In an exclusive interview, Current Affairs & Sport Editor Dylan White talks all things cycling with former World Number One Sean Kelly.
When we look back at some of Ireland’s greatest ever athletes, a select few names come to mind. Sean Kelly is arguably up there with the best. Kelly was born in 1956 and grew up on a farm at Curraghduff, not far from Carrick-on-Suir in County Waterford, near the border with County Tipperary.
Kelly began his illustrious adventure in cycling at the mere age of eight when he first rode his father’s bicycle, “through the crossbar, not big enough to get over the crossbar,” he recollects. Kelly then began to cycle to Crehana National school at the age of ten when he felt safe on the road.
The local cycling club, Carrick Wheelers, had begun a recruitment drive looking for youths to participate in races. However, a dispute amongst the committee saw a few members split to form a rival organisation, the Carrick Wheelers Road Club. Kelly decided to get involved and was given a good handicap in his first race. Kelly recalls: “I went off like hell and won the race”.
Kelly identified cycling as an escape route from the farm and it got him out of Ireland for the first time too. He gradually progressed through the ranks, representing Ireland at both junior and amateur level. However, Kelly admits that he didn’t know much about the profession when he started out. Unlike cyclists today who have access to a great deal of information online, Kelly didn’t have a lot of experience and didn’t even know much about the Tour de France.
In 1975, Kelly along with two Irish and two Scottish riders were invited to participate in a race in South Africa as part of a British team. “We went there and competed under false names, not expecting to get caught out. We were competing down there while Liz Taylor was on her second honeymoon with Burton in a place called Port Elizabeth and there were a lot of British tabloids present,” Kelly said. The team of riders understandably garnered huge interest amongst the British media who wanted to do a cover story on them. However, the riders’ failure to cooperate and talk to the media started to create suspicion. A number of photographs were taken of the riders and sent back to British Cycling who investigated and dealt with the matter from there on. “I got suspended from taking part in the Olympic Games, so I decided to go to France and compete there for a year. That was where my professional contract started off.”
Kelly turned professional in 1977, at a time when cycling was dominated by riders from the sport’s European heartland. Although he first made an impression as a fast, fearless and sometimes reckless sprinter, Kelly evolved into one of cycling’s greatest ever all-rounders, succeeding in major international stage races. He went on to win an unprecedented number of races, appearing unbeatable in one-day races and classics including Paris–Roubaix, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, Giro di Lombardia and Milan–San Remo, earning him the nickname King Kelly. “You need a little bit of luck on your side in order win,”. By the end of 1984, the Union Cycliste Internationale, the world governing body, had introduced a computerised ranking system and Kelly was officially ranked the undisputed number one rider in the world.
However, Kelly is receptive that where there is success there is also failure. Although he won a stage in his first Tour de France in 1978 and finished the race 12 times, he failed to win it out on each occasion. He won his first of four green jerseys in 1982 and finished fourth overall in 1985. Kelly added: “Cycling is a high risk sport. I had a number of big disappoints in my career where I crashed out of races at times and when you go out of the Tour de France like that they’re disappointing days in one’s career. In bike racing there are a lot of danger points. Any lapse in concentration and you can get caught up in these crashes and the race is over for you. I broke a collarbone in the Tour de France when I did crash out. It’s a two way situation”.
“I got suspended from taking part in the Olympic Games, so I decided to go to France and compete there for a year. That was where my professional contract started off”
Many were surprised by Kelly’s decision to make the transition into co-commentating for international broadcaster Eurosport. “I was a guy of little words in the earlier part of my career. Being brought up on a farm is a much lonelier and quieter place to be. It’s certainly not the same as living in the city where you communicate more with people,” he said. However, Kelly’s success as a professional cyclist sparked huge media interest and as time went on practice made perfect. Kelly added: “When you’re performing at a top level in your sport for many years you get the journalists all the time, so when I retired to go into commentary I was half way there as such. It takes a little bit of time to adjust to commentating and the first number of months in particular was certainly a learning curve”.
The issue of doping in cycling has been well documented in recent years, most notably on the back of Lance Armstrong’s admission. Journalists for many years had probed at the issue, however lacked sufficient evidence to back up their allegations. Kelly concedes that it was a “horrible time” for the sport but he is certain that the right strides are being taken to ensure that these “very black days” are well surpassed. Although many critics believe it took far too long to get it up and running, “the governing body have introduced this biological passport where they can detect guys who are taking any performance enhancing products and its catching the guys out, so it is working,” Kelly said. “Cycling has cleaned up and is certainly on the right road,” he added.
Doping revelations in cycling has understandably affected the financial sponsorship for the sport. Big brands, with food and soft drink companies in particular didn’t want to get involved in a sport plagued with scandal and controversy. However, Kelly believes that confidence is coming back and sponsorship is getting better. The salaries of the riders have also improved. Kelly said: “Candidates to win a Tour de France are in huge demand. But when you look at the money soccer players are getting compared to bike riders, there’s no comparison at all. Some of the soccer players earn as much as a full professional team competing in the Tour de France earn in a year”.
Although Kelly is not directly involved with Cycling Ireland, the governing body of cycling in Ireland, he is currently the General Manager of the An Post Chain Reaction Team. The team is based in Belgium and riders compete all over Europe. It was known as the Sean Kelly Cycling Academy for a number of years and catered for all levels of riders. However, the emergence of the An Post-Grant Thornton-Sean Kelly Team has resulted in a change in strategy, with emphasis being placed on bringing in riders who are in their early twenties and “taking them to the next level”.
Kelly admits that some young Irish riders today join clubs where nobody has a great deal of experience and compete at levels that are simply not beneficial to their future development. Kelly explains: “Cycling is a sport when you start off young burnout is a big factor. Too much training at a very young age has been a real disaster for a lot of talented and promising guys coming through”.
Yet, Kelly feels that some riders are not putting the work in, ultimately failing to realise their true potential. Kelly acknowledges that “in bike racing unless you become real hungry and want to succeed no matter how much talent you have it’s impossible to do it”.
Kelly recently published his autobiography Hunger in June 2013 and admits that he had been “hounded” for over ten years to do it but kept putting it off until eventually giving in over two years ago when he decided to run with it. “There were times during those two years that I asked myself why I ever agreed to do this,” Kelly said. “It’s going back a long time so I had to do a great deal of research just to refresh the memory. Things that happened in races suddenly start flashing back to you,” he added. The thinking behind the title reflects back to the idea of up and coming talented riders, reared in the good times of the Celtic Tiger era in Ireland, lacking the hunger to be the best cyclists in the world. “People that are into books say it’s a great read and it’s doing really well. It gives a great insight into a guy that never really dreamt about being a professional, just started off bike racing, enjoyed it and followed on year after year,” Kelly said.
With Hunger being a bestseller and has become a must read for cycling fans Kelly still hopes to get “the second bite of the cherry and to try stay on the gravy train as long as possible.”