On a different day, in a different location, the sight of Milan-Sanremo winner Alexander Kristoff striding through a hotel lobby might command our full attention.
The Norwegian is clad in the already striking red kit of Katusha, which this season will offer further assistance to those watching internet feeds by the addition of fluroescent yellow accents. Vincenzo Nibali is in residence too, and Joaquim Rodriguez. While between them, the trio can muster a Vuelta victory and triumphs at La Primavera and Il Lombardia, the man sat in front of us has all of the aforementioned on his palmares, and more.
Sean Kelly can accurately be described as a legend in an era when the phrase has been almost entirely devalued. It takes much to render the hulking Kristoff insignificant, his palmares increasingly as decorated as his jersey, but the Norwegian is peripheral in this context, figuratively and literally. As he passes, our attention is claimed instead by the 58-year-old Irishman; unexpectedly verbose, and holding forth on a range of topics from race radios to the benefits a transfer system might offer to squads beyond professional cycling’s gilded top tier.
Kelly’s contributions to Eurosport’s television coverage of cycling's biggest races are increasingly recognised as the gold standard – dry, precise, and offered in response to the seemingly inevitable gambit (in Classics season, at least): “Sean, you won this race twice…” When Rouleur joins the Irishman at a resort on the Costa Blanca, it is the young riders of his An Post-Chain Reaction Cycles team who are the beneficiaries of his insight. He rides with them every day, observing from close quarters and offering insights to staff and riders alike.
Sean Kelly is head man at An Post-CRC, offering an education in cycling to his staff and riders. pic: Joolze Dymond/An Post-Chain Reaction Cycles
An example? The group comes momentarily to rest at a red light after a glorious, flowing descent on one of a seemingly endless supply of quiet roads in Calpe’s rural hinterland. Kelly is clearly offering an extended deconstruction of events, complete with gestures. He is smiling, but for Rouleur and the other occupants of the team car, his lecture has been reduced to mime by the surrounding glass. When the lights turn green, he drops back to explain.
The team’s sports director Niko Eeckhout, the vastly experienced former Belgian road race champion, had been unconsciously forcing riders brave enough to pass him on the descent to take the long way around. His positioning, in short, was too good; an instinctive demonstration of the economy of effort practiced by “the old fox”. Kelly, amused by the episode, has used it to deliver an impromptu tutorial. To him, the dynamics of what had seemed from the team car to be a routine descent were screamingly obvious. Rouleur is left to wonder: what is there about bike racing that a young rider couldn’t learn from Sean Kelly?
Learning the trade
Kelly is more realistic. There are disadvantages as well as advantages for a young rider on his team, he insists. For the very talented, a berth on a top-tier team might be available almost from the moment they impress in international competition.
A pertinent example might be found in the separate paths taken by the Australian Campbell Flakemore and the Irish road race champion Ryan Mullen after Flakemore beat Mullen to the world under-23 time trial title last season by less than half-a-second. Flakemore has moved to the WorldTour with BMC Racing. Mullen will spend a second season with Kelly’s third-tier An Post-CRC outfit.
Twenty-year-old Irish road race champion Ryan Mullen is a special talent but has much to learn, Kelly says. pic: Joolze Dymond/An Post-Chain Reaction Cycles
“Riding the big races is great, but you don’t learn, because you’re not there long enough in the race. Secondly, if you’re in a big team, you’re put on the front for 100km. You only see the commissaire’s car in front of you, but you don’t see what’s happening in the peloton,” Kelly argues.
“You can’t sit in the peloton and see how the riders position themselves and how they go down the descents. You’re just like a donkey and you’re with the other donkeys from three or four other teams who are riding on the front. They’re riding all the time just to control the breakaway. Riding for a big team, that is the risk: that you do these big races, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to learn anything.”
This brings us swiftly to the advantages. Mullen is twenty. Kelly has forgotten more about racing than his protégé knows. If Mullen achieves a fraction of what Kelly has, he will have had a fine career. An Post-CRC has a reputation that far exceeds its status, and in Kurt Bogaerts, a manger with ambition to match Mullen’s own.
“With us, if you do semi-Classics and smaller races, there you can learn a lot. [Mullen] learned a lot last year, but he’s got a lot to learn this year, and that’s what we want to do: learn him the trade first of all, and by doing that he gets a bit stronger as well – physically stronger, because he can ride a race of 200km, but can he ride a finish?
There is little Kelly's espoirs could fail to learn from the winner of nine Monument Classics. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
“In a big team, that’s the problem: the race goes crazy at the start and you have to control the breakaway from the beginning. You can ride 100km and then you’re finished. If it’s a one-day race, by the time you reach the feeding station, it can be over; if it’s a stage race, you get to a hill and you’re dropped and you’re in the grupetto, and there you don’t learn a lot.”
