- Sep 20, 2004
wweeedlimerickman said:Last Saturday's Irish Times newspaper carried a very good interview with Irish cycling legend Sean Kelly.
For those of you who are interested, here it is.
Contented Kelly still enjoys view from saddle
CYCLING: Ian O'Riordan joins the great cyclist for a jaunt near his Carrick-on-Suir home and finds him in untypically chatty form - and still competitive.
On the first turn south west out of Carrick-on-Suir, a steep climb known locally as the Seskin, Seán Kelly shifts into a lower gear and straight away opens a gap. There's an advantage to knowing this hill, which Kelly would have ridden countless times en route to becoming the best cyclist in the world.
The other advantage is Kelly is driving a new SUV, and I'm in an old Audi. We're headed to his house about four miles outside the town, and from there we will cycle some of the other roads that must still represent a sort of escape route for Kelly - from poor, hard-working farmer to one of the world's most recognised and successful sporting champions. Throughout the ride it is clear he's still got a humble hand on both lives.
He stops at the large, electric gates and steps out of his car, looking lean and compactly built, with that unmistakable profile - sharply cut chin and nose, slicked-back hair, head bowed.
Cycling has always prided itself on its true legends. Eddie Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Jacques Anquetil. Kelly will always be among them.
Halfway up the driveway his house comes into view, all red-bricked and beautifully designed, clearly inspired by his 15 years spent living in Belgium. Broad views of the Comeragh mountains serve as a backdrop. Kelly drives around the side and steps out again, disappearing into a small boiler-room. He reappears with his bike, fiddling with the brake cables before spraying some grease onto the chain.
Kelly's life still revolves around cycling. He helps run the Irish Cycling Academy in Belgium and also Ireland's only professional cycling team, Murphy&Gunn-Newlyn-M Donnelly. He commentates on Eurosport and each year cycles several charity events.
He's 50 years old now, and later we work out he's cycled maybe 600,000 miles - nearly 25 times around the world. He says he gets out on his bike two or three days a week. Probably more.
He's just never been a fan of the big cycling interview. In his professional days he would often answer questions with a nod. And that was on the radio. His enthusiasm and openness on the bike and later over lunch is unexpected. Our conversation revisits his glorious career and inevitably drifts towards cycling in general - where it's at, where it's going, and if it's been fatally overdosed by drug scandals.
There is much to talk about as regards cycling these days - but also what made Kelly such a great cyclist in his day, and whether we'll ever see his likes again. He retired in 1994, thus ending the Kelly-Stephen Roche era that had put Ireland at the centre of the world cycling map.
Heroes can take a sport only so far, and despite some potential, firstly world junior champion Mark Scanlon, and more recently Nicolas Roche, another professional cycling season gets underway where no Irishman is expected to figure.
"It's not a question of whether or not our era was followed through," he says. "It wasn't followed through at all. There were years there after we retired when there was no one coming through. In the meantime we lost a lot of very good talent, because they just weren't looked after properly.
"A lot of people blamed the cycling federation, but I wouldn't. In the late 1980s we had a lot of very good amateurs, and I certainly thought a number of those would go on to the pro ranks. For a number of reasons they didn't make it. Either they were getting too much racing too young, or not enough racing. But then a lot were making their own way.
"It's possible in another two or three years we could see one of these academy riders in, say, the Tour de France. It's hard to say. There is talent coming through, but then I also think a lot of them dream too much. They don't want to put in the work.
"They think a run of three months at it will take them to the top junior or amateur level. And then they start dreaming of the Tour de France.
"Just to get into a pro team takes three or four years of total commitment. These guys make a burst for two or three months, then down tools, enjoy themselves. Go out of shape. So they're not improving. That's the problem we're trying to address with the academy."
His cautious optimism is well founded. Kelly achieved practically everything there is to achieve in world cycling. He never won the Tour de France (he did win four green jerseys) and definitely let slip a couple of world titles, yet cycling has a far wider measure of greatness. His 22 classic wins make him the fourth most successful cyclist of all time after Merckx (50), Hinault and Anquetil (both 29).
