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 be held in Barcelona early in September. Sean Kelly was always conflicted about his preparations for the Worlds. He needed some good three- or four-day stage races, but he preferred to pocket the guaranteed appearance fees earned in small-town criteriums. For Kelly getting paid was important. That’s why he did what he did.
So it was that he came to be racing in a small-time mid-week criterium in August in the one-horse town of Chaumeil in Limousin, central France. He was the star. The prize money meant nothing. The appearance money meant a lot. To me, as his Boswell, the criterium was an opportunity. I contacted the various Irish media I was working for and sold their bemused sports editors the idea of me travelling to Chaumeil. I guaranteed that I would have unhindered access to Kelly. And as I was writing a biography about Kelly it was good to combine the needs of the newspapers with my need to get material for the book. Better if the newspapers paid for the trip, which they did.
I agreed with Sean that I would travel down, watch him race and meet up afterwards to do the interview. Apart from material for the book our chat would serve up some preview material for the forthcoming Worlds. Two birds. One stone. All on expenses.
Not surprisingly it was an incredibly hot day. When is central France not hot in early August? I watched the race from a grassy bank out on the course. We Irish have never really learned to handle extreme heat with much grace or dignity. Not being familiar with either performance-enhancing substances or the subsequent work of Bear Grylls, I began to wilt.
I had brought with me the paraphernalia of the Irish survivalist, a packet of Jaffa Cakes and a bottle of Lucozade. I stood in the August sunshine, my skin turning crispy, my mouth turning to sandpaper. All this happened at a time long ago before mankind had invented the screw-off cap. The unreachable contents of the Lucozade bottle were getting warmer the longer I sat there.
Near the end of the race, just as dehydration was bringing me past confusion and towards a coma, I sprang into action. Confusion was fine. A coma would almost certainly impair my interviewing style.
Behind me on a slight hill there was a row of attractive bungalows. The little town of Chaumeil was about a two-mile walk away. So I abandoned my post and walked up the tarmac drive leading towards the first bungalow. The front of the bungalow showed no promise of life. I wandered around the back.
A woman emerged from the house. Mid-twenties. Very attractive. Friendly. I hit her with my smooth pidgin French, something along the lines that I was trés desolé
for the trespass but I needed an opener for my Lucozade. I showed her the bottle and simulated the act of taking off the top.
She understood. Told me not to worry. She disappeared into the house and re-emerged with the bottle opener. She watched as I sucked the Lucozade from the bottle with the elegance of a man who had spent too many months in the desert.
‘What brings you to Chaumeil?’ she asked.
I explained that I was a cycling journalist from Ireland and that I was here to interview Sean Kelly. She seemed oddly unimpressed by these details. She made some more chat. She asked where I lived.
‘Paris,’ I said.
It always feels good telling somebody that you live in Paris.
Ah, Paris. Her husband worked in Paris. He would leave Chaumeil early on a Monday morning and not return again until Friday.
This was Wednesday.
‘I get very lonely,’ she said.
I nodded sympathetically. I offered some words along the lines of, ‘ Oui, oui, c’est tres difficile
.’ She said that if I wanted to come in for coffee, I was welcome. Sacre bleu
. She had understood nothing. I was thinking of Kelly and starting to panic. I backed away offering thanks and wondering how long it would take me to walk back into Chaumeil. Kelly was heading on to Limoges where we’d agreed to do the interview. I needed a lift and the one certainty was that Sean Kelly wouldn’t hang around waiting for a late reporter, not even his Boswell. This was a lot to convey by means of gesture for a man with Jaffa Cakes in one hand and Lucozade in the other. Missing the lift would be a professional and personal disaster.
It was a year, maybe two years later, when I was telling a friend about the bottle of Lucozade and the interview and how nice the woman had been, that I realised the story could have had another dimension.
‘Phew!’ said my friend. ‘That’s like the plot of a porn film. You must have been tempted?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘The heavy hints. Attractive but lonely French woman. Husband away until Friday. Dead summer heat. What do you think I mean?’
‘Oh Jesus, do you really think so?’
Talk about regret: how many nights has that nice woman of Chaumeil lain awake wondering what might have been with the sunburned Irishman and his Jaffa Cakes?
As for me? Just another innocent abroad.
• • •
It was a terrific year, 1984.
Mary loved Paris. We went with two children and came home with three, as Simon was born in a small hospital about a half-mile from rue Kléber. That’s another story. On the Saturday night of his arrival, his mum lay on her bed in rue Kléber writing letters and saying there was no need to call the taxi just yet. It would be hours. I did as told until it got close to midnight but then began to worry about getting a taxi so late. Eventually I was given the go-ahead to walk across to the taxi rank outside the Pentahotel in Courbevoie and arrange for one to come round to the house.
When Mary put down her pen and got out of bed to dress for the hospital, she was reminded that things had progressed more than she’d realised. The contractions were serious. From the front door to the cab was perhaps ten metres but my wife had to take the journey in three stages; four metres, contraction; three metres, bigger contraction; three metres, massive contraction. She whispered that it was okay, that her time only seemed closer than it was.
Aghast, the taxi driver watched and then motioned me round to the other side of the car so I could examine the cleanliness of his back seat.
‘Monsieur,’ he said in French I could easily understand, ‘I keep this taxi very clean. Look, see for yourself. It’s not possible for me to take your wife.’
I tried to sound nonchalant. I needed to convince him that I was an expert in this field and that he was just misreading the signs.
‘Don’t be stupid,’ I said. ‘The baby will not come for four or five hours and we have an eight-hundred-metre journey to the hospital.’
While the argument went back and forth, Mary stayed upright with support from an open rear door. ‘Three minutes and we’ll be at the hospital,’ I said. He demurred, I insisted, and, reluctantly, he agreed. Every traffic light was green, the ride took maybe two minutes, and a minute and a half after we got there Simon was born.
In mid-September Paul and I went to beautiful Senlis, about twenty miles north of the capital for the start of the Paris–Brussels semi-classic. It was a working assignment for me but we both went there as fans, wanting to savour the atmosphere and hoping to catch up with Kelly before the race left town.
We got to him about thirty minutes before the start and as he sat and chatted with us, we could have been speaking to the lowliest rider in the peloton, not the number one. Through those years people continually asked, ‘Kelly, what’s he like?’ My favourite answer was that he was the kind of fellow that if he found...
Revue de presse
'Fascinating...a gripping tale of one man's determination' Sunday Mirror
'A work of huge significance' Ian Herbert, Independent
'A story well told; Walsh s tenacity is matched by his talent for turning a sentence'
Duncan White, Daily Telegraph
'One of the most powerful sports books ever written...a must-read for anyone with an interest in modern sport' sportsbookofthemonth.com
'Not so much a valuable as an essential book for anyone interested in Armstrong, bike racing or doping' New Statesman
'Gripping and compelling, as well as being skilfully written, Walsh gives cycling fans and those preoccupied with human behaviour some fascinating insights into Armstrong's world' Belfast Telegraph
'This fascinating account of Walsh s determination in asking difficult questions reveals the sport s doping culture, the dark side of the sport and the legal battles that drug users faced' --Irish Post
One of the most powerful sports books ever written...a must-read for anyone with an interest in modern sport. --sportsbookofthemonth.com
Not so much a valuable as an essential book for anyone interested in Armstrong, bike racing or doping. --New Statesman
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