Cycling - Sean Kelly: The voice that keeps us up at night

Aaron S. Lee pays tribute to the man mostly responsible for red-eyed commuters in the southern hemisphere the morning after a big race.

Cycling - Sean Kelly: The voice that keeps us up at night

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Sean Kelly (Imago)

For professional cycling fans living in Asia-Pacific, it’s a hard life. Being on the other side of the world away from more civilised time zones can wreak havoc on the lifestyle and body clock of an Australian sports fan whose sport of choice is primarily based in Europe. Case in point – cycling.

Legions of weary-eyed, nearly-comatose commuters make their way to work each morning – Southern Spin included – and it’s largely due to the ramblings of one man – Eurosport cycling commentator Sean Kelly.

And if you ask Kelly which race in his 16 years at Eurosport did he enjoy keeping us up with the most, the former Irish road cyclist who astonishingly won Paris-Nice seven years in a row (1982-88), is quick to point out “stage 18 of the 2011 Tour de France” when eventual race winner Cadel Evans (BMC) battled it out with Andy Schleck (Leopard Trek) over the Col du Galiber for the right to wear the yellow jersey in Paris.

“It was one of the greatest stages in Tour history,” Kelly told Southern Spin just minutes before commentating stage two of his 15th Paris-Nice. “It was a throwback to the days when I rode professionally where there was no science or strategy it was just guts and glory.”

On the stage, Cadel Evans showed the world tremendous courage as he bravely rode without support for 200 kilometres and over one of the sport’s most iconic climbs. Schleck won the stage 2 minutes and 15 seconds ahead of the Australian, who finished third behind Andy’s brother Frank, but three days later Evans won the war.

But for the 57-year-old who was born in Carrick-on-Suir, South Tipperary, Ireland, there have been many “golden moments” in an articulation that can only best be described as ‘uniquely Sean Kelly’.

Kelly has never been one to hide on the mic or in the saddle. His vivacious commentating style resembles his no-nonsense approach to cycling. Aside from mentioning his wins at the Vuelta a España (1988), Milan-San Remo (1986,1992) and Paris-Roubaix (1984, 1986), to list all of his accomplishments and victories in a career that spanned several eras including those of Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Greg LeMond, Laurent Fignon, Miguel Indurain, and even that Armstrong guy – remember him? – would be too lengthy. Eurosport does not give Southern Spin the real estate for that much text, plus that’s what Wikipedia is for, right?

Kelly retired from competitive road cycling following the conclusion of a one-year stint with Catavana in 1994. After taking a few years off from cycling, he was introduced to a career in media in 1998 when the Tour de France started from Ireland for the very first time. From there his commentating duties expanded to a few more races over the next two years, and for the past decade the first ever UCI Road World Cup winner (1989) finds himself spending more than 100 days on the road and in a commentating booth – a life Kelly says is both rewarding and challenging at times.

“There are always special moments and you visit very special places,” he said. “But it can be a hard job as well.”

To translate Kelly’s thick Irish brogue, the term “hard job” simply means leaving the hotel at the start of the Tour de France at 7am for the finish line with a 10-ish start. After about four or five hours of non-stop action while holding up in a cramped commentating booth, it’s time for Kelly and his co-host – say David Harmon for instance – to share driving duties across 200 kilometres to make it to the finish for the next day’s stage, three or four hours away – hopefully before a midnight check-in.

Forget about any restaurants being open upon arrival.

“It’s difficult when you finish on the Alpe d’Huez,” said Kelly. “You can clearly see on Eurosport the thousands of spectators that line the roads. It’s great for the sport, but it can cause massive delays and can take up to two or more hours just get down the mountain, then you’re faced with a possible four-hour drive to the hotel and then the day repeats itself for three weeks.”

For the classics and one-week stages races, the demands are much less strenuous. For example, at this week’s Paris-Nice, Kelly may only be required to show up at noon and commentate for up to two hours before travelling back to his hotel, not far from the finish. Compared to the Grand Tours, this makes for “easier days” indeed.

Logistics is not the only hurdle Kelly faces each year. According to Kelly, who also serves as team manager for Ireland’s An Post Chain Reaction Sean Kelly cycling team which includes Aussie’s Glenn O’Shea and Robert-Jon McCarthy alongside Kiwi’s Aaron Gate and Shane Archbold, a lot of early-season research goes into studying team rosters as there are often many changes with riders either moving on to other teams or simply retiring.

Sean Kelly “Staying on top of the pro peloton can be easier said than one,” said Kelly. “For instance, if you have a rider that has been with a team for two years and you recognize him in that kit and now he is with another team, it can make it very difficult to call.”

With more than 40 races scheduled for Eurosport this year, it’s lucky for us Kelly has seemingly done another great job of putting faces, names and kits together for another exceptional week of calling Paris-Nice.

But that doesn’t make the morning commute any easier, does it?

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