Anatomy of a photo: Sean Kelly 1988

Sean Kelly -1988 photo:Barry Sandland

This photographer knew the picture that people would remember and that would shine a light into Sean Kelly’s character wasn’t of his face; the story is all below. These are legs only a cyclist could love.

In 1988 these legs won Paris-Nice for the seventh time, Gent-Wevelgem and his only Grand Tour Victory, the Vuelta a España, at that time, held in April. He raced to win from Paris-Nice in March to Lombardia in October with no peaking, or vacations, just single minded ambition.

You have to stay with the lithe Spanish climbers to win Vuelta. Kelly’s legs show no extra fat and no lack of might.

There he sits on the top tube of his Vitus 979 Aluminum framed race bike, answering questions in his hard- to- decipher Irish brogue. Even in black and white, one can see he is deeply tanned. No sunscreen and no Look pedals for Sean- he was possibly the last man in the peloton to switch. He always rode a bike that looked too small and cramped. Perhaps this wouldn’t have worked for anyone else but how does one argue with his method?

For all The Rules followers, study the socks. Ponder carefully, for this is what yours should look like: white and the perfect height. This is the way to set off tan, veiny, incredibly powerful legs. Do your legs look like these? No, I didn’t think so, but these socks would be a start.

The Rules readers might also study the gearing; maybe a 23-tooth sprocket as his largest on his seven speed freewheel and 52 and 42 chain rings up front. This must have been a very hilly course. Rule #5 was his middle name.

For my money, American writer Robin Magowan‘s books and articles about this cycling era are without peer; his summation of Kelly is perfect.

It is customary to talk of Kelly as quintessentially an Irish rider. For my part, though, I think it helps to place Kelly better as a cyclist to see him as the last of the Flemish riders. This is usually a title associated with the post-war rider, Briek Schotte who has become appropriately enough the man in day-to-day charge of the de Gribaldy teams. As exemplified by Schotte it stood for a certain type of mentality, willing to suffer, narrowly focused, and hard, hard, hard. Kelly had all this in him from his Irish small farm background: the outside loo; the dogs that have to be chained before you can step from your car; the one career possible, as a bricklayer on a construction site, stretching away and away into the grey mists. On the positive side, along with the self-reliance, came a physical strength that even by peasant standards is impressive. In a profession of iron wills, there is no one harder.

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53 Replies to “Anatomy of a photo: Sean Kelly 1988”

  1. Now, those are guns! My son shares a birthday and country of birth with Kelly.

  2. John,
    What a fucking stud this man is. I’ll tell you one thing, I’d like not to have pissed him off, were I a racer in his day. Not only was Rule #5 his middle name, this guy breathed The Rules, like you suggest here with the socks. I’m guessing those tan lines are nicely crisp, too. And – I’m butchering the quote here – but when asked about his loves in life, he said,

    First the bike, then the car, and then my wife. In that order.

    How about that for Rule #4 and Rule #11?

  3. I Kelly is my ultimate role model! Sprinting, hill climbing, just going fucking hard in some Flemish frozen hell.

    A favorite memory is of some mountain stage in the Tour, I do not remember which, but it was one of the first I ever saw on TV. It is raining, the climb Kelly broke away on, at some point turned to gravel. When he hit the top he started this decent that dropped the following motorcycle camera for long stretches… he was just balls to the wall. I do not remember what happened there is just this image of Kelly disappearing around corners in the rain on the gravel and me going “how does he do it?”.

    Thanks for this one John boy!

  4. @Steampunk
    I suspect Kelly didn’t do gun checks, no self-doubt, he just attacked until everybody was gone. It must be fun to have guns like this at your disposal though.

  5. @frank

    “Not only was Rule #5 his middle name, this guy breathed The Rules” He really does personify The Rules though he might think The Rules were shiet and surely we were a bunch of nancy-boys for writing them. I suspect Mrs. Kelly didn’t see much of Sean for much of the year.

    As you say Frank, he must have won the psychological battle on the starting line, who but another stubborn Hard guy(Tchmil) would not be intimidated beyond recovery to have Sean Kelly giving one a hard look.

    That’s a great photo too, straight block, the Green Jersey, sprinting like a madman. Beautiful.

  6. @john
    Absolutely: guns like that are always loaded.

    What can I say? I’m a citizen of the world. I’d still rather build legs like those above than build some kind of enigmatic mystique, though…

  7. Ah Kelly the Awesome. I love the way he just quietly got on with dishing out the pain, day in, day out for nearly 20yrs as a pro.

