Seven time Paris-Nice victor, nine time winner of the monument classics, and now one of Eurosport’s most well-respected commentators, Sean Kelly arguably headed up a golden era for Irish cycling that saw him emerge as one of the most successful professional road cyclists of the 80’s.
As his HIGH5-fuelled cycling development team, An Post-Chain Reaction, prepare their bikes and bidons for the start of the 8-day Tour of Britain from 3-8 September, it’s a stark reminder of just how far today’s advances in nutrition, technology and training have come since the days when Kelly scooped his Grand Tour win at the 1988 Vuelta a España.
In this interview, the Irish cycling legend tells us what he’s been getting up to and shares his views on cycling’s latest advances in the pro peloton.
Apart from helping riders to launch their World Tour careers with An Post-Chain Reaction, what else has been keeping you busy?
“I spent three weeks in Mallorca, where I’ve been involved in biking holiday tours. Of course, for the month of April, I was commentating on the classics during the weekends and I’ve been busy over summer at the big tours.”
Do you still find time to get on the bike?
“I try to get on the bike as much possible, so when I’m in Mallorca, I get on the bike most days. But when I’m away on commendatory duties with Eurosport, on big tours such as the Giro and Tour de France, you don’t really have time. The days are long, and if you take a bike with you, maybe you’ll get to ride two or three times during the three weeks. Instead, I have to do a bit of jogging to try and keep myself in some sort of shape.”
Which season do you regard as your most successful and why?
“I think ’84 was my best. I can’t remember it very clearly – it was a long time ago but I won over 30 races, as well as some of the classics. It’s really when you retire, and look back at your palmarès, you appreciate the great performances you had in your career.”
Is there a race that’s stayed clear in your memory more than any other?
“I enjoyed Paris-Nice because I had huge success, winning 7 times. It’s a race I had a lot of luck in. Some people say you make your luck as well in races, but I don’t believe that. There were years where there were lots of crashes and I just seemed to be on the lucky side of the crash, a number of times.”
Is there anything you regret, or wish you’d done differently in your career?
“Lots! I think hindsight is a great thing because you can look back and I certainly did too much racing in the early part of the season. I was riding for a Spanish team and they wanted to do a lot of the Spanish programme. At the beginning of the season – Andalusia, Tour de Catalunya, Tour de Valencia, Pays Basque – were all on the calendar, and of course the Vuelta was also at the beginning of the year in the ’80s. I think the one I have regrets about most, is the Tour de France. I should have done better, maybe have gotten on the podium, but there were just too many races in the early part of the season.”
What was a typical hard days training when you were in your prime?
“The hard days were when you were not going well in the big tours. When you are not in your best shape in the big tours, you have to suffer from fatigue, maybe half wheel through the race and look ahead. Maybe there’s a week or ten days to go and that’s when you’re really stat suffering, because you feel physically drained and that grinds on you mentally. So I think the most difficult ones are certainly the big three week tours when you are not in good shape. If you’re in good shape then you can get through it, you do suffer but it’s a different sort of suffering because you enjoy it more. When you’re at the rear of the pack it’s very difficult to keep motivated and to keep going.”
Who was your best friend when racing and are you still in touch?
“I think my best friends would be the ones I raced with in my team. Fellow Irish men, Martin Early and Acacio da Silva. Others, who maybe were on opposing teams as well, Adri Van der Poel and Stephen Roche, of course who I raced against a lot but we’re still very good friends. You meet so many people at races like the Tour de France. We don’t have contact, we don’t call each other every two or three months, but we meet regularly during the bike season.”
What was a typical hard day for you, when you were in your prime?
“The hard days were when you weren’t going well in the big tours. When you’re not in your best shape you suffer from fatigue, so you have to maybe half wheel through the race and look ahead. Maybe there’s a week or ten days to go and that’s when you really start suffering, because you feel physically drained and that grinds on you mentally. If you’re in good shape, you still suffer, but you enjoy it more. When you’re at the rear of the pack it’s very difficult to keep motivated and to keep going.”
Athletes can sometimes be superstitious. Did you have any superstitions that you believed in?
“I wasn’t a superstitious guy. I didn’t really believe in that, but sometimes before the big events you think ‘My God, hopefully I’ll be safe tomorrow’. To get through a race without any problems – that’s a big part. Mechanical problems, getting caught up in crashes. In the big races for example; Tour of Flanders; Paris Roubaix, they are races where there are a lot of crashes so, sometimes you say a little mantra.”
What would be your ultimate training tip for younger riders?
“First of all, follow what your coach tells you. Most youngsters who are serious about cycling have a coach nowadays, from at least junior level. At times, I see a lot of riders try and do more despite what their coach is telling them. When you’re feeling good, you think a bit extra will lead to you getting a bit better but that’s when you make mistakes and can potentially over train. It’s like a race, when you’re having a really good day, that’s the time you can make a lot of mistakes and it’s the same in training.”
And would you have any advice for someone new to cycling?
“I suppose you need patience. If you’ve come from other sports then you have a basic fitness and that does help a lot, but if you’re somebody who hasn’t done a lot of sport, you have to give it time. Biking is something that you have to build up slowly. If you really charge into it, you can get fit very quickly, but you don’t hold that. Fatigue and all those things can be a problem so you have to build up over a number of years to get to a high level. It also depends on what you want to do, what sort of level of racing you’re at; if you’re racing as a fourth category or third category you don’t need to be doing a huge amount of training. So there are a lot of things you have to consider before you can give advice to a person beginning his or her cycling career.”
What’s your opinion on the technological advancements now in cycling compared to when you were racing?
“Well, there are huge advantages. First of all, the bike is the biggest one, they have improved so much over the years. Carbon fibre, the wheels, everything is rigid and also aerodynamic. I think the performances are much better because of that but the way the athletes prepare has also improved. I think they are much better looked after. As I said, everybody seems to have a coach and that is something which is important because they can follow a programme and they can build up over a number of years. At the beginning of the season, you can begin to build up your fitness level. All of this has improved the performances of riders, so I think those things have been big improvements in cycling but not only in cycling but in other sports as well. You look at rugby and other similar games, now you can monitor performance a lot better, such as how far the players have ran during a match. It’s all development and it’s improved the performances of the athletes enormously.”
Disc brakes? Yes or no?
“Well I think disc brakes are the thing for the future. We’ve been hearing a lot about the dangers when the riders crash and if you fall down on the disc you can get badly burned. Also, the disc is very open if you crash into it. There are still a lot of improvements to be made there but I think the most important thing is that everybody involved in racing should use disc brakes, rather than normal caliper brakes, due to the huge difference in braking performance between disc brakes and normal calipers.”
What are your thoughts on the nutrition athletes adopt in today’s peloton?
“Back in my day, we didn’t have the nutrition which cyclists have now and it is one of the biggest improvements. The energy bars, the gels and all the recovery shakes have improved the performance of the riders. The recovery in cycling, as we know, is of huge importance because cycling is such an endurance sport and when you’re in a big tour with four or five on the bike hours every day in very warm conditions, having the right nutrition is a huge benefit to bike riders.”
What’s next for Sean Kelly?
“My commentary job with EuroSport. I’m enjoying it and it keeps me involved in cycling – that’s a great thing. To stay involved in the sport is good for mind and for body and I hope to continue.”
Are there any plans you can tell us for the team’s future?
“We have had a lot of plans for the team and going back on the past number of years; we have always been trying to move up to Continental Pro after many years at the Continental level. However, there’s no point in being at the bottom of the rankings because then you are only following the races and you’re not getting success. I would prefer to stay at a good continental level than to be at the bottom end of the continental pro ranks.”