Sean Kelly-Low Budget Superstar

Sean Kelly on the 1984 Liege-Bastogne-Liege podium
Sean Kelly | Liège-Bastogne-Liège podium | 04.15.1984
Seth Goltzer photo

Because nothing says I’m a penny pinching hardman like winning La Doyenne with shoes held snug with a liberal application of duct tape. I bet if Kelly had his way, he would have figured out some means to nail Look cleats on to the bottom of those shoes for the latter years of his career, that is if the they hadn’t just out-and-out vaporized into leather dust from Kelly’s wear and tear. I’m sure he shed a tear (just one solitary tear…deep in the heart of Flanders while riding alone in the rain so nobody could tell Kelly had a soft side) when they finally gave up the ghost.

And my god…those legs are unreal. Hewn from tens of thousands of miles of primeval suffering, still sporting a healthy layer of Belgian road grime. Kelly could have torched everyone at Liege wearing flip-flops and riding a Huffy.

The Serpico of Cycling

“Nothing to see here…move along, please…it’s just Paul Kimmage”
Graham Watson photo

I don’t know if Paul Kimmage is laughing or crying these days. But he just took a huge, steaming dump on Sean Kelly’s legacy.

A couple of months ago I re-read Kimmage’s book Rough Ride, and it struck me as being even more depressingly bleak than I remember from my initial ingestion some 15 years ago. Talk about living the 12k dreamer’s life…Kimmage probably made about that much in salary each year, yet he was expected to ride a full calendar of Grand Tours and Classics. Kimmage only fessed up to taking amphetamines on 3 occasions in post-Tour criteriums, and I’m inclined to believe that was the extent of his doping. What he did expose to the world, however, was the spectre of drugs among his teammates and peers. The proliferation of personal “medicine” suitcases; the compact, modified syringes which came out mid-stage for a quick amphetamine shot in the ass on the peloton’s way to the Champs-Élysées; the “wink wink” about the ease of beating doping controls. Kimmage was simply trying to survive, and for most pros that was the impetus to juice. Random testing was virtually non-existent…you could dope up to your eyeballs in service of your team leader and then just make sure you didn’t win the stage or a jersey. Or die.

Kimmage walked away from the sport and his 4 year career as a professional cyclist when he quit the 12th stage of the 1989 Tour. As a pro is highlights were relatively few: Kimmage finished 2 Grand Tours (1986 Tour, 1989 Giro) and played a role in Stephen Roche’s 1987 world championship. As an amateur, Kimmage was an Olympian at the ‘84 Los Angeles Games and finished 6th in the road worlds. Since Kimmage hung up his wheels in disgust he embarked on a career as a journalist, an occupation he dabbled in as a pro (Kimmage supplied a weekly diary to the Dublin Sunday Times). These days he’s employed at the London Times, and if you plug “Kimmage” into the search box you’ll unearth Kimmage’s body of work over the past 5 years. There are approximately 65 interviews, all worth reading. It’s an enlightening view into a world of sports for the most part totally foreign to Americans. The bulk of his subjects are either either Brits or foreigners taking place in the world of British professional sports. Sports such as soccer, rugby, cricket, Formula 1 racing, snooker…Articles about cycling do appear, but always through the lens of doping. You can almost sense Kimmage’s gritted teeth permeating his cycling prose. To say he was a persona non grata among pro cyclists for publishing Rough Ride is quite an understatement, but who better to hurl a brick into cycling’s glass house than an angry Irishman wracked with Catholic guilt. And Ireland is ground zero for Catholic guilt…I lived in Ireland for approximately 6 months as a foreign exchange student, and there was a creepy placard on the dining room wall of my house which said, “Jesus Christ is the unseen guest at every meal, the silent listener of every conversation”. Kimmage cracked…and his very public confession was his means of coming to terms with the farce of professional cycling.

Amstel Gold Flashback

Image courtesy of Photo © Fotoreporter Sirotti.

Did you ever wonder what kind of idle chit-chat takes place among former world champion pro cyclists while they’re waiting for a Classic to start? Click on the photo to find out what my ears on the ground overheard between Igor Astarloa (Milram) and Oscar Freire (Rabobank) just prior to the kickoff of the 2007 Amstel Gold.

The Poodle

I’m almost through J.P. Partland’s excellent book Tour Fever (full review to come soon…really), and a brief passage relatively early on stuck with me. Regarding the relatively unassuming physique of pro cyclists, Partland writes:

They’re not crazy tall like basketball players, big like football or baseball players, beefy like skiers, or as skeletal as marathon runners. At first glance, they may not even arouse notice. Standing around in street clothes, they might look like underfed graduate students or people who have just returned from a grueling trip…Even standing around in bike clothes, they might not arouse too much attention.

