Tuesday 15 October 2019

The fatal attraction of Claveyrolat

A strong bond grew between PAUL KIMMAGE and Thierry Claveyrolat when they rode together for RMO, one that lasted for four years. It concluded with the publication of Paul's book Rough Ride. Tragically, Thierry's life was extinguished at his own hand three months ago.

A strong bond grew between PAUL KIMMAGE and Thierry Claveyrolat when they rode together for RMO, one that lasted for four years. It concluded with the publication of Paul's book Rough Ride. Tragically, Thierry's life was extinguished at his own hand three months ago.

MAYBE it's because sport is so often used as a metaphor for life that we take so much for granted when the final whistle blows. Week after week we watch the barriers of fear and pain and suffering being extended. We see the marathon runner wince as the road blisters his feet and the golfer wrestling with his demons as he feels the heat down the stretch.

We watch the hand snatch the sliothar above the whirr of the timber blades and the boxer digging deep when he is out on his feet. We marvel at the guts and commitment and imagine only contentment in the champion's life when the game comes to an end. How can it possibly be any other way? When you have worn the badge of courage and conquered all the peaks, what more can life throw at you in retirement?

Thierry Claveyrolat seemed better equipped than most to face the challenge. During his twelve years a professional cyclist, to watch this tiny Frenchman in his prime was to marvel at the power of spirit and determination. Twice a stage winner in the Tour de France and one of the great climbers of his generation, when the gradient got tough, `Clavet' got tougher. They called him the Eagle of Vizille.

He had just turned 35 when he announced his retirement in May of 1994. With the Tour de France just around the corner, the timing at first seemed a little odd but there was method in the racer's madness. A brasserie, the Caf de la Gare, had just come on the market in Vizille and he needed to act fast to secure its purchase.

Acting fast came naturally to Thierry. When the deal was done he changed the name to L'Etape (the stage) and ordered a brilliant neon sign in the polka dot colours he had worn in the Tour de France to announce the new ownership. It was the perfect investment. The redeployment of which he had dreamed. After twelve happy and successful years as a racer, he had left the sport on his own terms and with no regrets.

Over the next four years he worked hard to make his new life a success. On New Years Day of 1998, he bought a scratch-card from the newsagent, shortly after opening up, and won a trip to Paris for the French edition of Winning Streak where he was invited to spin the wheel and won a million (francs). Among his former team-mates, the perception was that Claveyrolat could do no wrong. Everything he touched seemed to turn to gold. But the reality was different.

Three months ago, in the early hours of the first Tuesday of September, a clinging mist had enveloped Vizille when he pulled the shutters of the bar and began the journey home. The route out of the village, across the bridge and up the Cote de Laffrey, was one he had made on his bike a thousand times before.

The ``Laffrey'', with its legendary gradient, is one of the regions most celebrated climbs. In 1987, for the passage of the Tour de France, his supporters had sprayed his name from top to bottom, transforming the ascension into a venerable shrine. Twelve years later, on a wall just before the right hand turn to Notre-Dame-de-Mesage, their homage is still visible: Allez Claveyrolat. L'Aigle de Vizille.

Did he look for it one last time on that final journey home? Who knows? Maybe the old days were a million miles from his thoughts? Maybe they pained him most?

Myriam and their two children were sleeping when he got home. He adjourned to the kitchen and sat alone for a while with his thoughts. He took a pen and some paper and began a letter with a list of instructions which he placed on the kitchen table for Myriam. He then made the short walk to the cellar, bolting the door behind him. The rifle was sitting where he had placed it in the cupboard. He put the gun to his head and reached for the trigger. It was three o'clock in the morning. Nobody heard the shot.

I WAS 24 years old and five months a professional on the day my friendship started with Thierry Claveyrolat. It was the month of June, 1986 and there were ten kilometres to race in the last stage of the week-long Dauphine when he sought me out and asked me to do him a favour. He was leading the intermediate sprint competition and needed to win the final sprint to secure the first prize of a Fiat Uno car.

Now the art of bunch sprinting, to be fair, wasn't exactly my forte, but our team had been decimated by injuries and I agreed to help. With a kilometre to go he glided into my slipstream as I threaded a nervous path through the frantic sway at the front. At his command allez I opened the sprint and kept him out of the breeze until 100 yards remained when he kicked on and won easily. I'm not sure which of us was more pleased.

A celebration was organised two days later in Vizille where I was invited to join a small gathering of his family and friends. At the time I was living twelve kilometres away in Grenoble and though familiar with the town on the road to L'Alpe-d'Huez, I still couldn't find Chez la Foene after three frustrating circuits. And with reason. La foene, it transpired, was the nickname of the brasserie's proprietor. The place I should have been looking for was the Caf de la Gare.

