Sean Kelly and me

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I’ve “known” Sean Kelly for decades, not that he would know me by name. I’ve actually raced against Sean a few times, back in the day.

The first time I had the pleasure of meeting Sean was back in 1986. I was living in Switzerland, doing cyclo-x. I got picked up one mid-week morning, to my surprise, and was driven to Brouilly, France for a cross race. I had no idea that I was going to be racing that day because my sponsor, Roland DeCoster, and I had a language barrier. Anyway, upon arriving, I was told that a bunch of the the European road professionals were on the start list. Sean Kelly was the name I saw first. He’d won a ton of races that year, including Paris-Roubaix and Milan-San Remo, I think. Anyway, he and Jean-Francois Bernard, Tour of Mediterranean winner, were the headliners from the road side.

I had driven there with Pascal Richard (1988 World Cross Champion and 1996 Olympic Road Champion). I remember the first glimpse I got of Sean. It was at the pre-race meal. Those were the times when the races would serve the “special” riders a big mid day lunch as part of the participation rewards. I couldn’t believe these guys could eat a big steak less than 3 hours before a cyclocross race.

The course was at a winery and there was a ton of vertical terrain. Very technical. Anyway, I watched the road guys pre-ride the course I realized very quickly that they were going to get smeared. They could hardly ride their bikes down the steep, loose descents. Anyway, the race started on the pavement and Sean Kelly took off like a crazy man. I was in 2nd, barely able to hold his wheel. The first barrier was going to be tricky, coming off the road super fast. I had never seen Sean dismount, so I moved over to the right to give him plenty of room to dismount and get over the barrier. But, to my surprise. Right when I started stepping off my bike to the left, Sean jumped off to the right. He threw his body right in front of me and I fell. I’m pretty sure he didn’t fall, because I remember watching him run with his chainrings digging into his back. I guess he’s left handed. I eventually caught up and beat him and all the other road riders that day.

I didn’t run into him again for two or three years, when I was riding professionally for Wheaties/Schwinn and was doing a big race up in Toronto. The promoter had brought over a lot of superstars from Europe, including Sean. My team mate, Alan McCormick, from Ireland, and I were in front of the hotel when the bus pulled up from the airport with the Euro guys. Sean comes out and Alan goes over to say hi. Alan introduced him to me and then they talked for a few minutes. Alan was speaking his normal Irish/English and I couldn’t tell you what Sean was speaking. I couldn’t understand a word he said. It was such a weird conversation to witness, Alan talking normal English and Sean answering back in what I thought was Gaelic or Celtic. After Sean left, I asked Alan if he spoke Gaelic and he told me that Sean was speaking English. I couldn’t believe that, I understand nothing he said.

Sean never came over to the Coor’s Classic, Tour of the Americas, The Dupont Race or any other big Pro races in the United States, so I don’t think I raced him again. I’m pretty sure I never raced him on the road in Europe, but don’t hold me to that.

Anyway, I sort of forgot about Sean until he started commentating for the BBC, I think, at the Tour. Again, I could hardly understand him, at least the first couple years he did that. Now he is doing the color commentating for Euro Sport. He has gotten much better and I truly enjoy listening to him, though he’s a little monotone for my liking.

I’d always been a little hesitant of liking the guy too much because of what he had said early on about drugs in the sort. When all the Festina and other scandals starting constantly happening, Sean would always just say that there have always been drugs in the sport and he didn’t see it any worse or better than it had been historically. I thought he was being naive if he truly believed that. I didn’t think he was intelligent enough to realize how good all these oxygen enhancing drugs were.

Anyway, I was surprised to see that Sean called Bradley Wiggins “mentally fragile” in an interview with L’Equipe. I was even more surprised when he used the example of Bradley’s crazy rant as an example of not keeping his cool under pressure.

Sean said, “A journalist dared to compare the strategies of team Sky with those of US Postal. [His reaction] proves what I said: he loses control of his nerves quite quickly.”

“The analogy is obvious. Team Sky at this Tour undoubtedly races like US Postal. Then, it depends on how you interpret the comparison, but that’s part of the game, and Wiggins will have to get used to it. As soon as a rider dominated, he becomes the subject of all suspicions and that’s unfortunately part of cycling today.”

