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A tough, driven, gritty competitor, Sean Kelly is one of the most successful riders in the history of professional cycling. He topped the sport’s world ranking continuously from 1984 to 1989, winning Classics and stage races, as well as a Grand Tour. His career achievements include successes in Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Tour of Lombardy, seven editions of Paris-Nice, four green jerseys and much more.
Although he was a sprinter and Classic specialist, his versatility was such that he also won the 1988 Vuelta a España and finished fourth and fifth overall in the Tour de France. Kelly retired in 1994, and launched the Sean Kelly Continental team in 2006; it has been competing as An Post-Chain Reaction since 2013. Though he’s known to be private and reserved, Kelly has worked as a frequent race commentator on Eurosport for several years. In 2013, Dublin City University awarded him with an Honorary Doctorate in Philosophy.
In this latest edition of our What I’ve Learned series, Kelly opens up here about his idols, his inspirations, his successes and disappointments, and what life and his career have taught him.
Cycling gives. It also takes away. As a bike rider, you start your career very young. You don’t get to experience the other things that could have maybe been there for you in life. Professional bike racing takes over so much of your time. But, for me, cycling has still taught me a lot.
One example is that you see so much of the world. And what better way to see it than a bike? Of course, sometimes you are sometimes racing so fast you don’t get the opportunity to look around. But a lot of time in the races, the Tour de France, the Vuelta, races in Italy — you get a great idea about the areas of all the different countries.
I learned a lot about humanity during my travels with the sport. Very early in my career I went to South Africa. I could see the apartheid movement, all of the things that were happening there at that time. It was something I knew a little about before, but I didn’t have as much an understanding of it until I went out and competed there. It is the same with all countries around the world. You learn so much about their history when you get to go there.
Eddy Merckx is probably the rider who inspired me most early on. There wasn’t much information about him back in Ireland when I was starting out, when I was a junior and then an amateur, but you would read about him in cycling magazines. At that time he was winning his Tours de France and also taking other races as well. For me, he was my idol before I got into a position when I might be a professional myself. My admiration about him was based solely on his success; at that time you didn’t have the sort of information about the riders as you have now. You had just race results. That was it.
When I turned pro I had the chance to race with Merckx. He was coming to the end of his career, but during my first year in the pro ranks he was still competing. Given that he was my idol before I turned pro, to actually race alongside him was something amazing. When you are riding beside him in the bunch, it was an unbelievable feeling. ‘Wow, I’m riding alongside Eddy Merckx…’ And then one time I beat him in a sprint in a race in France, that was a special feeling.
Freddy Maertens was another rider who was very influential. My professional career went on for 18 years and Maertens was one that I raced with for quite a bit. At the beginning, I competed on the same team but I also raced against him for a number of years.
He was an amazing rider at that time. The reason he made such an impression on me was because he was my style of rider. He was more a Classics rider, and also one who could win small stage races, such as weeklong races. He won Paris-Nice, the Tour of Catalunya, races like that. He is someone I suppose I idolised even when I was in my first three, four, five years as a professional.
I also had a lot of respect for Bernard Hinault. He was an unbelievable rider. You’d hear a lot of impressive stories about him as well, about what he could do because of his talent. One example: he wouldn’t train for four or five days, yet could come back into races and win. I had a lot of admiration for Hinault.
Discipline is really important in cycling. To give one example, the sport makes you a very good at time keeping. When you are racing with the team, you leave the hotel at a certain time each day. You have to backtrack from that, plan your day. Breakfast is two and a half, three hours before.
Then you get to the car, you go to the start, then you get ready, you sign on and the race is starting. So I think you get very good at correct time keeping, which is something maybe us Irish are not the best at. It’s the same with your training – you have to be disciplined with that too. It is all part of being a professional athlete.
I was lucky with my career. I had a lot of achievements. My first Paris-Roubaix is one of those that made a big impression on me. Also my first Classic victory in the Tour of Lombardia. I probably remember that one much better than some of the other ones I managed to get later in my career. It ended with a sprint with five riders lined out across the road, and there was only half a wheel between the five.
My biggest career disappointment was probably the world championships in Chambéry in 1989. That said, looking back I think that LeMond was just too good for me that day. Some of the Tour of Flanders I finished second in – that happened three times – were definitely disappointments too. I was second three times and there were some where I definitely think I was in the shape to win. I just didn’t do things tactically right at the end.
When you look back at those later, when you look back with hindsight, you say, ‘I should never have allowed that guy to ride away. I was strong enough to control everything.’ But you gamble a bit, and then you lose.
Losing victory in the 1987 Vuelta a España close to the end was another blow. I was leading the race with just three days to go but had to withdraw due to a bad saddle sore. That was hard, not least because I was riding for a Spanish team. For the boss there, the Vuelta was the biggest race to win…it was bigger than the Tour for him. I suppose losing the race like that made me hungry to come back and win the following year, which I was able to do.
Retirement is a real challenge for riders when they stop. When you come out of professional sport, you then you have to adapt to normal life. That takes time, it takes a number of years to do it. The first two years when you come out of a professional sport are always difficult.
I think in cycling you have to have a strong mentality. You need to have it to become a good bike rider, even before you become a professional cyclist. But once you turn pro I think it does improve further. In a Tour de France, for example, when you are competing for three weeks against a lot of other athletes, that helps in itself to give you a stronger mentality, a resilience.
If I could, there is something I would definitely change about my career. I did a very big amount of races in the early part of the season. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have done as many of the Classics and the small stage races. I should have focussed more on the Tour. Had I done that, I think the podium would definitely have been possible.
It’s hard to say if I would have won the Tour with that reduced programme, you just don’t know. But I think I would have been much closer and given it a much better run if I hadn’t had so many races. Coming to the Tour, I was maybe just over-raced because of that intense early part of the season.