The misunderstanding sorted, we cut a cake and drank champagne and I was introduced to Myriam and Thierry's parents, brother and sisters. Very down to earth and easy to get on with, the evening went splendidly and we resolved to meet for a pizza after training next day. Team-mates since the start of the year, it had taken the sprint in the Dauphine for our friendship to truly ignite.

I moved to Vizille at the start of the following season. Thierry found the apartment, an ideal little deux piece above Madame Boyer's wine shop in rue Aristide Briand. In the mornings, before training, we'd meet sometimes in chez la foene for coffee and I'd watch him slag and shoot the breeze with the locals before bringing Myriam her croissants.

Myriam was his darling. But so was the Caf de la Gare. Born and raised in Grenoble and a city boy to the core, Thierry loved the ambience that reigned in the mornings when the locals would argue rugby. Those close to him never doubted he would buy the place one day if he ever earned enough money, which seemed unlikely in '86 when he wasn't nearly the star he would become.

After a slow start, the bond between us grew steadily over the next four years into a firm, if not bosom, friendship. It wasn't possible to be bosom pals with Thierry, only Myriam got that close. I tried many times to get deep with him about life during our daily training rides, but it was always one-way traffic. Thierry always kept you guessing about the things he felt inside, but I do remember one brief, yet revealing insight.

We were returning from training one day on this tiny little road on the outskirts of Vizille when this absolute bloody maniac in a car almost knocked us off our bikes. We both reacted angrily and began waving fists when, to our shock and amazement, he slammed on his brakes in the middle of the road. From the moment he stepped from the car it was obvious the guy was disturbed. And that we were in trouble.

An absolute beast, he marched straight over and swotted Thierry like a fly with a stinging blow to side of the head and then said he'd break my legs if I didn't shut my mouth. I reached for my pump and considered smashing it across his face but I was shitting myself. He would have battered us both without breaking sweat.

When he returned to his car and left us, shaking on the road, I took the number and told Thierry we were going straight to the cops. But he wouldn't hear of it. The matter he insisted was closed. What were we going to tell them? That we had both stood like wimps and allowed this guy to slap us around? There would be no going to the police. His pride wouldn't allow it.

His pride would drive us apart.

Four years a professional, I retired from the peleton in 1989 and one of the last days we spent together before I returned to Dublin was to shift his furniture from Vizille up the Cote de Laffrey, to his splendid new residence in Notre-Dame-de-Mesage. His son, Joris, had just been born. His career was about to take off. We promised to keep in touch and visit whenever possible but the following summer, when we met again on the Tour, he cut me down like I have never been cut before.

My book Rough Ride had just been published and I had returned to the Tour to face the music as a journalist. It was easier said than done. In an interview with L'Equipe, a few days before the race, it was immediately obvious to me that Thierry hadn't read a word I'd written in the book and was simply responding to the crap he'd heard from Stephen Roche. ``After all I did for him,'' he told L'Equipe, ``and he sneaks behind my back and betrays me. Betrays us all.''

I decided to let things cool before sorting it out with him but he caught me by surprise before the start of the fifth stage and didn't hold back. The experience was shattering. Stunned by the speed and venom of his attack, I tried to mount a defence but just couldn't open my mouth, couldn't find a word. I just stood and allowed him to abuse me. It was the last time we would ever meet, face to face.

If the book had upset him, it certainly didn't show in his performance in the Tour. A week after our confrontation he won his first ever stage with a brilliant ride through the Alps to St Gervais and went on to clinch the coveted title as the Tour's best climber. A year later he won another tough Alpine stage at Morzine and, for the first time in his career, began to earn serious money. There was one more dream as he looked to the future: The Caf de La Gare.

RETIREMENT is hell for most professional sportsmen. What other job makes retirement compulsory, once you hit mid-thirty? What use is the ability to volley a ball or race up a mountain in civilian life? Try programming an Apple Mac with courage. Try selling a race winning sprint to the world of corporate finance! Is it any wonder that when cut violently adrift from a world they know and love, most pros hanker for the old days? Is it any wonder some can't let go?

Thierry Claveyrolat was an exception to the rule. In the five years that followed from moment he retired, to the moment he died, you can be sure he never once mourned the life he had before. No regrets by Edith Piaf, could have been written for him. In Thierry's world, you made your bed and you slept in it. What was done, was done. There was never any question of turning back.

He began his new life at L'Etape by transforming the interior into a shrine to his career. It was all there on the walls, everything he had ever achieved. There was his yellow jersey from the Dauphine, his climbers' tunic from the Tour de France, his world championship jersey from Chambery, the cups, the medals and largest of all, a huge signed portrait of a day in the Tour when he made a legend suffer: ``To my friend Thierry and for all the clients of L'Etape - Miguel Indurain.''

