Some will know him as the taciturn Eurosport commentator from County Tipperary, others the four-time winner of the green jersey at the Tour de France in the 1980s. For most, though, the 62-year-old from Carrick-on-Suir will forever be known simply as ‘King Kelly’, the nickname bestowed upon the Irishman during his pomp.
Sean Kelly, world No 1 between 1984 and 1989, remains one of the greatest all-rounders in the history of cycle sport and with a palmarès that boasts 21 stage wins at the Tour de France and Vuelta a España as well as nine monuments – the Tour of Flanders was the only one he failed to conquer – it is easy to see why.
At the time of meeting Kelly little is known about the form the favourites will carry into one of the most eagerly anticipated one-day races on the calendar; not that that matters in this lottery of a race. Of the five races that make up cycling’s monuments – Milan-Sanremo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia – Sunday’s ‘Queen of the Classics’ remains the most brutal and, perhaps, unique.
“I think Paris-Roubaix has to be the toughest race because you have the terrain – there are anything between 52 and 55 kilometres of cobbles over the course of around 260 kilometres,” Kelly explains.
Indeed, Paris-Roubaix is a race that appeals to a special kind of rider, the kind that not only enjoys dishing out pain but one able to soak it up, too. Other races may include pavé, or cobblestones, but none feature stones so uneven, so ungodly and so utterly brutal to ride as those that pepper the course from Compiègne, the small town north of the French capital that has hosted the start since 1968, to the open-air velodrome in the post-industrial northern city of Roubaix.
Weaving its way through the fields where during World War I young men gave away their lives cheaply in the name of King and country, it soon becomes apparent where the race's nickname 'hell of the north' originates from. It is a common misconception that the race is named thus because of the numerous bone-shaking, rib-rattling sections of pavé that riders have to tackle en route to the relative safety of the velodrome. Instead, following the cessation of battles in 1919 a journalist from L'Auto, the French sports newspaper now known as L'Équipe, described the region as 'l'enfer du nord' – hell of the north – following years of heavy artillery that left the landscape and its cobbled roads peppered with crater-like holes. The phrase, unsurprisingly, struck a chord with the public it still holds today.
Depending on the weather conditions, riders can find themselves pedalling through thick slippery mud or, arguably more painful, lung-burning clouds of dust that are thrown up from the race vehicles and scores of bikes that dive down the narrow cobbled tracks nowadays cared for by Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix – the group of volunteers who spend their spare time maintaining the anarchically assembled stretches of pavé. It is a race loved and loathed by riders.
When interviewed after the 1987 edition of the race, Dutchman Theo de Rooy said of Paris-Roubaix: “It’s b*******, this race! You’re working like an animal; you don’t have time to p***; you wet your pants. You’re riding in mud like this; you’re slipping. It’s a piece of s***.” But would he be back? “Sure, it’s the most beautiful race in the world!”
Bernard Hinault was another to describe the race as "bull****," though it must be added that the Frenchman said this before his 1981 victory.
Chris Boardman, meanwhile, described the race as "a circus" with the British time-trial specialist adding he didn't "want to be one of the clowns."
While grand tours – the Giro d'Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España – remain the preserve of stick-thin climbers who surround themselves by posses of tough as teak domestiques to shepherd them through the ups and downs of a three-week race, a rider who excels in the classics is an entirely different beast altogether.
But what, Telegraph Sport is curious to discover, are the attributes a rider needs in his armoury to succeed at Paris-Roubaix?
“It’s just one of those races that takes a lot from you, not just physically but mentally too," the 1984 and 1986 winner says. "All of the time you are turning left and right, not only on the cobbled sections but also when you’re off on the normal asphalt road. When you get to the final 100 kilometres it is just left and right all the time, then those cobbles. Of the classics, Paris-Roubaix is the toughest.
“To win at Paris-Roubaix you need to be powerful, you have to have big power on the flat. The guys who have big power on the flat are generally big riders, they’re big men, so you know they are 75kg.
"They can be sprinters, they can be time trialists or, as they say, rouleurs, either way they are big strong guys. Those are the qualities that you need to have to win at Paris-Roubaix and the qualities you need to be a classics rider."
Having completed all nine editions of Paris-Roubaix he started, Kelly was a rider who had these qualities by the shovel load. Though riding on the pavé was not something that came naturally.
“My first experience of the cobbles came as a big shock," Kelly says of his debut in 1981. "I had been racing in Belgium in my debut year as a professional and then I rode Paris-Roubaix for the first time, but I did not do a recce because I was called up late, so for me it was a big, big shock for me to see the sections [of cobbles].
"I crashed five times on that day. I said to myself on that day ‘how can they ride across the cobbles so fast without falling off?’"
Anybody who has spent any length of time listening to Kelly from his position in the commentary box will be familiar with the importance he places on bike-handling skills. Unsurprisingly, Kelly believes when it comes to Paris-Roubaix this part of a riders' skill-set can be almost as decisive as their power output.
“I went to live in Belgium and then I was riding in more races in Belgium and riding more and more on the cobbles – also in training. Eventually I started to learn how to ride on the cobbles and then. of course, I rode Paris-Roubaix many, many times and was getting better each year and getting closer and closer.
"I eventually won it in the end (on his third attempt), so yeah, it’s a long, long process to become a classics rider, a cobbled rider, especially if you haven’t done it from an early age like the Belgians, who have an advantage. I didn’t have that.
"Now, of course, things have changed and are different for the younger riders. There is a Paris-Roubaix for the juniors, a Paris-Roubaix under-23, so most of the riders get a taste of riding the cobbles – over shorter distances – so that is the way to learn nowadays. I didn’t have that in my day, unfortunately, because I came from Ireland and I never raced much in Europe as a junior or as a younger rider.
“You also have to be able to handle your bike," Kelly concludes. "You have to have good handling skills to ride all of the cobbles. Of course, this doesn’t guarantee you are going to be a classics winner – there’s a lot that goes into being a classics rider, a big monument winner."
This article was originally published on April 6, 2018