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Sean Kelly Interview

Sean Kelly's extraordinary career began in the Merckx era and ended at the dawn of the Armstrong epoch. Martin Ayres talked to the former world number one at home in his native Ireland

 

SPREAD out before us is an amazing sight. There are trophies from the world's greatest bike races. There are jerseys galore „ white ones from Paris-Nice, green from the Tour de France and a solitary maillot jaune from the Tour.

 

They are laid out in a room at Sean Kelly's imposing mansion near Carrick-on-Suir, southern Ireland. We had spent the morning with the ex-world number one, talking about Classics, the Tour, old rivals, heroes and retirement. Then photographer Phil O'Connor asks Kelly: ÑDo you have a trophy room?æ

 

Kelly explains that his trophies had recently been transported from Belgium, where they had been in the loving care of Herman Nys, whose family had practically adopted Sean when he was a rookie pro.

 

ÑThey're not arranged or anything, they're just as we unpacked them,æ Kelly explains almost apologetically as he leads us to a temporary storeroom.

 

It was a rare opportunity to handle so much silverware. The Spanish trophies were the biggest and most flamboyant, with the Vuelta winner's award taking pride of place. Two mounted cobblestones marked Kelly's Paris-Roubaix wins and a quaint chainwheel, crank and pedal commemorated his success in LiÀge-Bastogne-LiÀge. A World Championship bronze medal hung forlornly from a silver cup.

 

Only one of the awards looks to have any artistic merit, a bronze cast depicting Fausto Coppi handing a bidon to his great rival Gino Bartali. Kelly peers at the trophy and recalls that he'd won it in a relatively minor criterium in France.

 

The early green jerseys, dating from 1982 and 1983, looked positively old fashioned. They were made from heavy material and with chunky L'Equipe and Tour de France logos embroidered onto them. By 1989, when Kelly won the last of his four green jerseys, a much lighter, sleeker look had come in. The logos, including the PDM team branding, were printed on instead of being attached like an afterthought.

  

How many hours of mud, blood, sweat and tears had gone into earning these mementoes? They had featured in thousands of photographs and TV reports, the trophies held aloft as Kelly accepted the plaudits of the crowd.

 

One day, perhaps, the collection will be sorted, labelled and put on display. But whether it ends up in Ireland or elsewhere is still to be decided. Kelly explains that an American collector is interested in buying the whole lot and discussions are ongoing.

 

One senses that Kelly is not overly sentimental about the souvenirs of his 18-year career. He was, after all, a professional sportsman and money was the spur. More tangible evidence of his success is the house where he lives with wife Linda and teenage twins Nigel and Stacey.

 

Built on a grand scale, it has clearly been a labour of love for the Kellys, who moved in last July. The materials have been carefully chosen and there is evidence of craftsmanship in every detail. And, this being Ireland and Kelly the son of a farmer, there is a mare and foal in the paddock, plus a couple of donkeys nearby.

 

Pressures and rewards

 

Kelly's career spanned the era of Merckx to the dawning of the Armstrong epoch. He made his Tour de France debut in 1978 and bowed out in 1995 after making 14 Tour starts.

 

Asked about his first Tour, Kelly recalls his overriding emotion was fear. "It was frightening being on the start line with the big names," he says. "Nowadays riders come up through the elites and get to ride with the pros. By the time they reach the Tour they'll have raced against these guys for a number of years. Back then [when amateurs and professionals were segregated] we didn't have the experience."

 

But when comparing life then and now, Kelly admits that the current generation has problems of its own. "I think that there is more pressure to succeed than there was in my day," he says. "It's so difficult to get into the Tour that you have to put up a performance. Managers have to be pushing for results all the time.

 

"It's no longer a case of taking it easy, sitting back and waiting for a couple of days and then perhaps getting away in a break a bit later on in the Tour; now it's full-on from the start.

 

"The Tour has grown into a worldwide event and during the three weeks teams gain a big proportion of their publicity and exposure for the year."

 

It's not only the Tour that has grown more intense. Because of the UCI points system the pressure is on right from the start of the season.

 

"The whole thing has changed," Kelly says. "Early in my career you could come to the Etoile de BessÀges at the start of the season with 500 or 600 miles in your legs. But now, with 600 miles training you wouldn't be able to follow. Maybe you'd survive the first day, but by the second or third day you'd be gone, because the average speed of the racing is so much higher.

 

"In my last seasons people would be turning up at the Ruta del Sol saying they'd got 6,000 miles in their legs. This is because teams and riders realise they can pick up points at a time when perhaps the big boys aren't going full-on. And their salaries depend on those points."

 

The 1980s - when Kelly was at his peak - was a time of transition. World rankings were introduced, the Classics were organised into the World Cup series, and riders' incomes escalated.

 

The pros had Greg LeMond to thank for their increased rewards, says Kelly. LeMond and manager Cyrille Guimard had been with team sponsor Renault and then French entrepreneur Bernard Tapie took over the sponsorship.

