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Kelly's heroes... Sean is still very much in the saddle


Sean Kelly, who was world number 1 for six years. Photo: Sportsfile

Sean Kelly, who was world number 1 for six years. Photo: Sportsfile


Sean Kelly, who was world number 1 for six years. Photo: Sportsfile

When Sean Kelly retired at the end of the 1994 season, with victories in almost every major race on the professional cycling calendar under his belt, few would have batted an eyelid had he hung up his wheels and rested on his laurels for the rest of his life.

But taking it easy was never going to be an option for the farmer's son from Carrick-On-Suir, who was capable of winning Grand Tours such as the Vuelta a Espana as well as the sport's biggest one-day classics: Paris-Roubaix; Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Lombardy.

In between his current job as cycling commentator with Eurosport, running the Belgian-Irish An Post Chain Reaction team and keeping an eye on the farm in his hometown, Kelly still manages to get out on the bike most weeks and looks at least a decade younger than his 58 years.

"I think it's very important to keep active, especially after a career in professional sport," he says. "Professional cycling is based on long-endurance stuff, so you have to keep doing something when you give it up. There's no guarantee it will keep you healthy, of course, but you've a better chance if you stay active and don't put on weight."

"I go to Mallorca with Sportactive for the month of April and because the weather is good every day, I do five days a week there, cycling with clients, and I take the weekends off.

"Depending on what race I'm working at, I can get out on the bike a few times during the week, but commentating on the Tour de France means there's no time for biking because you're in the commentary box for maybe five hours every day and then you have to move on to the next town after that, so I don't even bring a bike with me. During the Tour, I try to do a bit of jogging instead."

"I like playing tennis too, but of course, cycling is a bit easier on the body than tennis or running when you get over the 50 mark, which is why you see so many people out on the bike nowadays from soccer, GAA, running, rugby, all sort of other sports backgrounds. The bike seems to be the big thing now."

A household name in Ireland in the mid 80s, along with Dubliner Stephen Roche, Kelly dominated the world of professional cycling for the best part of a decade and still finds himself in constant demand when it comes to leisure cycles or 'sportives'.

The four-time green jersey winner at the Tour de France insists, however, that those who haven't ridden a sportive yet shouldn't be put off by the fact that former pros like Kelly or Roche are down to take part.

"Sportives are not races," says Kelly. "I try and ride along and talk to as many people as possible during the day. That's the idea of us coming along and it's funny, but I still meet people who ride beside me and suddenly they get a bit shaky because they've followed my career through the years and I'm sure it's the same for Roche. But they can ride beside you for a few miles and have a good old chat with no pressure.

"That's the one thing cycling has over other sports: you can get so close to the riders of the past and even the pros of the present if you go to a professional race. You can talk to riders, get autographs, have a photo taken with your favourite rider, unlike premiership football or most other sports."

"You can also ride the routes of the big races, wherever you want to go around Europe and if you're lucky, maybe get to ride alongside a pro on a training spin. There's not a lot of people who can play at Wembley, or tee off at Augusta or wherever."

While you have to be relatively fit to take part in a sportive such as the annual Cork to Galway Charity Cycle, which Sean will lead in aid of Breakthrough Cancer Research on June 19, training doesn't have to be as intense as some people may think, according to the former world number one. "You have to get out on the bike, that's the most important thing," he says. "A lot of people only ride the bike in the summer and put it away in the winter time, so it's important that when you start back that you build back up again slowly. You maybe start off doing 20 miles or 25 miles, depending on your fitness base and build it up slowly."

"People think that to do something like the Ring of Kerry or the Tour of Waterford that you have to ride up and down hills all the time. They think every time they go out it has to be up and down the side of a mountain, which is not true at all."

"To ride any sportive, you just need to be able to do the distance, figure out how long it will take you and get used to doing that a few times in the weeks leading up to it. It's not a race. It's not the Tour de France. There are food and drink stops along the way and with a bit of training leading up to it, a sportive can be a very sociable and enjoyable experience."

As well as training, Kelly has another important bit of advice. "In my early racing days, helmets weren't compulsory for professionals. I trained and raced in just a cotton cap for a lot of the time, but now I wouldn't go out the door without a helmet. I actually think helmets should be made compulsory for everyone if you're riding a bike, so always wear a helmet."

* After Kelly won 18 of the 25 races he started in France as an amateur as well as the amateur Giro di Lombardia in Italy, French team manager Jean de Gribaldy flew to Ireland unannounced to offer Kelly a professional contract.

* After taking a taxi to Carrick-on-Suir, de Gribaldy met Kelly driving a tractor and offered him a spot on the Flandria team.

* Kelly was world number one for six years from 1984 to 1990, racking up 193 professional victories with 33 wins in 1984 alone.

* A fearless descender, Kelly clocked a top speed of 124 km/h while descending the Col du Joux Plane into Morzine during stage 19 of the Tour de France in 1984.

* Kelly's daughter Stacey works as a soigneur with the An Post Chain Reaction team as well as the Irish national team.

* Kelly won 193 professional races in total and still holds the record for seven victories in French stage race Paris-Nice.

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