I thought it was pretty astute comparing an off the bike melt down to an on the bike melt down. And maybe accurate. (I wonder what nice, choice words Bradley is using, right about now, towards Sean?)

I was pleasantly surprised to have underestimated Sean’s intellectual capacity all these years. To win all those classics he has won, he must be pretty shrewd. He’s going to be just that much more enjoyable to listen to the rest of the month.

Sean Kelly, a true hard man for the classics.

15 thoughts on “Sean Kelly and me

  1. tilford97 Post author

    I’m not sure what that means? I never called Sean Kelly a friend, but wouldn’t mind getting to know him better.

  2. dth

    I don’t know how you write your blog without the help of all these concern trolls stopping by to tell you to tell you what not to write about, or in this case, how to conduct your relationships with world class ex-pros like Sean Kelly. Really?! I’m glad the majority of commentators here are more intelligent and respectful than that.

  3. Jody Prummer

    I think a lot of the old pro’s underestimated the significant of the newer PED’s that were being used at the end of their careers. I had the same impression of Laurent Fignon after reading his book. Of course I really have no idea.

  4. Wildcat

    To: double d

    I think most friendships are conditional. The friendships I have with my buddies are on the condition that we are nice to each other and have each others backs and they are not dicks and they don’t try and bone my wife or steal my shit and etc.

  5. Rad Renner

    King Kelly, the gentleman sprinter. How many magazine covers do you suppose he was on during his career? Must’ve been hundreds. That’s something I miss from “back in the day”. Anyway, I’ve very much enjoyed Sean’s commentary and his “brogue” during this Tour de France. And what a great story about that CX race in France, Steve, such an honor it must have been to “run into” Sean Kelly.

  6. JH Higgins

    One of the all time great cycling photos was the expression on Greg Lemond’s face after he clipped Sean Kelly at the finish line to win the 1990 World Championships. I think the photo was in Winning magazine.

  7. Rich

    Years ago, Outdoor Life showed an hour recap of Liege-Bastogne-Liege on a Tuesday night. As I would be out of town, I recorded the coverage. When I got home, my wife said: “after you watch this, tell me what language they were speaking”. After watching it, I said “English”. It was Sean Kelly and someone else (David Duffield, maybe), but you had to pay close attention. Sean Kelly’s ability to speak “normal” English has certainly improved over the years.

  8. cl

    It’s funny that he wound up being a commentator. When he was racing he was known for not talking much to the press. He once nodded his head “yes” to answer a question in an interview. A radio interview.

  9. Mike Rodose

    Nobody here is qualified to give Steve any crap for anything. Especially commentary about his friendship or whatever with Sean Kelly.

    Only one person commenting has competed against and beaten Sean Kelly. That would be Steve Tilford…and he’s the reason we’re here paying attention.

    Double D…you are a maggot. Your D stands for Douchebaggery.

  10. Skippy

    jhh Thanks for link to photo of sean with Lemond ! Had a poster of Sean and Stephan in the Alps that both autographed years ago , one hangs in the Normandy museum . Checkout and the other stories attached .
    Sean has always been approachable but rarely will he get into long conversation , inate shyness perhaps .
    Diverted him at Mendrisio Worlds , to a Wine stop in the paddock , but there were few words .
    Willingly poses with fans when approached , need to concentrate when he speaks as he has a soft accent .
    A man of the people , who like Charlie Gaul , you could walk past with friends without their realising who you greeted .

  11. JH Higgins

    Very cool stuff, Skippy. I love all the old glory photos of my heroes from cycling in the 70’s and 80’s – I guess that’s why I come here everyday. I don’t know Steve personally but I do know Ned Overend and went on weekly training sessions with him back when he was an old 32 years old!

    When I became interested in cycling back in the 80’s, I remember Ned was considered ‘old’ at 30, and so in order to qualify for the American Worlds Team in ’86 the only way he qualified was because he got a top 5 placing at the Munsingwear classic stage race in Crested Butte, CO. Laurent Fignon and other European roadies lined up in preparation for the World’s that year. Ned ended up placing 2nd or 3rd, I can’t remember, and the rest was history. He was added to the World Amateur team at the last moment and was able to compete and reach his goal.


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