 

"Tapie was a very flamboyant character and was talking phone numbers," explains Kelly. "The top riders saw their salaries take quite a big jump. I would say those of us in the top 15 or 20 benefited from that."

 

Rivals and heroes

 

When Kelly started his career as lead-out man for Freddy Maertens in the Velda Flandria squad of 1977, Eddy Merckx was still the big beast in the jungle. Today, when asked which rider he most admired, Kelly has no doubts. "Eddy Merckx has got to be number one. He was out on his own because of his record in the tours and Classics, plus six-days and all types of races," Kelly says.

 

By the time Kelly had become established as a pro, Merckx was finished. So, who among his rivals did Kelly fear most? "There was Bernard Hinault - he was one of my challengers in races like Paris-Nice and some of the Classics. But he concentrated on the hillier Classics like LiÀge-Bastogne-LiÀge, which weren't my speciality.

 

If I had to name one rider that I feared it would have to be Eric Vanderaerden because he was a rider very much like myself, because I tangled with him so many times in sprints."

 

Belgium's Vanderaerden was, like Kelly, a strong, combative sprinter, but although he won the Tour of Flanders and the green jersey in the Tour de France, his career was shorter than the Irishman's.

 

Hinault versus Armstrong

 

The conversation switches back to Hinault who, like Lance Armstrong, is a five-time winner of the Tour, although his wins didn't come consecutively.

 

Kelly is convinced that Hinault is at least the equal of the Texan. He explains: "For most of his career Hinault competed in the early-season Classics and stage races like Paris-Nice. If he had just concentrated on the Tour, who knows what he might have achieved."

 

Kelly points out that Armstrong is by no means the first rider to dedicate his season to the Tour. The pioneer, again, was Greg LeMond. "He was the guy who changed the mentality about the number of races you ride," says Kelly. "Early in his career LeMond was very competitive in Classics like Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders. But as the years went by he concentrated on the Tour and did less and less in the early season.

 

"And then Miguel Indurain did the same. In fact, Indurain won Paris-Nice early on but later he concentrated totally on the Tour."

 

As for Kelly, he notoriously spread his efforts throughout the year. At his peak, he would win Paris-Nice, campaign hard in the spring Classics, win the Tour of Spain or Tour of Switzerland, take the green jersey in the Tour and still be competitive in the Tour of Lombardy. Perhaps therein lies the reason why there are two gaping omissions from his palmarÀs: overall victory in the Tour de France and the World Championship rainbow jersey.

 

We ask Kelly if he believes Armstrong's approach is harming the sport? "From a sporting point of view it's not the best way to do it," Kelly concedes. "It's sad that the spectators don't get many chances to see Lance perform.

 

"When Lance is at the Tour it's impossible for anyone to get near him because he has many people protecting him. Whereas, if he rode smaller races, like Paris-Nice, there's a much more relaxed atmosphere and people can get closer to the riders.

 

"When Lance concentrates on the Tour de France, as he has been doing, then he's almost unbeatable. But if he rode the early-season Classics and stage races he might pay for it later in the Tour.

 

"Apart from fatigue and loss of form, there's also the risk of maybe having an accident and breaking a collarbone or some other injury and missing the Tour de France altogether."

 

Having put both sides of the argument, Kelly adds: "If I was a pro coming up now and I was a Tour contender I would definitely do the same thing that Lance is doing. It's the best way and gives you the best possibility of success. It means the team's happy, and the sponsor's happy. But," he concludes, "if Lance did appear in more races it would make it more interesting for the general public."

 

Likes and dislikes

 

Ask Kelly about his favourite single-day Classics and the answer might come as quite a surprise.

 

"LiÀge-Bastogne-LiÀge and the Tour of Lombardy, those would be my favourites. These are not races that would necessarily suit my style of riding. But I could defend my place quite well - I think the results prove that [two wins in LiÀge-Bastogne-LiÀge, three wins in Tour of Lombardy]."

 

"They are very clean races tactically," he explains. "There is an elimination process with the group getting down to about 30, and then more eliminations until only the favourites are left in contention. It's all very straightforward."

 

Kelly is a double winner of Paris-Roubaix, but he has little affection for the Queen of Classics, or for the Tour of Flanders for that matter.

 

"They're monumental Classics," he says, "but very dirty, rough races to ride in. In the Tour of Flanders you have to fight so much. At 15 to 20 kilometres before the first hills you're fighting to stay near the front.

 

"There's all these big fat Belgians who are great guys for staying up there in the first 10 or 15 because they have the power. Then you get into the hills and after about 100 metres of climbing they start coming back to you. And it keeps happening as the climbs come thick and fast. You eliminate so many each time, but so many keep coming back. You have to do it at five, six or eight climbs until you've eliminated all the riders who aren't capable of staying up there," Kelly says.

 

"And Paris-Roubaix is much the same, always fighting to be at the front at the sections of cobbles. It's horrible, but you've just got to do it. The risks you take are huge, compared to, say, a race like LiÀge-Bastogne-LiÀge.