Kelly stand 4th on the all time list of professional career wins, with 197 professional race wins - and is only preceeded by Merckx, Hinault,
With hints of spring in the air, Kelly seems keen to start the cycle, suggesting the weather could turn.
Then, reluctantly, he leads the way to a large, two-storey garage next to his house. He unlocks the door and reveals what initially appears like the contents of an Egyptian tomb - a stunning collection of golden trophies, medallions of all sizes.
In the middle are dozens of cycling jerseys of diverse colours and other classic pieces of cycling memorabilia.
These are the prizes of his 18-year professional career, meticulously collected by the Nys family, who adopted Kelly during his years in Belgium.
Kelly is still trying to figure out what to do with the trove, but knows it should be properly housed somewhere. He looks around as if he cannot really believe he actually won all this.
"I do feel I was part of a different era," he says, "a better era. Not just because of the doping problems now and all that, but I know it was much more enjoyable, with much more camaraderie between the teams.
"I talk to some of the riders now, the older ones like (Vjatcheslav) Ekimov, and they tell me it's totally changed. It's so much more serious, and from the start of the season it's full on.
"I don't see a reason why I couldn't make it now as I did back then, but to be as successful as I was definitely wouldn't be as easy, because the teams now have eight or 10 guys at the same level. We had two or three at most. So to win the number of races I did would be almost impossible now.
"Of course it was a different era I was coming from as well, much more difficult growing up. When you come from nothing, on a farm, in the country, that can always be an advantage over someone coming from the city. But then this whole country has done very well now, and maybe that has softened up the riders a little as well. In other sports like soccer and rugby maybe, you can still succeed as easily, but for cycling maybe we're not tough enough anymore."
It was Kelly's tolerance for hard work and suffering, his ability to withstand the toughest weather and even tougher physical demands of hours in the saddle, day after day, that helped produce the complete cycling package. His unquestionable talent was far from being the key ingredient.
"All those things. They're all important. Are they in the genes, or are they in the upbringing? I grew up on a farm, was outdoors an awful lot, in the sunshine today and the rain tomorrow. And the body does adapt to that. You get used to it, build up some immunity.
"That ability to suffer came from a young age as well, and all the hard work on the farm. It does harden you up, as the older generation say. And when I was away in France and Belgium and things were getting tough out there I only had to think of home, and the farm, where my mother and father worked all their life, and the mullocking and the pulling around, which I had to do a lot of as well. You think, do you want to go back and do that for the rest of your life?"
We start down the quiet country roads along the foot of the Comeraghs. His cycling routes are mostly on the Waterford side of the river Suir, but then Kelly was always a Waterford man, not Tipperary as often portrayed. After a couple of miles he points over at the old family farm at Curraghduff, which his brother still runs. Kelly still owns large tracts of land in the area, and on the road down from his house we hear the gentle braying of a donkey.
Kelly says he owns several of them.
He promises nothing too severe on the cycle, but just in case, Ger Hartmann comes along as my domestique. Hartmann has cycled several events with Kelly over the years, including the Wicklow 200km, and could help cover any breaks should Kelly develop any of his old competitive instinct.
It was somewhere along these same roads that Kelly was transformed from teenage apprentice bricklayer to professional cyclist. He'd left school aged 12 to work on the farm, where through his brother he discovered a love of cycling. In 1976, not yet 20, he was banned from competing in the Montreal Olympics after being caught racing professionally in South Africa under a false name. Rather than being a setback, that incident accelerated his career.
"It seemed like a good idea at the time. We'd been invited over for the race and the promise of a 10-day holiday afterwards. I've no great regrets about it, except it would always have been nice to say you competed in the Olympic Games. But then I don't know if I would have gone professional so soon if I had gone to the Olympics. There was the chance I would have stayed amateur for another four years."
Destiny, perhaps, because Kelly instead spent the summer racing in France, where he was first spotted by Jean de Gribaldy, directeur sportif of the Flandria team. That October, Gribaldy took a private plane to Dublin, telling the taxi driver at the airport to take him to Carrick-on-Suir, believing it to be a short distance away. Several hours later, having eventually found the family farm, only to be told Kelly was out somewhere on the tractor, he finally delivered the contract that created a cycling legend.
