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An interview with Sean Kelly: April 11, 2007

Kelly talks Classics

What does it take to be a top Classics rider? And why is it that the pattern of racing has changed so much in the past two decades? Cycling legend Sean Kelly spoke to Shane Stokes about winning the top one-day events.

Sean Kelly in the 1989 Tour de France
Photo ©: AFP
(Click for larger image)

In addition to victories in the 1988 Vuelta a España and countless shorter stage races, Irishman Sean Kelly is regarded as one of the best Classic riders of all time. During his pro career he took nine monuments [two each of Milan Sanremo, Paris-Roubiax and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, as well as three Tours of Lombardy], one edition of Gent-Wevelgem and the 1984 Blois-Chaville, now run once again as Paris-Tours.

He retired in 1994 but has stayed involved with the sport, acting as a commentator for Eurosport and thus regularly attending the big races. Cyclingnews recently had a chance to sit down with the former world number one and speak to him about the Classics, asking how he prepared for them and how things have changed in the years since his retirement.

Kelly was the subject of many books, one of which was entitled a Man For All Seasons. That sums up his attributes and approach as a rider; rather than peaking for a specific time of the year, he would be in the thick of the action from the Tour of Valencia and Paris-Nice until the Tour of Lombardy, winning constantly from start to end. He feels that a lot has changed since his retirement due to increased specialisation in the peloton.

"I came from a small farm too and I always had to give a hand out there - that certainly makes you tougher than a city boy."

- Kelly admits his upbringing in rural Ireland helped shape him for the Classics.

"Things are very different now," he said, taking a break from a training ride on the island of Majorca. "Riders approach the season very different, mentally. It has changed in the past 10 or 15 years: the guys now are either Classics men or Tour men, that is the way it is. One exception was a guy like Jalabert, for example, and Zabel is perhaps the very last one doing that.

"That is the way cycling has gone. Twenty or 25 years ago, though, in Paris-Roubaix... Hinault, Fignon, they would all be trying to do a performance there or to win Paris-Nice. Or even win stages. Yet if you really look at the big guys of the Tour now, 95% of them don't really go for it [the Classics season]. Before, guys would go for every race. Hinault would go for the Classics...he would go for Milan-San Remo, not the cobbled Classics of course, but the Ardennes Classics - Fleche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Amstel Gold. He would aim to do well in those ones."

Northern Classics and the Tour

While English-speaking riders have won just three editions of the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix between them [Tom Simpson took Flanders in 1961 and Kelly won Paris-Roubaix in 1984 and 1986], the Tour de France has seen a far different pattern in the past two decades. Leaving aside Floyd Landis' 2006 ride for now, there have been 11 victories for English-speakers in the past 20 editions of the race.

The reason is partly due to culture, with the Northern Classics having a far greater standing in Belgium than in the US, for example. George Hincapie may have long coveted a win in Paris-Roubaix but many riders coming to Europe from across the Atlantic either base their season around trying to win the Tour, or supporting another who can. In contrast, landing success in Flanders or Roubaix guarantees sporting immortality for a Belgian rider, making this a big enough goal to target.

As Kelly states, in more recent times those targeting the spring Classics have based their seasons around that time of year rather than having the dual aim of winning the big one day races and the Tour. A kind of either-or situation, in other words.

The last time a rider did the Paris-Roubaix-Tour de France double was Bernard Hinault in 1981. Before that, Eddy Merckx took both races in 1971. Merckx was the last rider to win the Tour and triumph in Flanders in the same year, way back in 1969.

Kelly said that while Tour contenders would aim to ride well early on, certain types of races would suit certain types of riders. "The cobbled Classics and the Ardennes Classics require a different type of guy, of course. The Ardennes's ones are for the guys who can win Paris-Nice or a Tour de France - he can do very well in those. But most of the Tour riders are not really guys who will do well on the cobbled ones. Except for Fignon - he could ride well in Paris-Roubaix and he had some good performances. Hinault could do it as well. But in general, the big Tour riders are not suited to the cobbled Classics, due to the style of races they are.

Sean Kelly, still keeping in shape.
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
(Click for larger image)

"Flanders, Roubaix and Gent Wevelgem are the ones for the sprinters, the strong guys, the big roulers with a little bit of extra weight. The sort of guys who can't get up the big climbs but who can really power along on the cobbles. Then, for Liège, it is more a question of a rider who is an all-rounder. In other words, the guy who can do well in Paris-Nice, who can do well in Pays Basques and those sort of races."

Kelly, of course, was different. He won every type of Classic, only missing out on the Tour of Flanders. He had perhaps his best chance in 1986 but was over-confident in the sprint, finishing second to Adri Van Der Poel. But he was certainly up there and in contention for many seasons [he also finished as runner-up in 1984 and 1987]. The remarkable thing is that Kelly's strong Classics campaign would often come after overall victories in Paris-Nice; he won the French race each year between 1982 and 1988, then went on to be a force in the big one day races in March and April. That's something that tends not to happen nowadays.