 

"Milan-San Remo is probably a little bit better. But when you get to the final cols, the Capo Berta, Capo Mele and the Poggio, the Italians are in a different world. They're going through gaps that are a quarter of what they'd attempt in other races because San Remo is such a monument to them."

 

The question of safety often crops up in Kelly's conversation - and this from a man whose ruthless finishing earned him notoriety. Jan Raas, himself no shrinking violet in a sprint, condemned Kelly as a "menace".

 

As he grew older and more successful, Kelly mellowed somewhat. He also suffered his share of injuries. A calf injury sustained in the Tour of Switzerland sidelined him from the 1986 Tour de France, while the following year he broke his collarbone and made a tearful exit from the Tour.

 

Missing the Tour caused him more pain than the physical injuries had. "You put so much preparation into the Tour, your race programme is geared towards it and then something goes wrong and you're not there," he says.

 

"You're at home, you can't ride your bike, the media is full of the Tour, people keep talking to you about it. It's all going on and you're not part of it. It's awful."

 

Is there life after racing?

 

Kelly has a well-filled bike shed in the grounds of his house - although his best bike, a black Trek with triple chainring, is stored warm and dry in the boiler room.

 

And the bikes still get plenty of use. For several years now Kelly has taken part in fund-raising rides, principally for the National Council for the Blind of Ireland, which bring him into personal contact with cyclists of all ages and levels of ability.

 

Today, there are numerous tourists, fun riders and humble fourth-category riders who can boast that they've ridden with Sean Kelly.

 

Kelly has always ridden his bike. Even when he retired, he still felt the need to keep fit. "Some riders retire and don't do anything for two or three years. But when I stopped racing I still rode my bike at least three times a week," he says.

 

"It took me about a year and a half to adjust; at times I would feel I had got too much energy. And now, if I go a few days without cycling I don't feel right because my body has got used to the regular exercise."

 

Kelly's links with the National Council for the Blind date back to the mid-Nineties. The early fund-raising events were modest affairs, but soon they became more ambitious, with events like a cross-America ride. Last August Kelly led a large group retracing the route of the first six stages of the Tour de France, from Troyes down to the Alps. It meant revisiting l'Alpe d'Huez, once the scene of much torment.

 

In 2003, at the age of 47, and with "a huge selection of gears", he had time to savour the climb. "I certainly enjoyed ''Alpe d'Huez this time - unlike when I raced up it. There was no enjoyment involved then," he says.

 

This year will find Kelly back on the Tour route, this time riding some of the Pyrenean stages.

 

He hasn't developed into an out-and-out tourist, however. One of his best memories of 2003 was riding the Newport Nocturne in Shropshire, where he thrilled a huge crowd by narrowly beating Sid Barras in the final sprint.

 

The old warhorse's eyes light up as he recalls: "The atmosphere that night was electric. I dreamed I was back riding a post-Tour criterium. It was a good time of year for me because I had just done the Tour stages and some extra training. I was in good condition, it was a tight but fast circuit and it was really enjoyable.

 

Kelly's training regime is interrupted on a regular basis by his role as commentator with Eurosport. Once notoriously taciturn, he is now a respected TV commentator. Kelly still doesn't do small talk, but his concise contributions give viewers a rare insight to the moves on screen, and contrast effectively with David Duffield's more loquacious style.

 

He admits that punditry doesn't come naturally to him. "There are days when I'm very motivated and focused and I can do it well. But there are days when I have three or four espressos and they don't seem to have any effect, I'm so relaxed," he says.

 

And, he explains, fame can be a burden sometimes. "At the Tour there are always people who'll stop and talk to you about 20 years ago, and this and that, and I get distracted. I enjoy it but that kind of thing is a slight problem."

 

Irish revival?

 

The era when Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche rode their way into Tour de France history is becoming a distant memory and the Irish have been absent from the Tour for over a decade.

 

Mark Scanlon could end the long drought this year if everything goes well in his second season with Ag2r. Perhaps surprisingly, Scanlon hasn't turned to Kelly for guidance, although they did meet and talk last year.

 

Kelly believes the ex-world junior champion is in good hands and is managing to handle his career well.

 

But there doesn't seem to be another Tour candidate from Ireland on the horizon. Kelly doesn't do any formal coaching, but has worked quietly with Cycling Ireland in recent years.

 

He was involved in setting up the 'Irish house' in Belgium. The house is a racing base for national team riders and is also open to up-and-coming Irish roadmen.

 

"It's a great idea," says Kelly. "The problem is that riders don't want to go to Belgium at the beginning of the year, which is a surprise to me."

 

The eight-day FBD Milk Ras in late May is the pinnacle of the season for many Irish riders. But it seems that most of them prefer to stay at home and prepare for the Ras on a diet of domestic racing.

 

Kelly has this advice for them: "You can get a good programme of races in Belgium; the standard of racing is high. There's plenty of rain, just like the Ras, and it's perfect preparation."

 

Kelly couches his language in diplomatic terms. But having suffered loneliness and homesickness in his early years on the Continent, he must wonder what it would take to motivate the current generation.

 

 

Courtesy of CycleSport