The maturity required of a young rider to turn his back on what can seem like a once-in-a-career opportunity is great, but Kelly’s wisdom is based on experience. “I say to the guys, sometimes you have to invest a bit in the earlier part and then you’re ready and you can go forward and you can have a good career.
“Some guys, they sign for a big team, they do two years, they’re not good in the early season, they’re left behind and they’re forgotten for that year. You can be forgotten very quickly in a big team where there are so many riders. The morale takes a big hit.”
Trials, tribulations and the little things
While the rewards for the rider joining An Post-CRC are obvious, the benefits to Kelly and Bogaerts are not always concomitant. The founding principle of a team that has grown from the Sean Kelly Academy is the development of young riders, but the absence from professional cycling of a transfer system through which the team might benefit financially, allied to the frequently frustrating experience of trying to impart knowledge to the younger generation, leaves Kelly momentarily lost for words.
The road positioning of sports director Niko Eeckhout was too subtle for his young charges on a particular descent; a skill noted instantly by Kelly, who rode with the team every day in Calpe. pic: Joolze Dymond/An Post-Chain Reaction Cycles
“We try and get the best out of them even though some of them are so…” he pauses, searching for the right words, “bloody difficult.” Rouleur chuckles at the description, and a faint smile plays around Kelly’s lips. The idea of a young rider so consumed by enthusiasm that the advice of a legend seems a handicap is amusing; equally, the vision of a man with nine Monument Classics and a Grand Tour to his name struggling to make an unproven espoir see reason. It seems too incredible. Wouldn’t a rider fall over himself to gain the benefit of Kelly’s wisdom? “Well, you’d think so,” he replies, raising his eyebrows.
Kelly’s is a good-natured exasperation, and confined to the “little things”. He understands better than any that the entirely uncontrollable nature of racing means that the demands of competition cannot always be met. “But what I call the very basic things, you think would be immediately registered, but bike riders, they seem to forget so easily.
“Little things, but they can mean a lot,” he continues. “In the hotel, when you’re hanging about in the restaurant, don’t come down in just a tee-shirt, in case of getting a chill because of air conditioning. After a race, during the season, the body is very warm, the weather can be very good, but you go to a hotel where there’s air conditioning. There’s a real danger that they can catch a cold.”
Desire vs. talent
Which, then, to recruit: the rider with talent, or the rider with the good sense to follow advice from such an impeccable source? Talent and motivation frequently occupy opposing poles, in Kelly’s experience. Often those with the greatest gifts have the least confidence. Injuries, loss of form…all are burdens the rider believes he alone has to shoulder; his rivals, immune to tribulation. The truth, as Kelly is well aware, is that even the biggest names suffer setbacks. The key is not to discuss them in public.
Talent and desire are required in equal measure to succeed at the very highest level. Kelly, pictured winning Milano-Sanremo for a second time, had both in spades. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
Kelly believes mental strength can be developed alongside the physical. Why else would the best-funded teams employ specialists to do so? But for the smaller teams, building a rider’s confidence is another task for the manager; another drain on the resources of the team.
A similar axis exists with talent and desire at opposing poles. Which does Kelly value more highly? Unsurprisingly, he believes both are required, and in equal measure, to reach the very top, but one suspects a weakness for the warrior, prepared to fight on when the peloton’s more gifted princelings have decided to save themselves for another day.
The rider with “no fear, prepared to try anything,” is perhaps closer to Kelly’s ideal than his gifted, but more cautious contemporaries. Kelly speaks fondly of former An Post-Sean Kelly rider Gediminas Bagdonas, the Lithuanian now plying his trade with Ag2r-La Mondiale, with “snots everywhere”, while his rivals were more concerned with preserving their pristine Oakleys.
Graduation and recompense
Bagdonas’ graduation to the top tier brings us to another avenue. An Post-CRC clearly has little difficulty in spotting talent and developing it. Daniel Lloyd joined Cervelo Test Team from Kelly’s team; Matt Brammeier found employment with HTC and Omega Pharma-Quick-Step; Andy Fenn also joined the Belgian heavyweights before his latest move to Team Sky.
“In cycling, there’s a lot of talking goes on,” Kelly states, in a matter-of-fact tone. “The team comes up in conversation when [riders] go to new teams. The cycling family can see the An Post-Chain Reaction set up, and they can see we’re serious.” The name Kelly must resonate too in cycling’s talking shop.
