Bernard Hinault, Sean Kelly and Phil Anderson during the Tour de France. They were lean but still looked 'normal'.
In the middle of February this year I sat down after watching a stage of the Tour of Valencia and made note of how many riders had already crashed and broken bones this season. This was the list that I compiled just off the top of my head , there are many others:
At that time also, I watched in amazement as Nairo Qunitana won a stage in the Tour of Provence where he did a similar time up Mont Ventoux to what Pantani had done during his heyday in July at the Tour de France. Even taking the cooler conditions and shorter days racing into account, this was still an incredible performance.
Then as I watched Adam Yates put in a blistering ride on stage 3 of the UAE Tour, once again I began to look at the way riders prepare for the season now compared to the past, especially the years during my career, and on how unbalanced they have become. Some of the riders have mentioned about the levels of racing right from the beginning of the season now and how it is full on even during the very first races.
Initially let’s look at the injuries from crashes. A good place to start is Mark Cavendish from about 10 years ago. One year in the Giro he was crashing frequently, through no fault of this own, but due to the hectic finishes of each stage. Sometimes at speeds in excess of 60kph, but there he was back on his bike the following day contesting the sprints again. How was his body able to withstand the impact without breaking bones?
Next let us look at how riders of my era began the season. Most were carrying a few extra kilos, or in Greg LeMonds case many extra kilos sometimes. Even Hinault, Fignon and many other top names would all rock on to early season races with a hint of a belly on them. Then we all raced ourselves into fitness. But our bodies had been given a chance to rebuild and recover during the off season so we were strong, not just in power figures, but physically strong. Cavendish too, had this sort of strength to be able to withstand the crashes without breaking any bones.
When the season finished back then we hung up our racing bikes, or sold them off, and then built up our physical strength by Mountain Biking, running, indoor circuit training in a sports hall with Tony Ryan (this consisted of a 30 minute warm up run outdoors, then 1 hour of push ups, squats, planks, lunges, etc), cross country skiing, and some of us even went back to work on farms. This made our bodies strong and kept our minds fresh. When the time came after a break of perhaps 6 weeks to get back out on the road we enjoyed it and also kept on mixing in other forms of physical exercise until we left for the early season races at the end of January.
Given that I won Paris Nice 7 times this system seemed to work pretty well. Nowadays however, many professional riders never get off the road bike all year round. They may do a bit of stretching in the evening but many just ride their bikes all the time. This leads to a lowering of bone density and this is what causes so many broken bones. The teams nowadays are just worried about results and there is little concern for the long term health of the riders.
For Quintana and Yates to be able to perform as they did in February of this year, they had to have been training really hard on the bike throughout the winter. Too hard. They were close to Tour de France level fitness at that time of year, and in the long term that is not sustainable.
Weight is another issue that has become too much of a focus. In the search for marginal gains riders are now worried about every extra gram. They eat like sparrows and many are always hungry, for food that is. Again a bit more balance is needed. By having such restrictive diets they are missing out on many natural minerals and vitamins etc. They may be super bike fit, but they are not a healthy fit.
So, given the time that we are currently in, my advise to all cyclists, professional and amateur alike, would be to expand your general fitness. My recommendation would be to do some running once or twice per week, any more and you might pick up an injury. Lift some weights if you have them or else do exercises like push ups and squats using your own body weight. Go chop some wood or find some other form of outdoor work that requires physical effort. Eat a varied diet. Don’t worry if there is a bit of fat on your plate and don’t get carried away with any of these fancy fad diets. Drink a few beers or a glass of wine and relax. And my advice, especially for us Sportive riders who are carrying an extra 10kg is to relax about the beer belly. A small one is a sign of health. For the pros, this is going to be difficult to do because everybody wants to be in peak condition for racing and to be able to perform at the levels that teams demand. However, in my mind this is something that needs to be seriously looked at.
Standing at the edge of the West Gate in Clonmel as an entire Country came to a halt as Sean Kelly strove for a second consecutive victory in the second ever Nissan Classic emotions were running high. Beside me was a local farmer, on the other side was a girl in a Dunnes Stores uniform. All shops and business' in the town closed for two hours in order to let their employees witness the unfolding of events.
Late September 1985. The Master (school principal) stands in front of a room full of fourth, fifth and sixth class pupils and informs them that a big cycle race is passing nearby and that if they were interested they could all walk down to Keatings cross to watch it pass. A chorus of yesses went up and the decision was unanimous, although it probably had more to do with getting out of the classroom than any huge desire to watch a cycle race go by.
