It was those legs; slabs of thickly-veined muscle, corded -- and no doubt knotted -- to the max by the hard yards of hundreds of thousands of miles.
And nobody was harder than John 'Sean' James Kelly, from his gaunt features -- think granite crags (with carbon tips) -- to his tank-taped cycling shoes.
Tougher than old boots, he pedalled bicycles like the bricklaying son-of-an-Irish-hardscrabble-farmer he is. (He runs the farm in Curraghduff to this day).
Expressionless, verging on mute (when it suited him), this wasn't some long-held distant dream. His pro cycling was prosaic, not poetic, an escape, not escapism, and the demands it entailed -- a monastic lifestyle and unremitting slog, both already so familiar and well attuned to -- were small prices to pay.
"Probably the background helped," he says, his accent in overdrive (modified for me -- and Eurosport viewers -- it's cranked up when his mobile thrums).
"Being reared on a farm, having to do farm work from the age of seven or eight, hardens you up. And you think about your upbringing when you're out there biking: 'Well, cycling is certainly better than farming because farming is never-ending'. You've got to hang in here, because that's what it's all about."
He did much more than hang in. No event is tougher than the cobble-hard, 160-mile Paris-Roubaix. Called the 'Hell of the North', its path to glory is pavé, a jarring judder of a surface that breaks spokes, frames and spirits. Its 1984 iteration was more hellish than most, a mudbath past Flanders fields.
Kelly dug in, then attacked with 47km to go, relentlessly and powerfully hauling in the two breakaway riders. He dropped one, who slithered off, and nailed the other with a devastating burst around Roubaix's iconic velodrome. The normally fastidious Kelly, hardly the most sentimental of men, didn't wash his bike for days.
Kelly started out as a fearless sprinter to be feared ... Actually, that's not quite true. In his Irish amateur days he could climb, race lonely against the clock, make breaks, hunt them down -- and sprint.
He would have been a contender for a medal in the road race at the 1976 Montreal Olympics had he not been caught riding under an assumed name in apartheid South Africa and banned for life by the IOC.
"I regret it a bit now," says Kelly without sounding wistful. "But there is another side to it. Had I gone to Montreal and finished in the top 10 I might have stayed an amateur for another four years and missed my chance to become a professional."
And therein lies another strange tale. Jean de Gribaldy was a quirky yet tenacious man. He'd ridden himself, and now was running a team out of Besançon, capital of the Franche- Comté region in eastern France. His squad was not the biggest, best or richest, but it was respected and successful, thanks to his harsh but innovative regime and his ability to spot talent.
Impressed by Kelly's Olympic antidote season with an amateur cycling club in Metz, he resolved to sign him for 1977. He thus flew his private plane to Dublin, haggled a price for a 200-mile round trip in a taxi, knocked on doors in Carrick, eventually intercepted the tractor-driving Kelly, then made him an offer. Kelly, who was no patsy, averred, slapped another 50pc on the fee, then signed.
The next five seasons saw his rapid rise, which included a stage win on his first Tour de France in 1978, and a steady stream of success thereafter. Kelly was a player. A force. Yet still an air of underachievement pervaded.
Originally he had joined De Gribaldy's French wing, the B-team, of the Belgium-based Flandria outfit. He finished 10th in his first pro race, scored his first win just 12 days later, and was soon drafted by the A-team to help its big-name Belgians. "It was a big jump. There was some shyness there, and it was a little bit difficult," admits Kelly.
"But I was hungry to succeed. When I started out, I knew nothing about the pro scene. It was De Gribaldy who taught me how to live the life of a pro cyclist. He had a huge influence on me."
In 1979, however, money talked and Kelly left to join the Splendor squad, another Belgian outfit. It was a mistake. The team was weak and badly led. Kelly, no shirker, loyal and uncomplaining, stuck it out for three seasons, by which time his position within a reinforced line-up had become unclear.
Kelly had gained a reputation for being a sprinter; he could win you stages, but not tours. He appeared comfortable with this. Having left school at 13, his stony facade shielded a surprisingly brittle confidence.
'World-class sprinter' was a mask, an impressive one, admittedly, that he was happy to wear. De Gribaldy, however, had no such doubts. Convinced Kelly could be a team leader, they rejoined forces in 1982. Still the team wasn't great, even Kelly could see he was its No 1, but in that way his canny boss was forcing the Irishman out of his shell.
Boy, it worked. Fifteen wins came Kelly's way in 1982. These included the first of his seven consecutive victories on the week-long Paris-Nice, mountains and all, and the first of his (then record) four Tour de France sprinter's jerseys.
He wore the Green Jersey again in 1983, a year that brought him 16 wins, including an outright success on the Tour of Switzerland, hardly sprinter territory.
It was, however, his win (by inches) on the Tour of Lombardy, the last one-day Classic of the year, and Kelly's first Classic victory, that opened the floodgates. In 1984 he went to war and laid waste, scoring an incredible 33 wins.
It was a surge that coincided with the launch of the world rankings. Kelly was the clear No 1, and although he would never be so far ahead again, he held this position for the next four seasons.
By the time of his retirement in 1994, Kelly had almost 200 victories. In his pomp during the second half of the 1980s, he had become the complete cyclist. He'd won tours outright -- Spain once, Catalonia and Switzerland twice, Ireland four times -- but it was his successes in the Classics that marked him out as special.
His nine victories in these one-day man-killers put him joint third (with Italian legend Fausto Coppi) in the all-time list. Only three Belgians have won all five 'Monument' Classics, and only the Tour of Flanders remained out of Kelly's reach; he finished second three times.
Kelly was the stranger who came to steal the local heroes' thunder. As such, he wasn't always cheered to the echo, but his unstinting efforts earned him everybody's respect.
No Astana superteam for he, or a 'Cav train' to lead him out over the last 20km. No, riding the Kelly way was rarely domestique bliss. And that's one reason why he never won the Tour de France. To modern eyes, fourth, fifth, seventh and ninth overall, five stage wins -- and a maddening number of second places in stages -- doesn't quite cut the Tour mustard and puts a sizeable dent in Kelly's shiny CV.
He did pull on the yellow jersey, just never got to keep it. To do so you have to be able to tap it out in the mountains, where the lighter, smaller men shine. Kelly morphed into an excellent climber, but there was always someone -- Bernard Hinault, Laurent Fignon, Greg LeMond -- who held an edge.
"At the beginning, here in Ireland, I was good at climbing hills," says Kelly. "Hills, not mountains. The Alps, the Pyrenees, that's different. Body weight is so important and I was carrying a couple of kilos too many in my first few years. I got rid of it, slowly. I worked on it in the races. We raced a lot more back then. It gave spectators more chance to see their heroes. The top guys today race less. The sport's losing a bit."
So Kelly's giving a bit back. He's established an academy for young Irish cyclists in Belgium, and in 2006 created the first Irish pro-cycling team. Kelly is king in Carrick, but cycling in Ireland remains niche.
There was a Borg Effect in the aftermath of Kelly and Roche, but the Irish Cycling Federation missed the break. But this means if somebody does come through, they will be tougher than old boots. Not tougher than Kelly, though.