Andy Fenn is one of several graduates of Kelly's team to reach the WorldTour. The Hertfordshire-born Scot, pictured at the 2014 Tour of Qatar, will race this season for Team Sky pic: Offside/L'Equipe
The biggest teams are keen for An Post-CRC to nurture young riders already on their books. Similarly, national federations and what might almost be described as charitable organisations who exist to support young riders also have Kelly’s team on their radar. Alistair Slater is a graduate of British Cycling’s Olympic Academy and supported by the Dave Rayner Fund. Mullen is backed by Cycling Ireland.
Kelly talks about the benefits a transfer system might bring to a Continental team with founding principles based on developing young talent – specifically, a transfer fee. This, he believes, might offer some recompense for the time and money invested in developing a rider to the standard where he can do a job for a ProTeam.
“A transfer system certainly would be a help to Continental teams; it would be a big help. In recent years, sponsorship is becoming difficult. You put a lot of time into a young rider, you take him for two year of three years, it costs a bit to do that. If you have a rider for one year or two years and he’s starting to do well, and then he’s taken from you, and you’re starting again and taking new guys in, it’s always difficult.”
Learning the trade
Kelly’s is largely a hands-off approach at the races. Commitments elsewhere keep him from attending many of them, and the day-to-day running of the team, up to and including the race strategy, and calling the shots from the team car, is the preserve of his ambitious young manager, Kurt Bogaerts.
Kelly is pleased by the progress of his ambitious young team manager Kurt Bogaerts. pic: Joolze Dymond/An Post-Sean Kelly
Bogaerts was the junior racer who knocked on Kelly’s door in Belgium and asked one of the biggest names in the sport if he could train with him. The friendship endured, and still has something of the master-pupil relationship. Bogaerts is certainly his own man, but equally is the first to pay tribute to Kelly’s influence on the team and on his career.
Kelly first appointed Bogaerts to run the Sean Kelly Academy, and discovering that the younger man had an aptitude for it, set him on a pathway that has seen Bogaerts perform every role on a cycling team from mechanic to soigneur to general manager, and become a refreshing example of a young manager learning his trade – a sharp contrast with the retired ProTeam professional who slides seamlessly from saddle to team car.
The Irishman has his doubts about the latter, especially among this latest generation of directeurs, many of whom practiced their trade as riders almost exclusively with radios to the team car. The Bogaerts model is the way it should be done, he believes.
“If you take the guys who’ve been racing with ear pieces in the professional peloton, they have no clue how to race, a lot of them,” Kelly says, warming to his theme. “I’ve seen some guys, the moment you took their ear pieces away for the less important races, they didn’t know what to do. And you take a guy like that and make him a directeur sportif because he won some big races?”
Kelly takes a professional interest in the WorldTour through his work with Eurosport. Commentaries on the Classics inevitably include the gambit: "Sean, you won this race twice..." pic: Offside/L'Equipe
Becoming a good sports director also requires time, Kelly believes. It is a skill as demanding of experience and discipline as learning to race. “He has talent, but he also needs to learn,” he says, of those who stop racing at the highest level to begin directing at the highest level. Some are well-suited to the role, he concedes, having shown good tactical sense and an ability to read a race as a rider. But others?
“Some of the guys, they start as a junior [with radios], so they never had that opportunity to learn how to ride for themselves, to read a race and [learn] the tactics of the race. They never had to do that. From junior, immediately they were on the radio, with the directeur sportif telling them: ride, stop, wait.”
Kelly’s view of race radio, however, is not entirely one-sided. He concedes that two-way transmission between rider and team car is a considerable boost for safety. And he does not buy the argument that racing has become more negative as a result. The peloton, he believes, is far more likely to delay the pursuit of the breakaway, and to make a more dramatic, last-minute pursuit of any escapees, now time gaps are relayed with certainty from the team car.
Kelly and his team check out of their hotel in Calpe in the darkness and comparative cold of a Friday morning in late January, the second of their two winter training camps completed.
The existence of fully catered, warm weather training camps for under-23s is testament to how far the sport has progressed since Kelly was summoned from rural Ireland to stardom, but even now it is not the norm, and a testament to the professionalism of An Post-CRC.
An Post-CRC have completed two warm weather training camps this season: a testament to the team's professionalism
Astana and Katusha are among the squads also preparing their exit from the Costa Blanca as Rouleur squeezes into the backseat of a rental car driven by Kelly’s daughter Stacey, bound for Alicante airport. The WorldTour heavyweights will resurface in Mallorca or the Middle East; for Kelly’s heroes, the GP la Marseillaise awaits, a 1.1 event on the EuropeTour calendar.
The team will attempt to build on its reputation this year and to move a step closer to Bogaerts’ ambitious goal of competing in the Tour de France within the next five years. Kelly will watch and guide. He will offer his wisdom to Bogaerts and to the young riders, and he will ensure that when people talk about Sean Kelly, they talk about An Post-CRC too.