The sun was shining for the mile long walk and shortly after the group of 10,11 and 12 year olds arrive down to the crossroads which is on the main Clonmel to Ardfinnan road a Garda motorbike passes by at speed which was spectacular in its own right to the group of young school kids. Next over the brow of the hill comes a big flashy white hatchback Nissan Bluebird with lights and speakers on its roof. The car slows when it sees the gathering and stops to inform them via the speakers that the Nissan International Classic had just left the town of Clonmel on its way to Cork city via the Vee and that a local man had won that mornings time trial from Carrick to Clonmel in a record time and was now wearing a yellow jersey.
The name Sean Kelly was known to all in a rural school where sport was of huge importance but the understanding was just that he was a good cyclist who won a lot of races over in France. That was all well and good but he never played in an All Ireland for Tipp, so his status was as of yet unconfirmed. On the walk to watch the race we passed the homestead of the famous Babs Keating, a man who had a heap of All Irelands and who was in the running for managing the Tipp hurlers. That was what you’d call a famous sportsman at that crossroads an hour before the race would pass by.
The steady stream of colourful cars, one of which had three blond girls in it, and the funny sounding horns as they sped by gave rise to an atmosphere of anticipation. Then came the thump thump of a Helicopter and we were all waving mad up at the unusual sight in the rural sky. Then came more Garda motorbikes and a clutch of different coloured saloon and hatchback Bluebirds when suddenly appeared a dazzling barrage of colour. Jerseys in all the colours of the rainbow were occupied by lean hungry looking men who were aboard the shiniest looking pieces of metal which had spokes reflecting sunlight with a brightness that would rival any Hella spotlamp drilled onto the front bumper of the flashiest Ford Capri.
Then the cry went up. Someone had spotted him. ‘There’s Kelly in the yellow’. We all strained to catch a glimpse of the local lad who seemed to be the centre of all this activity. A split second glimpse was all it took for a life to change. The man in yellow really stood out from the pack. He resembled a King surrounded by his servants. In seconds they were gone and I felt a hunger in the pit of my stomach for more of this intense atmosphere that had the hairs on the back of my neck standing tall and cutting through my shirt.
Within minutes of their arrival we were all on the way back to Grange school once more. The talk was all about the cycle race and all about Kelly. Everyone was convinced that they saw him, even the student who was counting the number of cows in the field across the road at the time. Those who did actually see him all had a faraway look in their eyes. A small group of hurlers and footballers now wanted to get out on their bikes as soon as possible after school and see what it would be like to dream that they were Sean Kelly.
Four years later along that same stretch of road with one full underage racing season behind me I was out for the first time with the Carrick group. They were headed for the Vee and having joined in just outside Clonmel I was hoping to last as far as Ardfinnan. Going up Knocklofty hill and along the line I saw Kelly, in the flesh, just up ahead. His calves were like two pieces of granite shaped like rugby balls and he exuded power on the bike. The riders ahead went through and less than a mile from where I had first seen him, and heading in the same direction I was now cycling alongside Sean Kelly.
I did not know what to expect. I was starstruck and did not know what to say. A timid ‘howaya’ made its way through my mouth and he turned and looked me up and down in a glancing motion that took less than half a second. I didn’t know what was going to happen. In an instant I pictured being told to get lost, or to be asked to go to Belgium to become a pro. Neither happened. Instead he just asked ‘ Are you doing a bit of racing’, I said I was and he spent the next few minutes asking me how I was getting on and how I was enjoying it. There was no supernatural insight or no golden nugget of wisdom. Neither was there any condescending smile or smart remark. All there was, was the greatest cyclist of his generation out on his bike acting like an ordinary bloke. Except he wasn’t acting. Then and now Kelly does not see himself as above anyone else. He is a great example of someone who sees themselves as ‘just as good as everyone, but no better than anyone’.
Over the years I have come to know Sean pretty well, both on and off the bike. I have seen middle aged men turn into giddy teenagers as they meet their childhood hero and discover how willing he is to sign an autograph, pose for a 'selfie' or just have a chat. I have seen the joy that these encounters can bring and the astonishment people display upon discovering just how approachable this global cycling superstar is.
One evening I was out in the shed on the turbo trainer watching a DVD. It’s title was The Sean Kelly story. It is as if there are two Sean Kellys. The one who is in the top five of the Greatest cyclists of all time and the local man from Carrick who is out with the group every weekend when he is home and is just one of the lads.
They say that you should never meet your hero as it usually ends in disappointment. I disagree. I’ve met mine and my life has been all the better for it. In a hundred years time ebooks will look back and tell a tale of people in Ireland and throughout the World who were greedy and power hungry. People who had no respect for themselves or anyone else. But there will also be examples of people who inspired generations. People who treated others with respect and civility. People who gave hope and who made ordinary people want to be the best that they could become. Sean Kelly will have a whole inspirational chapter in one of those books!