24th July 2007
It took me 30 minutes to find a shop that had a copy of L’Equipe this morning. Hardly surprising in the light of where Sean and I find ourselves domiciled on this second rest day in the Tour de France.
We are in Lourdes, where bustling bars sit in comfortable alliance with busy souvenir shops offering all manner of trinkets and remembrances to the faithful, who flock here to visit the grotto where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared over a century and a half ago.
With its legions of young people on pilgrimage and streets full of neon shop signs, it has a permanently upbeat atmosphere about it, a sort of Blackpool for Catholics. It is also the only town I know of to have, not dedicated bike paths, but dedicated wheelchair lanes.
It may take half and hour to find a copy of L’Equipe, but you practically fall over Irishmen in Lourdes, all of who instantly recognise Sean Kelly and engage him in conversation like they have known him for years, which of course in many senses they have.
It’s hard to comprehend, unless you experience it first hand, just what an impact the exploits of Sean and his contemporaries – Stephen Roche and Martin Earley – had on the people of Ireland in the 1980s. Even those with only a passing interest in cycling have an idea that between them Sean and Stephen won everything worth winning in the sport: the Tour de France, The Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana, a world championship, 7 Paris Nice races, Paris Roubaix, Milan-San Remo and the list goes on.
Sean has often told me that wherever he is in the world he is a “Paddy magnet”, a point illustrated no more so than 2 years ago when, trying to find our way by car to the finish line in Gap, we wound down the window of the car to ask one of the thousands of fans milling around where we should be heading.
“Excuse me,” asked Sean in his best French to a young, lanky, blond man, “Can you tell me the way to the finish line please.”
The young man sauntered over and leant through the open window of the car collecting his thoughts.
“You’d be Sean Kelly then and you want to know where the finish line is?” He replied in a lazy Irish drawl. “Sure now, you wouldn’t be asking a question like that 20 years ago now, would you.” He then stood up and just sauntered away again leaving us amused but none the wiser.
Having finally acquired a copy of L’Equipe and sitting together in a riverside café, it was next to impossible to get through the newspaper as one Irishman after another joined us for a quick chat with the great man and a request for a photograph to show their friends back home.
To be honest, after 2 weeks on the road this is far more entertaining and engaging than a wade through more stories about the resurgence of Astana or the slow and painful death of French cycling.
Rest days are in fact a huge treat. No need to travel, a time to sleep in, to read, do the washing, get a hair cut, meet friends out for the event and, of course, write.
Tomorrow’s stage promises to show once and for all who has the best legs in the Tour. The dreadful Port Larrau, the vastly underestimated Col de Marie-Blanque and then the final climb to the top of the Col d’Aubisque.
Are we to be greeted once again with the view of 2 men track sprinting on an 8% gradient after 200km?
Until then, safe riding