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92nd Tour de France - July 2-24, 2005
An interview with Sean Kelly, July 4, 2005
King Kelly speaks Part I
As the Tour de France gets underway, a host of ex-professionals will be meeting up once more, reminiscing about old times while they check out the current wave of pros. As he has done for several years, Kelly will be on this year's Tour in his role as commentator for Eurosport. Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes caught up with him recently to chat about his tips for the race, his impressions of the current pro scene and to reminisce at length about his own career.
Strolling around the Villages du Départ in the morning or heading to the press room after the race, your attention is grabbed by the number of familiar faces. It might take a second to filter out the effects of age and make the connection between Now and Then, how they look versus how they used to be, but being on the Tour provokes countless jolts to the memory. TV commentators, journalists, organisation staff, team managers, car drivers and publicity roles; the list of areas served by former champions is endless and far reaching.
One of the most recognisable faces is that of Sean Kelly, hard man extraordinaire. Over the course of his career he took many of the top prizes in the sport. At the Tour he landed five stage wins; a then-record four points jerseys, plus fourth, fifth seventh and ninth places overall. He took the 1988 Tour of Spain plus a staggering seven consecutive Paris-Nice races, and also won a range of Classics, including Milan San Remo, Paris Roubaix, the Tour of Lombardy and Liège-Bastogne-Liege.
Cyclingnews: Sean, first off what is your opinion of the way Lance Armstrong has been going in the run up to this year's Tour, in particular in the Dauphiné Libéré?
Sean Kelly: I think it is the same as last year...he is just coming into form at the right time. Looking at him in the Dauphiné, it seemed as if things were going perfectly in the right direction. For the Tour, I don't see at the moment who can beat him, unless we get a very good Ullrich.
Of course, Lance needs to arrive in form at just the right time. If he is in top shape early, he always has problems. We saw it a couple of years ago - when he was going very well in the Dauphiné, he had problems in the last week of the Tour. But he came into form at just the right time last year, and he was unbelievable right through the Tour.
CN: So do you think he will be in the same form this time?
SK: It looks to be exactly the same situation now.
CN: Jan Ullrich seemed to be coming into decent shape as well, judging by his performances in the early part of the Tour of Switzerland. Last year he was very good there too but faded before the Tour - do you think he will be better this time round?
SK: Well, last year he did the same. He did a very good Tour of Switzerland. This year, I would say his form looks to be pretty good. He did well in the early part of the Tour of Switzerland, even if his climbing wasn't top notch then.
I think that this year Jan has been a bit leaner at the beginning of the year, so that could help him. He hasn't had to fight a lot to control his weight. In March and April of this season he seemed to be lighter than in other years. So hopefully that is a good pointer and he will have a good Tour.
It is worth checking if his contract is up for renewal. He rode well when he was with Bianchi, for example, because he had a small deal and needed to get a better contract. Hopefully it is, because I think that will help a lot as well. It will get his butt out of the saddle a bit more!
CN: Given that he has been beaten so many times by Armstrong, is it difficult for Jan to get back that winner's mentality, to really take it to him?
SK: There is always going to be quite a bit of doubt in his mind, unless he is turning like a Rolex watch (laughs). It is always going to be hard, but if Armstrong starts to suffer in the last week then maybe Jan could give him a run. Otherwise, I see it as being difficult.
CN: Who do you see shaping up as being the other challengers?
SK: Well, there is Iban Mayo - I could see him coming good for the Tour and if he does, he could do a lot of shaking up in the mountain stages. If he is really in top shape, he can clip off with five or six kilometres to go from the mountain-top finishes and get a bit of time. So he could be there for the podium.
CN: How about Vinokourov?
SK: Yes, I think he will be one to reckon for the podium too. But that depends on how Ullrich is riding, of course. If Ullrich is riding well, then Vinokourov may have to start to do a bit of work and shake things up. Especially if Ullrich is under pressure to get onto the podium. Because of Mayo and some of those he might be sent out as the hare, as such. For that he might pay, losing a potential podium place.
CN: Basso was going very well in the Giro but then had that stomach bug which knocked him right back -
SK: Yes, I think that after Armstrong he is the next guy - the second place on the podium could well be for him. He has improved a lot in his time trialling and that is where he was under pressure to defend his place last year from Klöden.
I think that this year with his improvement, I would definitely see him having a place on the podium.
CN: Is it possible for Basso to win it?
SK: Again, if Armstrong comes under pressure, he is a man who if he is there in a very good position, he could be a guy who could reach that top step.
CN: Are you surprised that Armstrong is going to retire immediately after the Tour?
SK: No. He was talking before the Tour of Georgia about making an announcement and I thought to myself that it could well be to do with his retirement. I thought he might leave it until the end of the year, but the end of the Tour is really the end of the year for him, anyway. He hasn't done much after that in the past few years.
CN: Outside the Tour, who impresses you of the current riders?
SK: Boonen is the man who really went to another level this year. Winning the two big Classics, and the way in which he did it proved that he is the one who will be there for the next few years.
Of the up and coming Tour riders, I don't see anybody exceptional there, who is better this year than they were last year. You have Cunego, of course, but he didn't confirm in the Giro. I wasn't really surprised with that because he looked to be carrying two to three kilos too much. That definitely affected him.
CN: Turning to your own career, what do you think influenced you most?
SK: Well, if I look back to the time I turned professional with De Gribaldy, I think he was an individual who in some respects was ten years ahead of his time. In terms of nutrition, he had that worked out a long time before anybody else - both in regards to keeping your weight under control, and also in eating good quality food. Before, bike riders used to eat way too much, and also drink alcohol. You had guys who would be having three or four beers at night during the height of the season. That is something you can't do, though, because of dehydration. He was strict on that.
CN: You were known as being very disciplined as a rider…
SK: I was disciplined because I came through his system. He was an individual who was at 75 percent of the races and would always be there, at the table and otherwise, having a look at the riders and how they were acting. He was always there, hovering in the background. So I learned what to eat and how to eat and just carried on from there, I suppose. I guess if you are taken through that for a year or two years, then you kind of keep it up. You get used to it and continue in that role.
CN: What victories stand out for you?
SK: Well, I suppose my first Paris-Nice win was important. Until then I wasn't really winning big races. I was winning stages and just rated myself as a sprinter. I calculated my races and, tactics-wise, I was riding like a sprinter. But when I won Paris-Nice, I realised that I could win stage races and I went on from there. I won a Classic after that, and went on to win more and more.
In terms of stage races, I won Paris-Nice for many years after that first one, and also won events such as the Tour of Catalonia, the Tour of Switzerland and of course the Tour of Spain as well.
CN: Taking that Grand Tour must have been a huge moment -
SK: Yes, although I think I would have managed to pull it off the year before (1987) except for the fact I got a very bad saddle boil. I couldn't carry on, but the race had been pretty much decided by then. It was very close to the end.
Anyway, I came back the following year and won it, so it was very important for my career.
CN: That was a very big moment for Irish cycling. The year before, Stephen Roche had won the Giro and the Tour de France. The Tour of Spain was held at that time before both, so when you took the Vuelta in 1988 the Irish were actually champions in all three Grand Tours at the same time. It's pretty unique...
In Part II of this interview Kelly discusses his career, the status quo of pro cycling today today, his reaction to recent changes and compares this with his days in the pro peloton.