    Forgive the link (perhaps someone can help put up the pic) but check him out here, 86 Milan-San Remo, caked by dirt and rays, sat on the tops and just shovelling it up. Looks like Greg LeMond woofing down a triple decker pain sandwich just behind, or maybe wondering whether he can just huff a quick hit from his frame mounted bong and sit it out in the team car…

  8. @Joe
    Oh man, that picture says a mouthful. A mouthful-o-triple decker pain sandwich indeed. I pity the fool that had to stay on his wheel when he looked that fast. I also love these photos with no helmets and no glasses. The pain is not hidden behind anything.

    That could be any number of riders behind. It’s hard to ID that jersey, “La Vie Claire” maybe. It could be Bauer suffering back there too.

  9. @Rob
    You have good role models: Musashi and Kelly.

    I have a very similar memory of Kelly early on but it was a race report with either black and white photos or it was so cold, rainy, dark, cloudy the color photos looked like it. The basic report was of Kelly attacking, attacking then just riding hard men off his wheel until he rode off solo. It was a year he was winning many Spring races, just unstoppable.

    The photos showed Kelly, soaked and dirty with grey duct tape across the top of each shoe, either to block wind or padding for the toe clip straps. I was totally awed.

    Robin Magowan’s idea of Kelly being the last of the Flemish Hard Men though he was Irish. So true.

  10. Dear friends,
    I happen to know how to get a couple of guns like those. It involves a lot substances with names that end “ron”. It also takes a lot of miles and a strict observance of Rule #5, but those veins don’t come without the doctor…
    They look like body builders’ legs. Just for the record.

  11. @johnI am not worthy of calling them role models! But it is with humble pleasure that I look back in my old age to that time when men like Kelly were racing and things seemed simple – toe clips, straight blocks and steel, no helmets, girlie glasses and electrolyte recovery shit.

    We could just keep this post going permanently with new images and stories and nothing else and I would be happy!

    Again, John (Beautiful little dog John or BLDJ) you have that Zen like quality of hitting the nail so squarely and with the power of the true hardman in all your endeavors that I am only your poor disciple.

    @John John (? John), You are probably right but on the other hand I was mentored by a U.S. amateur legend and I KNOW that he did no, nada, nil, substances (ok good beer but that’s training) and at age 60 or so his guns have the same topography as Kelly’s with pencil thick veins and 3% body fat skin and a 38 bpm pulse rate pushing his crystal clear elixir of life languidly through the tree trunk like guns (you can see the pulse, I shit you not).
    So before you go throwing stones at a monument who rode so long you might argue that he would have burned out if he had done the shit.
    I’m just saying there is a possibility….and don’t go bursting my last bubble!

  12. Awesome post John. I enjoyed listening to him commentate the Giro this year, he seemed really matter of fact and gave some measured balance to the other commentators, as if when he was speaking he was thinking; “yup, these guys are working pretty hard and are probably in a fair amount of pain, but not the kind of pain I used to dish out.”

    And the picture Joe put up is classic. He looks very similar to Sean Penn in that one.

    Has anyone seen those pics of his daughter as a podium girl? She’s a velomihottie.

  13. @Marko
    If I were single and knew his daughter and I dated here, I would be living in constant fear of her father.

    And your Giro commentating story doesn’t scan. Everyone knows he is impossible to understand. Most people believe he doesn’t actually speak any language at all. He just makes up sounds that seem really matter of fact.

  14. I enjoy listening to his commentary also. Its so much less the BS of most. He is sitting there most of the time maybe even looking at the scenery, the racers melodically spinning across the plains, one commentator may try to make something of it, and kelly will say ‘yep’…..

    And that really is it isn’t it, to him.

    Legs like this require 2 things:
    -good genetics, plain and simple
    -implementation of Rule #5 in an exponential fashion, far beyond even what most feeble and fallible man can do

    and most of us don’t have either. most could ride like we stole something 8 hrs a day and never develop the legs Sean Kelly did.

    He is a trancendant figure for us lesser

  15. @frank

    Frank: Uh, Mr. Kelly, sir, may I ask your daughter out on a date? Perhaps I’ll take her for an afternoon bicycle ride along the path.

    Sean Kelly: Well young Frank, what makes you think you can keep up with a Kelly on that Nancy-boy carbon, clipless pedalled contraption of yours? Let alone spend time with my daughter.

    Frank: Uhhhhh, well sir, uhhh. Maybe you’re right, I need to spend some time on Rule #5 before I ask your daughter to ride bikes.

    Sean Kelly: Rule #5? What the fuck is that? Something you and your little friends made up on that bloog of yours?

    Stacey Kelly: Daddy, stop scaring away boys. I promise if you let him take me cycling I’ll keep it under 40kph and off the cobbles. And if he tries to move in for a kiss I’ll ride him off my wheel.