And if it weren’t for those shaved legs and tan-lines, we really would blend in to the general populace without notice. For me, it’s been relatively rare that my limbs and lines caused a sensation. Besides having my legs ogled by male go-go dancers on Key West’s Duval Street and having seemingly everyone in the monstrously spacious outdoor hot spring in Glenwood Springs, CO drop their jaws in horror when my shirt came off, I’ve had relatively few instances of my cycling tribal markings being exposed to the public. I’m not a beach person. When I must be a beach person the shirt stays on. I’m a firm believer that Speedos should only be worn by someone swimming for an Olympic medal. I’m not Italian therefore genetically programmed to eradicate tan lines by any means necessary. And all in all, I really don’t care. I ride outside, I get tan lines, I have shaved legs, end of story.

But some of us aren’t so cavalier and thick-skinned. Particularly when you’re negotiating your way through high school. On Long Island. In Joey Buttafuoco land. Hence, my tale of a particular NYC area Junior cyclist who I only know as “The Poodle”. Let me preface this by saying I never witnessed in person what I’m about to describe. I may have unknowingly raced against him in my NY Junior days, but it was only years after while drinking beers with some NYC racing veterans that this story come to my attention. This wise young man wanted the best of both worlds…to race on the weekends with shaved legs so as not to arouse fredly snickers and to simultaneously hit the clubs with the ladies and subtly reinforce his manly prowess with nonchalantly exposed hints of leg hair. See, The Poodle shaved his legs except for a pristine, un-shorn thicket of full-on man hair extending approximately 3-4 inches above each ankle. This way he could render his Poodle trim invisible while wearing the usual socks one dons while cycling and only expose shaved leg flesh to the cycling crowd. And he could also wear his Miami-Vice-esque duds to clubs…slender loafers…no socks…and he could casually sit down with one ankle crossed on top of his other knee and expose his “hairy” legs to the ladies. Just don’t let those Don Johnson trousers hike up too high.

It was never explained to me how he survived gym class showers with his secret intact…or how he ever went to the beach. Perhaps that’s how the legend of The Poodle germinated and spread like wild fire.

So the lesson here is…be proud of your tan lines, be proud of your fully shaved legs, and leave creative shaving to the Best in Show set. There’s just no way you can explain poodle tufts like you can a regularly shorn leg. But then again, it’s stories like these that make cycling lore so preposterously rich.

Smells Like Teen Spirit

When I was 19 years old, my biggest concern cycling-wise was staying upright and simply finishing East Coast Cat 3 races. I was a pavement magnet in crits, and road races over 50 miles were dicey affairs for my fledgling diesel endurance capacities. 1987 was largely spent generating scar tissue and getting shelled…what a great introduction to Senior racing.

I’ve only made a cursory perusal of cycling lore and legend, and as best I can tell the youngest Grand Tour finisher is Frenchman Henri Cornet who finished the 1904 Tour de France just shy of 20 years old (19 years, 354 days to be exact). Of course, Cornet did more than simply finish the Tour in 1904, he won it. Thanks to some nefarious and dastardly deeds out on the open roads of France, the first four finishers of the 1904 Tour were DQed, and fifth place Cornet was elevated to the top spot on the podium.

Fast forward 103 years…and witness the exploits of another teen wunderkind, Russian Ivan Rovny (Tinkoff Credit Systems), who’s just getting his feet wet in this year’s Giro d’Italia. If (and that’s one mighty generous if) Rovny perseveres and arrives in Milan on June 3rd, he’ll be about 4 months shy of his 20th birthday and will likely lay claim to being the youngest Grand Tour finisher. I’d say the odds are 50-50 that he’ll make it, and I’m only being that magnanimous because he’s Russian and likely tough as nails. Besides the likelihood of some old school Eastern Bloc genetic manipulation shennanigans under the hood, he’s probably been doing 600 mile weeks since he was 13. And take a look at this photo taken one day prior to the Giro’s first stage. Teenager my ass…Rovny looks rough. If I had to wager on who was the DS and who was riding the Giro just based on this photo, I’d have Konyshev kitted up and Rovny driving the team car, no question. Kids, just be glad that supplying your family with meager supplies of cabbage, beets, vodka, and a marginally functional Lada wasn’t dependent on riding your bike 30,000 miles a year and winning world titles while you’re still in high school.