So how was he good all year round? "Well, I was somebody who would get into shape pretty quickly. I didn't need a big amount of kilometres to get into condition," he answered. "But then I also came through the structure of [French directeur sportif Jean] De Gribaldy as well. I started out with him in my first two years, went to Splendour for two years, but then went back to him. I learned a lot from him. Not only relating to things during the racing season, but during the off-season as well.

"I remember that he would ring at least twice a month during the off-season, asking how things were going and seeing if was getting out at least two or three times a week, during the off period. He would also tell me to be careful with the food as well, not to eat too much. Saying to take it easy at the table and be careful with what you would eat, because those extra few kilos are hard to get off.

Kelly recently spent time in Majorca
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
(Click for larger image)

"I remember when we came back for the start of the season, we would start with Besseges in the South of France and then go to the Tour of the Mediterranean and all those races. He would be there all that time, looking over your shoulder at breakfast time and dinner time, watching you. I came up through that school with him and started really having results, winning Paris-Nice and the Tour of Lombardy."

De Gribaldy was killed in a car accident in January 1987, yet Kelly feels his influence remained very strong for a long time after that. "After he died, I always felt for many years afterwards that he was looking over my shoulder when I was at the table. So it was embedded into me. I think that is something that would help me at the beginning of the season, coming back without too much extra weight to lose. All that helps."

Training methods have changed a lot since then, but De Gribaldy was somewhat ahead of his time. This guaranteed that Kelly had the right approach. "Keeping in touch with the training was also important. At that time, guys would take three or four weeks off, doing almost nothing. It helped that I kept doing some training, that is why I was always in shape quite quickly."

Winning the Northern Classics

Very few native English speakers have won races like the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Kelly won the latter in 1984 and 1986, while Tom Simpson took the 1961 Ronde. A glance through the list of past winners shows a dominance of Belgians. There are many reasons for this, ranging from a cultural bias towards targeting those sort of races, strong experience of riding on cobbles, plus a certain tough mentality and a tolerance of bad weather. Kelly certainly had the latter two attributes, given his background.

"Irish weather certainly it makes you tough," he said. "If you are bred, born and reared in it, it makes you tough. I came from a small farm too and I always had to give a hand out there - that certainly makes you tougher than a city boy.

Aside from getting in kilometres on the bike
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
(Click for larger image)

"Thing is, people always say is that I loved the cold and the wet. I don't necessarily agree with that, but I always said that I could support it well; that was the reason I could perform much better than others. If you can perform well in it, then in your head you have an advantage. That is the reason I got through. It wasn't the case that I was praying that there would be rain and five degrees the day of the race, but I could handle it."

Looking to this season, Kelly said that he was impressed with the reports of Oscar Freire's Milan-San Remo. "I didn't see the race but I heard the way he won the sprint. He is an amazing guy, he can be out with an injury for a while and then he just comes back. He can prepare to come into shape for a certain period and is magnificent at doing that. We have seen him do that so many times over the past few years."

When asked who stands out as this generation's big Classic riders, Kelly singles out Tom Boonen. "There are several, I suppose, but Boonen is the most recent one. If you look at the past two years he has looked very, very strong and in control of the Classics with his style of riding. "

Boonen started the Tour of Flanders last Sunday aiming for a third consecutive win, but missed out. Kelly was speaking to Cyclingnews several days prior to that, but was at that point wondering if the 2005 world champion was slightly off form. "This year, Boonen was not as strong in Paris-Nice and Het Volk. He said that he was not taking Paris-Nice as seriously this year, he wants to be in really good shape for the Tour of Flanders and Roubaix. Last year his form was going down at Roubaix, he was perhaps going too well at Paris-Nice.

"But I don't know... in Paris-Nice, we saw that he was getting blown out on some of the climbs before the finish. Some of them were very similar to the Cipressa and so I was saying that I didn't know if he was in good enough shape. On the day to Mende, for example, he was blown out on the second-last climb of the day. At that moment I said that I didn't think he was in good enough shape for Milan-San Remo, certainly."

"I don't know if there is something wrong, or if it is all fine. He is saying that he has planned his training programme that way, that he changed things so not to be too good in Paris-Nice. The big objectives are Milan-Sanremo, Flanders and Roubaix. If he wins one of those, then his training programme has worked."

Boonen will now stake everything on winning Paris-Roubaix. He'll be disappointed with how his Classics campaign has gone so far, but taking the Hell of the North will be a big boost to morale. What's more, if he does so and also lands the elusive green jersey in the Tour de France, 2007 will be a triumph.

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