1 ‘Yesterday’s rose endures in its name, we hold empty names.’
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
Breakfast at 10 rue Kléber in Courbevoie, west of Paris, followed a pattern. An early morning walk to the patisserie, a dawdle at the newsagents on the way home and then the luxury of strong coffee, warm croissants and L’Équipe
. It is August 1984 and sitting across the breakfast table is Paul Kimmage, a young Irish amateur cyclist who my wife and I have rescued from a hovel in Vincennes on the east side of Paris. I’ve known Paul for four years, since I was a rookie sports reporter covering the bike races he rode. He was moody and headstrong then and still is, but he is also intelligent and honest. It’s an easy trade-off.
We became friends quickly. When Paul went to Paris to pursue his dream of being a pro bike rider I followed him soon after. I’d agreed to write a book about my hero, the cyclist Sean Kelly, and I wanted to live in his world. As Paul and I were both in Paris, it was always likely I would bump into him. He had come with his brother Raphael who was also hoping to turn pro and they rode for the best-known Parisian amateur team, ACBB. Raphael fell sick a lot, missed races and then he just got sick of being sick. So he went back to Dublin, leaving his brother alone in Vincennes. It was then Paul came to live with us.
He and I shared a love of cycling; he was born to it while I rode in on the bandwagon fuelled by Kelly’s success. But by this point I’d been at the Tour de France three times, covered all the spring classics, Paris–Nice, the Tour of Switzerland and could read the cycling pages of L’Équipe
. I considered myself virtually French. It was however the minor accomplishment of my literacy that brought tension to the breakfast table on that August morning in 1984.
‘Bloody hell! Roche isn’t riding the Worlds, an insect bite or something,’ I say, speaking of the Irish cyclist Stephen Roche and guessing the meaning of les mots
that I don’t understand.
‘Look, I’d rather read the paper myself, after you’re done with it,’ Paul says.
‘What’s the difference? I’m telling he’s out of the Worlds.’
‘I’m telling you, I’d rather read it myself.’
‘That’s just stupid.’
‘Okay, it’s stupid.’ And we mightn’t then talk for an hour or two. And then we would talk for an hour or four. He told stories of the hardship and indignities that came with riding as an amateur and I brought stories back from Hollywood. What Kelly and Roche were up to, what it was like at the Tour de France, what a talent this young American Greg LeMond was, whether Laurent Fignon was right to taunt his French rival Bernard Hinault, but mostly we talked about Kelly and Roche.
I told Paul about the Saturday afternoon after the Amstel Gold race in Holland when we waited for Roche to finish at drug control so we could get on the road to Paris – they were giving me a ride back home while Kelly’s fiancée Linda would drive his car back to their home near Brussels. As we sat around in the car park waiting for Roche, Linda leaned against Sean’s immaculately clean Citroën and placed an open palm on the bonnet. After she moved away, Sean sidled over to where she had been, then discreetly took a tissue from his pocket and cleaned away the little hand-stain left by his wife-to-be.
Catching this unspoken reprimand, Linda wasn’t impressed. Only half-joking, she said, ‘Sean, that’s so typical of you. In your life it’s the car, the bike and then me.’
Kelly never blinked an eye, nor offered the hint of a smile. ‘You got the order wrong, the bike comes first.’
Where we were from defined our allegiances: Kimmage, like Roche, came from Dublin, and was in his camp. I sprang from the south-east of Ireland, no more than 20 miles from Kelly’s home town. He was my man. But Kelly’s hardness had a universal appeal and there wasn’t a Kelly story that Kimmage didn’t want to hear.
He was interested in journalism as well, would check what I wrote and say whether he thought it was any good. And he railed against my refusal to speak the little French I had. One day in the kitchen he pursued this theme in front of a few visitors.
‘He reads L’Équipe
, but won’t speak French,’ he said.
‘I don’t know enough French to speak it,’ I said.
‘You know enough to try. Once you start, it gets easier.’
‘It’s okay for you, you’re in a French environment at ACBB, you have to. I’m mixing with English-speaking journalists.’
‘No, you’ve got to try because you do have enough vocabulary. French people like it when you try to speak their language.’
‘Course they do. So look, don’t be afraid to just speak it.’
Paul can be persuasive and suddenly I felt emboldened.
‘Okay,’ I said, ‘I’ll do it. I’m covering the Blois–Chaville classic on Sunday and I need to get a hotel in Blois for Saturday night. I’ll just ring up and book one.’
Picking up the thick Michelin hotel guide in the next room, I rifle through the options and come up with a perfect resting place in Blois: Hotel La Renaissance, 150 francs (£15) for the night. ‘Right,’ I say to the half-full kitchen. ‘I’m ready to go for this.’ A respectful hush falls and I dial the number for La Renaissance.
‘Hello?’ the voice says.
‘Hello,’ I say, triumphantly.
‘Oh . . . je m’appelle David Walsh, je suis journaliste irlandais, je voudrais une chambre avec salle de bains pour une nuit, cette samedi.
‘This is a fucking private house,’ the guy says.
I want to die but I do worse than that.
‘How did you know I spoke English?’
He hangs up. And there it ended, my life as a French speaker. From this moment on I will accept only non-speaking parts in French movies.
I got to Blois and followed the race to Chaville, hoping that Kelly might win his third one-day classic of the year, for he’d been the season’s dominant rider and, as his biographer, I wanted it to finish well. Paul had ridden the Grand Prix de L’Équipe
earlier in the day, that race finishing in Chaville, and he waited by the final corner to see the finish to the pros’ race. Kelly came around that last corner in 10th or 12th place and Kimmage thought it would be a miracle for him to get in the top three. He won easily.
In the salle de presse
that evening, there was the now customary procession to where I sat. ‘Parlez-vous avec Kellee
?’ Everyone knew Kelly spoke to me and because he wasn’t always the most forthcoming interviewee, this gave me status. That evening back at rue Kléber, Paul and I sat up talking, about how good Kelly had been, about whether Paul would get to realise his dream of riding with the pros, and no matter how much we talked there was more to say.
That was how much in love with cycling I was back in those days. The truth is that I thought of little else and dreamed of little else. If I read a paper it was for cycling news. Ditto the television. If I thought of a double entendre
it invariably had to do with bikes rather than sex.
The 1984 World Championships were to...
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