  16. @Rob. I didn’t mean to throw stones at a monument, I still think that the roids without a strict application of Rule #5 are not enough to get legs like that.
    I am well aware that all the riders against whom Kelly competed, not only Moser Argentin Hinault, but also the domestiques, and the rest used the same methods.
    That meant that genetics, Rule #5 and brains were still what made Kelly the monument that he is.

  17. @John I did not feel you were, but since I have a clean control specimen in my mentor I can hope that my hero “might” be clean too – “can’t I” – he said in a little voice with tears in his eyes???

  18. That is awesome that he rode a too-small frame. I didn’t know that. This makes me smile since I get annoyed with too much overanalysis of riding styles, fit, etc. The other week one of my riding buddies said, “Hey, look at your head in the shadow…it is bobbing a bit.” Huh? Sure, my head was bobbing, since I was trying to warm up and you were busy gunning it already. I’m busy keeping up, not worrying if I’m statue-still on the bike. Everyone rides differently, so glad to see this Hard Man rode a frame that worked for him!

    As for the socks. Okay, I know this isn’t going to be well received, but I’m a big fan of socks that are a bit higher. Always loved mid-calf socks for other sports and I like my cycling socks higher than the typical ankle socks. Many pros are wearing higher socks these days too. What do the Cog Keepers have to say about this? Is the pro peloton breaking a rule?

  19. @Ron
    OK, I can’t keep this a secret any longer. I am a persistent violator of Rule #27. I ALWAYS wear “those ankle-length ones that should only be worn by female tennis players” (except on 5am winter rides in full length bibs, when I wear black socks of more-or-less the right length). This is probably no worse than you’d expect from a confessed Rule Holist and mirror-wearer. But I still think I should ‘fess up about it. And apologise – properly, not like C-diddy would. So, without spitting, I apologise.

  20. This is not a fairy tale lads ones too tall, ones too short and then there is just right. If I was king then the too tall would get the axe. Tall socks fall down (especially in the wet) and then you look even worse.

  21. @Geof
    I would sit for two minutes in my driveway tomorrow morning in protest before setting out for my ride, but I’ve been known to wear the ankle socks from time to time, too. Not always, but on occasion.

  22. @Geof Heh. I just counted up the Rules I’m violating. As of Monday, after putting the arms of my glasses outside of my helmet straps, I’m violating only one Rule. (Well, if you violate any Rule, you are also violating 1 and 3, but leave that aside). That is, on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, I’m violating one less Rule that Geof. Are you sure you are up to expounding the Rule Holist view of things Geof??

    And, after putting pristine white bar tape on, I also bought brand new, old school length white socks. I think even Frank would have waved to me today.

    However, tomorrow, I return to putting the arms of my glasses inside the straps, hence violating Rule #37. Outside the straps, they dislodge too easily and annoyingly. And, at certain times of the year I’m violating at least a half a dozen Rules.

    I’ve been contemplating this Rule, Rule #37, for some time, since I’ve violated it for years. The only reason I can think that all the pros put the arms outside the helmet straps is for this reason. If you crash, it is more likely that the glasses will just pop off you face, rather than break and cut your face. I was in a crash last year in a race, in which I hit the back of my head on the asphalt, kind of like Haussler. (Although, it was not my fault, like it was Haussler’s) Somehow my glasses broke, and cut my face, right below the eye. I have no idea how that happened. Perhaps, if I had the arms on the outside, the pressure on the glasses from the helmet straps, as the helmet receives various forces on impact, would dislodge the glasses away from your face.

  23. @david
    Isn’t that the great thing about Rule Holism? It’s all about the vibe, the interpretation, the spirit rather than the letter. It’s a bit like the modern Anglican church, which seems to regard as optional most of what previous generations would have regarded as fundamental tenets of faith, requiring instead only that one turn up to church occasionally and generally subscribe to the view that it would be more better if more people were more nicer to each other more of the time. Or maybe it’s more like post-modernism, where traditional notions of rationality, truth and objectivity must never be spoken of in anything other than a tone of deep “irony” (a word which, ironically, Alanis Morriset never seemed to understand) and in which the only reason for knowing the “rules” is to be able to “subvert” or “deconstruct” them (whatever that means). Or maybe I’ve just talked myself out of seeing much benefit in being a Rule Holist after all. As they say, the problem with “anything goes” is that nothing stays. Oh shit … crisis of faith / identity about to engulf me … must …. seek …. help …

  24. @david
    BTW, isn’t the reason pros wear their eyewear over their helmet straps so that the brands / logos can be seen (and sponsoship revenue can be maximised)? I mean, if you’re standing on the side of the road watching OckerBosch and C-Diddy get all wrapped up in each other, the thing you’d be most interested in getting a good view of is the brand of their eyewear, isn’t it, and you’d be pretty pissed off if there was a helmet strap obscuring your view…

  25. @Geof
    good grief man, you wear the glasses over the helmet straps so that they don’t cause an unsightly loop in the helmet strap. Whatever would have made you think that it is all about money?