"I did get so much out of the sport. A great career, made a good name for myself, and financially I did very well. I learnt a couple of languages and got to know so many people all over the world. This is really what keeps my interest in cycling, going back to the Tour every year, still being a part of it.
"In hindsight, there are always things you would change. For me the amount of racing I did throughout my career was probably a little too much, and for that reason my Tour de France performances certainly paid a price. I think a podium place in the Tour was definitely possible for me, but my situation was that I would always do the classics, because I could win at least one or two of them."
The classics also meant big money, and almost as an aside, Kelly explains why that was just as important: "You can see the opportunities down the road. That's why the financial gain was important at the beginning. Some people tell you money has nothing do to with it starting out, but I can't say that, because for me the financial gain was the big carrot, because with that you can do so many things later on.
"As I got more successful the financial gain became less important, though you still wanted to go there and fight for it and give it 100 per cent."
We ride into Clonmel and without warning Kelly takes a sharp right, stops outside World Wide Cycles.
He wheels his bike inside and chats with the owner, Ray Clarke.
Back on the main street he takes a sharp left, up the side alley of O'Gorman's Bakery, run by two former cycling champions and brothers, Anthony and Richard.
They're finishing a large batch of pancakes, and Kelly sits on a small crate in the kitchen to sample them, along with their strong, black coffee.
Caffeine is still the favourite drug of all cyclists, professional or otherwise. It's also legal, and the least of cycling's seemingly uncontrollable drug problem. It was hoped the 1998 Tour de France scandal would help clean up the sport forever, but instead, the 2006 edition was several times worse.
Operacion Puerto saw several favourites thrown out on the eve of the race, and then seven days after winning in what was regarded as the best finish in years, winner Floyd Landis flunked a drugs test.
"It's certainly going through a very bad time," says Kelly, "but I know the cycling body is really trying to get on top of the situation, even if it is proving to be a long, drawn-out battle.
"But then last year was a turning point, definitely. The teams are taking a lot more control of the situation, and with any doping allegation at all now there are riders being taken off teams. That wasn't happening for years, and I think that makes for a better situation than ever before.
"Like the way Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso were taken out this year. That was partly coming from the teams, not the organisers. The teams are saying you can't start the Tour with any allegations. But I don't think cycling can ever go back to the great days, being the really big sport it was. No, I can't see that. Things have changed so much. But it can clean up its act to a large extent."
When he's asked if cycling's enduring drug problem somehow takes from his career, somehow overshadows it, Kelly shakes his head in disagreement, before the question is even completed. And it is a stupid question.
As Kelly predicted, the weather turns and a light rain falls as we cross from Kilsheelan back toward the Comeraghs. The comforts of his house are suddenly appealing, and Kelly senses that himself. He still sits so neatly and efficiently on the bike that the increase in tempo is initially unnoticeable.
In any professional sport retirement is like a death, but in cycling it's sometimes more literally that. Marco Pantani's tragic death in 2004 was another reminder of the difficult life after professional cycling, and Kelly can sympathise.
"When I did finish up I took a couple of years out before I did anything with cycling. I was contacted to do various things, including being a directeur sportif on a few occasions, but I just needed time out.
"It was difficult in some ways. When I came home I started doing a lot more farming than I am now, had some livestock at that time. When you're on the farm you have a quite a variety of things going on.
"The hardest part is just adapting to a normal life again, because you're so used to being on the bike for five or six hours a day, and instead you're only out two or three times a week. That's a shock to the system. You do get a bit uneasy, going around wanting to break down doors, that kind of thing.
"You're also away from the family a lot of the time, and suddenly you're around them all the time. That's where it can turn bad as well, getting on each other's nerves a lot. You're going to kill them or they're going to kill you. But it you have other things to occupy your mind when you get out it makes it that much easier."
Building the family home to share with his wife, Linda, and teenage twins, Nigel and Stacey, became one of the bigger and more meticulous projects, with no expense spared. Kelly admits he made good money from the sport over his 18 years as a professional, better than most, but he invested wisely, and never flaunts it. And he still spends a lot of time on the road, mostly with that unlikely career as TV commentator.
He doesn't see any irony in that: "As a rider I always felt I needed to be careful about what I said. Like if I'd said I was going to go out tomorrow and wipe everybody away and didn't it wouldn't be so easy to explain myself after.
