teams and had finished (in order) 58th, 29th, 51st, 32nd, OTL (outside time limit), 70th, 88th, 50th, 110th, 76th, 94th, 46th, 72nd, 85th, 45th, DNF (did not finish) and 60th in races this season before travelling to Switzerland for the Tour of Romandie last week.

We're riding through some orange groves in the hills above Loule and I'm sitting on the front with John:

"Did you see Nicolas was 14th yesterday?"

"Yeah," he replies. "He's been struggling for a while."

"It's just a wage for him now. He'd quit tomorrow if he had an option."

"You think?"

"Yeah. Dan Martin too. They won't admit it but I'm not sure any of them really enjoy it. It's a brutal life."

"Pro cycling?"

"Pro sport. Other than Pádraig Harrington, I can't think of any professional athlete who plays for the love of it. Maybe the team sports are different, but for endurance athletes and individual sports the demands are off the scale."

And then we heard about Ruby.

Three years ago...

The month is March 2016 and he's sitting on a beach in the Algarve with Gillian and the kids. Four days earlier he had ridden seven winners at Cheltenham; in another four days he's back to Fairyhouse to ride Bless The Wings in the Irish Grand National. So the 'break' is relative. He's starving himself and watching his weight.

And the strain was obvious.

He was 36 back then - a year older than Nicolas - and the wonder was that he kept going.

He had broken his neck and smashed his legs and lost his spleen. He had watched friends - Kieran Kelly and JT McNamara, Sean Cleary, Dary Cullen, Jack Tyner, Tom Halliday - being buried and others being paralysed. He had convinced himself it would never happen to him but he knew Gillian worried, and hated watching his sister, Katie, ride over jumps.

Racing a bike is not as dangerous as racing a horse and carries a different buzz. It's the horse, not the jockey, that pulls up with their lungs bursting, so Ruby could go for longer, and set his own terms. It was great to see him get out in one piece and great to hear his enthusiasm for doing other things.

"I've been looking forward to this day, not dreading it," he said. "And now it's here, and I'm happy about it."

And so are we.

But I digress.

Peter-Jan has moved alongside again and we're talking about a former professional from his homeland called Thomas Dekker. In 2004, Dekker was the most talented amateur in Holland when he was offered a trial by the Rabobank pro team. For his first race he travelled to Germany where he was shown to a room with an older pro who was lying on a bed.

The pro was watching TV but had switched the channel to porn before Dekker had introduced himself. Then he threw the kid a towel and suggested he might want to pleasure himself. In his book, The Descent, Dekker recalls feeling gobsmacked.

"There I stand, case in hand, coat still on. I'm a trainee. This is the man who's going to tell me what it takes to be a pro."

Then he writes: "If this is a test, I'm not about to fail it. I want to be part of the gang. If this is what it takes, then this is what it takes."

The kid would spend the next four seasons doing what it takes and was one of cycling's biggest stars before being busted for EPO in 2009. He served a two-year ban and raced again for three seasons but could never recapture the brilliance of his doping years.

It's a familiar tale of course, and there were many more like him, but what sets Dekker's apart is the unfamiliar ending. He's not broke, or bitter or depressed. It doesn't end - as so many have - in a coke-fuelled haze or at the end of a gun or rope. No, he meets a wealthy woman in Los Angeles, 20 years his senior, and lives happily ever after.

"Did you read Dekker's book?" I ask Peter-Jan.

"Yeah," he replies.

"Isn't the ending just great?"

"What? That he's a toy boy?"

"Yeah."

"It's unusual for sure."

"I think it's just perfect."

"Do you watch cycling much these days?" he asks.

"No, can't bear it," I reply.

"It hasn't changed?"

"Well, it's different but it hasn't changed, if that makes any sense. This is what cycling is about for me now."

We're coming down through a forest and there's the most glorious breeze on our face and I'm thinking of Seamus on the Sally Gap that day and his friends in the Dublin Wheelers.

He was right.

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