At first, caf proprietorship proved everything he expected it to be. The old guys loved to come and talk about the races, but soon the things that had always appealed to him about the place slowly began to grate. This village mentality was all very fine but what L'Etape really needed a fresh injection of life. A bit of youth and vitality. Some music and dancing to liven things up. It was his first big mistake.

The music cost money. The youths started dealing drugs. And the locals just weren't interested. In Vizille, when you wanted a night on the town, Grenoble was just down the road. L'Etape wasn't the Lido and was never going to be. Thierry was forced to think again but the damage had been done. Once shown the door, the old clientele, never returned. Thierry began drinking. The debts to suppliers were mounting. There was friction at home with Myriam. It was all turning sour.

There were so many things he hadn't noticed about the place when it belonged to la foene. The fuckers who puked and shat, regularly all over the toilet floor. The early starts, the late finishes, the guys who never had enough. Seven days a week. Fifty two weeks of the year. But there was no turning back. He would make it work. It was sink or swim.

The lottery win couldn't have come at a better time. He sold a share of the business, used his winnings to plug the black hole in his bank account and determined to make a fresh start. But within a year, the problems were exactly as before. A bouncer was hired, and paid under the counter, to patrol the undesirables. After a disturbance one evening, the police called and asked him to produce his carte d'identite.

The bouncer didn't have one. He had entered the country illegally from Zaire. Thierry was brought before the authorities and asked to explain himself. Informed that they intended to prosecute, the problem was a drop in the ocean compared to the horror of what was waiting around the corner.

A month before he died, on Friday August 13, he stayed at home most of the evening until eleven, when he jumped into his car for the short drive to Vizille to close the bar. The descent of the Cote de Laffrey is as spectacular as its ascent. The challenge, when he was training, was to try and take the corner onto the bridge at the bottom without touching your brakes. As Thierry allowed his BMW to pick up speed, he didn't notice the Renault 19 cross the bridge from Vizille and cut the corner.

In the collision, the driver of the other car, a Breton holidaying with his family in the region, suffered multiple fractures. The front seat passenger, his 14-year-old son, was also seriously injured and lost an eye. Thierry was unhurt but was arrested immediately for dangerous driving. He had also been drinking.

A week after the crash, Jean-Claude Colotti, a friend and former team-mate at RMO, called to see him at home. ``In all the time I'd known him,'' Colotti says, ``I'd never seen him so low. He knew he was looking at a spell in prison. `I'm finally going to pay for all of the f**k-ups I've made these last few years,' he said.''

Colotti saw him again at L'Etape, three days before he died. ``His morale had improved and in many ways he seemed the same old Thierry, but you know what he was like, he'd never tell you anything. When I was there, a supplier walked in and started shouting at him to be paid. That set him back a bit. `Why,' he said, `does it always happen in front of my friends.'''

WHEN I say we never saw each other again, after our blow-out in 1990, it's not strictly true. A year ago, after a long drive across the Alps following an interview with Willy Voet, the masseur at the centre of the Festina scandal, I made a detour to Vizille and parked my car in the square opposite L'Etape. It was ten o'clock and the village was dark and deserted, but I could see Thierry clearly behind the bar.

For fifteen minutes, I studied his wretched existence from across the square. The bar was almost empty but for two customers. A cleaning lady mopped the floor. For a moment, just a moment, I considered walking across to the bar to meet him. The four years we spent together is an important part of my life.

The wrong was on his side, but that was almost ten years in the past and I was more than prepared to let bygones be bygones. But I couldn't do it. I couldn't leave the car. I knew what he was like. I knew what would have happened. He would have gone for me again with the same venom. His pride would have insisted.

When he was racing, pride was Thierry Claveyrolat's greatest attribute. It drove him on, it enabled him to hurt, it made him a champion. But once he stopped racing, it made him self-destruct. I'm not sure exactly what was going through his mind in the early hours of the morning when he took his life, but I can make an educated guess.

His name was worth nothing anymore. He had destroyed a family's life. The police were coming in the morning to take him to jail. Prison was unthinkable. Serving time wasn't going to restore his reputation or give the boy back his sight. What would his own children think of him? No, there was one way out, one way to rescue some self esteem from the wreckage. At three o'clock Thierry made his choice.

He picked up a pen and listed his instructions. No friends. No flowers. No funeral. His remains were to be cremated. He had one request. His jerseys and trophies were not to be removed from L'Etape. He wanted it to remain exactly as it was.

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