With Paris-Nice just a couple of weeks away, Ride Velo met up with legendary multiple winner of The Race to the Sun, Sean Kelly. The former champion also made his name conquering the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix and beating, not only the opposition, but the worst of the appalling weather that usually accompanies the toughest rides of the year. But was it just the luck of the Irish?
"Paris-Nice was a race I was quite lucky in for a number of years - I was lucky not getting caught up in crashes and not missing out on breaks so I feel that Paris-Nice was one of the races that was a bit lucky for me. But again, you have to have the form at that time of year and I was a rider who, in the early season, seemed to get form very quickly. There were bad weather conditions a lot of the times I won, so that was something that I was able to perform quite well in. I was known as a rider who could perform very well in cold, wet conditions and for that reason I managed to win that many Paris-Nices."
His background as an Irish farmer’s son was key to his tough guy approach and made him such a force to be reckoned with in the Classics. When some of the softer riders would despair as the rain set in over the muddy cobbles of the Arenberg Forest, Kelly would come into his own and mercilessly crank up the pace. He’d leave a tangled mess of crashed out riders wallowing in the ditches of the Belgian countryside behind him. There are numerous shots of Kelly caked from head to toe in mud, relishing every minute of it. So we were very surprised when Sean told us that he didn't enjoy cycling in the rain!
Having spent 24 hours a week training in bad weather as a professional he reveals,"Now that I'm retired, if it's raining today, well, I'd say I could go out tomorrow. And if it's raining tomorrow I could go out the following day." Really Sean, you don't like cycling in the rain? "Yes, I rode so many days in the rain - I'd had enough of it!"
Of course the rough Irish farm roads that Kelly pounded undoubtedly helped him triumph over his Europeans rivals on the cobbles too. "The roads in Ireland are still not great," he admitted, but they were clearly the perfect training ground for the Spring Classics.
"There was a lot talked about my character as somebody who was a fighter and who would never give in, always battled on. Sometimes in situations where I wasn't really in the hunt to win the race I would still carry on in those races. And I think that comes from your background, I was reared on a small farm, working my early days there and I suppose that helped me to hang on in there and keep battling on. There was a number of times in some races where you can be feeling not your best but you just continue on and keep on fighting and you come good in the end."
Not only was he one of the best Classics riders of all time, with one of the longest careers to date (1977 – 1994), he had a string of stage victories to his name in the Vuelta, Giro and, of course the Tour, as well as making Paris-Nice his own, with seven consecutive victories from 1982-1988. So which was the hardest Classic?
"Paris-Roubaix is one of the most difficult Classics because of the terrain. 50+ km of cobbles and not only is it difficult to ride over them but also the amount of crashes you have in those races is much more than the others. It's a race where you can never relax for a moment because it's so intense and it's so dangerous."
Overall, Kelly won a total of nine monument races and is widely acknowledged as being one of the finest Classics riders of all time. But was there a victory that eluded him during the course of that illustrious career? "Well it would have to be a World Championship. I finished third two times in my career; the World Championships is like the Classics - a long one day event, 250-260km and I think it's one of the victories missing off my Palmares."
Back in December, Kelly lit up social media with his well-documented crash while taking in some winter sunshine on Spain's Costa Blanca. But it was a wild boar, not the Irishman, who ended up in a sorry bundle at the side of the road.
"We were coming down the descent from Coll de Rates when we saw a wild boar in the middle of the road with its legs sticking out. I stopped and moved it out of the way of the cars. Then we had the idea to post it on Twitter. We pretended that I'd hit it. It's amazing what you can do with social media - the post went crazy - I got all these messages from everywhere saying, 'Are you ok, Sean?' but it was just a set up!"
Kelly's back to the day job in March, commentating for Eurosport alongside his partner in crime, Carlton Kirby. "Eurosport's David Duffield was after me to do the Classics races in particular, that's how it started." But it's his double act with Carlton Kirby that has become legendary as the phlegmatic Irish brogue competes with the loquacious Sheffield language mangler and inventor of the 'Kirbyism', those flamboyant and occasionally baffling comments that send legions of fans into a tweeting frenzy. The pair are, at times, like chalk and cheese in their styles but seem to complement one another beautifully. Wine and cheese?
How does he enjoy his three weeks in July? "Well the Tour de France is exciting at the start, but for a lot of stages not a lot happens and it can be a long, long day and boring as hell! So you do your prep work, study the stage, the countryside etc. and then just rabbit on about wine and cheese for a long time. Carlton, he can just rabbit on about so many things. Particularly the wine and cheese..."
Does he have any top tips for the Classics this year? "Well you can't really say, picking from last year. There's Boonen and of course Sagan. You're looking for somebody who'll stand up to the knock this year." So don't go rushing out to place your bets just yet...
Ride Velo met Sean Kelly at the London Bike Show.