"I know I wasn't the most forthcoming as a cyclist. I'd answer the question the shortest way possible, and that was deliberate. I didn't leave myself open to interpretation either.
"My commentating, though, is more about tactics, and predicting what might happen. And a lot of the time I do get that right, and that's probably what amazes people. It's enjoyable but also very intense.
"Like when you're finished the day's work say at the top of Alpe d'Huez and there are a couple of hundred thousand people all trying to get away as well."
We start down a short, narrow descent that leads to the junction at Mansfield's bar, where the road suddenly rises again back toward Kelly's house. He shifts into a lower gear, instinctively, and leaves me dragging my back wheel. Within a few metres he's opened a gap on me - and there's no excuse this time.
A quick glance up and there's Kelly smiling to himself, still getting a little kick at outsmarting another rider.
I'm left smiling too, thinking if this was Paris-Nice or Milan-San Remo then I'd have blown my chance, thinking of all the great cyclists Kelly must have punished this way.
Through his work with Eurosport, Seán Kelly followed every move Floyd Landis made on last year's Tour, and particularly stages 16 and 17 - when the American lost 10 minutes (and the yellow jersey) one day, and recovered most if it the next with a 130-km solo breakaway.
In fact the final descent into Morzine on stage 17 is still noted in race history for the record 73 miles per hour Kelly himself hit during one of his 14 Tours. "That's definitely another turning point, being the first winner to lose the title if he is stripped. I remember the day previous we were wondering was he in really good shape, or bluffing to some extent. So we could see that crack coming.
"And the next day he comes out with that unbelievable performance. It was a huge surprise.
"But it can happen, that riders crack one day, and recover very well the next. If you look at the circumstances, he attacked very early, and sometimes these solo efforts work out. But then the end result was still a major surprise, and major disappointment.
"You say to yourself maybe it was an exceptional ride that day, but then he would have known he wouldn't get away with taking anything. The day before he was in doping control as race leader, and to win the stage he would be tested. There was no reason why he'd get away and that's why it doesn't make much sense."
That's a large part of cycling's problem - that you really don't know what to believe anymore. It's been suggested part of Landis's problem was the French couldn't handle another American winning their Tour. Even Lance Armstrong's great legacy is left in some doubt. Kelly, unsurprisingly, can only say so much about that.
"I think Lance was very good for cycling, coming from where he did as well. If you ask the French that question you might get a different answer.
"From the beginning, though, he just didn't go with the lingo. Like when he was asked a question in English it was custom to give a few words in French. He didn't do that, so it started off on a bad note, and just went from there. I don't think it was because he was American. It was his attitude from the beginning, a little arrogant. But then Greg LeMond always had a great following in France."
TOUR STAGE WINS
1978 - 6th stage, Tour de France
1979 - 1st and 5th stages, Vuelta a España
1980 - 1st, 2nd, 14th, 17th, 19th stages, Tour of Spain; 19th, 21st stages, Tour de France
1981 - 15th stage, Tour de France
1982 - 12th stage, Tour de France
1985 - 2nd, 9th, 15th stages, Vuelta a España
1986 - 10th and 13th stages, Vuelta a España
1987 - 1st and 3rd stages, Vuelta a España
1988 - 11th and 20th stages (and overall winner), Vuelta a España
MAJOR CLASSIC VICTORIES
Milan-San Remo 1986, 1992
Paris-Roubaix 1984, 1986
Liège-Bastogne-Liège 1984, 1989
Giro di Lombardia 1983, 1985, 1991
OTHER CLASSIC VICTORIES
GP Plouay 1984
Grand Prix des Nations 1986
Tour du Huat Var 1982
Criterium des As 1984, 1985, 1986
GP d'Isbergues 1983
STAGE RACE VICTORIES
Vuelta a España 1988
Tour de Suisse 1983, 1990
Volta a Catalunya 1984, 1986
Vuelta al País Vasco 1984, 1986, 1987
Critérium International 1983, 1984, 1987
Setmana Catalana de Ciclisme 1988
Three Days of De Panne 1980
Nissan International 1985, 1986, 1987, 1991