  26. @Jarvis
    Finally! Someone says it! Christ. I was reading this comments, wondering what was happening here!

    Helmet straps: flush to face (when fitted properly).
    Eyewear earpieces: some distance from face.

    Glasses go over the straps because it’s more confortable and makes sense. Sure, maybe the logos show, but that probably has more to do with choosing a place that’s visible more than it does dictating to the pros that they shall always wear it outside to show the logos.

    Although, the “comes off in a crash” is also practical.

    Don’t loose your faith, my son. Stay the path. And, the only thing ironic about Morriset’s song is that none of the examples she uses are actually examples of irony. When that song was popular, I would have supported a trade embargo against Canada if it meant they’d stop playing that song.

    Sorry, Steampunk.

  27. @Ron
    The socks in the bunch are getting a bit long – I have to assume for purposes of advertising space. Heinnie Saussler, while rockin’ a sweet-ass set of White Ladies, is going a bit long in the sock. Mid-calf? Too long. We’re not footballers here!!

  28. @david, @Geof
    I got so frazzled by the glasses thing that I forgot to say:

    1) Geof. No fucking women’s tennis socks. OK? Take your frame pump, mirror, and socks, and walk over to the rubbish bin right now and discard them all. Then proceed to Brett’s bike shop and do a confession. After that, Hill Repeat Penance.

    2) David. Up is down, left is right, Cognoscenti is Holist. I’ll be glad today when you go back to your Rule breaking and Geof finishes his punishment and gets back on the straight and skinny.

  29. @frank
    No worries. I left the country. Canada’s been a bad tear since Bryan Adams did that Robin Hood song almost twenty years ago. Which is a shame, because there are some good bands up here.

  30. @Jarvis
    I thought I wore them over the straps so that each time I went to take off my helmet, I had to do a goofy catch as the glasses flew off my head.

  31. david :@Geof Heh. I just counted up the Rules I’m violating. As of Monday, after putting the arms of my glasses outside of my helmet straps, I’m violating only one Rule.

    There’s only one appropriate response to this: HTFU. Which means by abiding all the other laws, you risk breaking Rule #5.

  32. Well said, Steampunk. We see eye to eye on Rule #5 fundamentalism, I think. And, I carelessly ignored two more rules today in an effort not be drawn into compliance with their effete cycling couture. Thank you for the reminder.

  33. @david

    I carelessly ignored two more rules today in an effort not be drawn into compliance with their effete cycling couture. Thank you for the reminder.

    The relief is palpable. All is right in the world again as David thumbs his nose at Rule Holism once again.

  34. Re: Sean kelly – Steven Hodge told me a story on Friday (unashamed gratuitous name drop) that during races he often had to get Sean to repeat himself in French because even though he and Sean were one of the few English speakers in the pros at that time – Kelly’s French was easier to understand than his English with an Irish accent!
    So listeners on Eurosport, we are not alone!

  35. I love listening to this guy commentate (British Eurosport)…
    quote…[when asked about fight during a spring with van der arden]

    “Real Men fight [fisticuffs] on the bike, none of this waiting until you’ve crossed the line”

  36. @john

    “Not only was Rule #5 his middle name, this guy breathed The Rules” He really does personify The Rules though he might think The Rules were shiet and surely we were a bunch of nancy-boys for writing them. I suspect Mrs. Kelly didn’t see much of Sean for much of the year.
    As you say Frank, he must have won the psychological battle on the starting line, who but another stubborn Hard guy(Tchmil) would not be intimidated beyond recovery to have Sean Kelly giving one a hard look.
    That’s a great photo too, straight block, the Green Jersey, sprinting like a madman. Beautiful.

    I remember reading long ago in Winning Mag where Kelly stated that he abstained from sex with his wife 2 weeks before an important race. The author of the article (R Guiness?)did his sums and worked out that if that were true, then poor Mrs K was a very lonely woman.
    I notice also the groupset on his bike is the first generation Mavic.
    Link to info here:[email protected]/2806603936/

    My racing buddy had that groupset. Very nice.

  37. @John
    john that fool is none other than greg lemond on the poggio in milan san remo in 1986. kelly went on to win ahead of lemond and beccia.lemond rode for toshiba la ve claire that season.

  38. @cathal roche
    Brilliant! Milan-San Remo. The low afternoon light after 300km of racing. So Kelly must have won at least twice, having run down Moreno Argentin for another victory. Nice ID, cathal roche

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