hunger. the autobiography. sean kelly. peloton publishing 320pp illus. £18.99

hunger: the autobiography

"I gradually developed a theory which I called the Twenty Syndrome, it related to Sean Kelly and it directly concerned my chances of beating him. I say my chances but in reality it probably applied to everyone else as well. Twenty degrees, 20 sprocket and the 20th of April.
So any race where it was colder than 20 degrees, didn't have a very long hill which necessitated bigger than a 20-tooth sprocket to get up and was before the 20th of April was a race where I had little chance of beating Sean Kelly."
Robert Millar.

i cannot deny that, in my early years of finding an interest in international cycle racing, attention was pretty much focussed on robert millar. as a scot and at the time, new owner of a racing bike shaped object, a complete lack of knowledge had impressed upon my naive psyche that, rather obviously, i could head uphill with all the ease that millar displayed. heaven's sake, we both came from glasgow, he was only a couple of years younger than me and he'd won the polka dot jersey in the '84 tour.

how hard could it be?

in that particular year's event, sean kelly missed out on green by a matter of metres and points to frank hoste, finishing one place behind millar in the general classification. at that time, however, kelly had not even entered my cycling horizons, something of a disfavourable admission of which i'm not particularly proud, but everyone has to start somewhere. it does me little additional credit that truthfully the first major impression that sean kelly made was when my daughter found his irish accent on eurosport's commentary to be demonstrably delightful.

"torty-tree kilometres to the finish"

in hunger, his arguably overdue autobiography, kelly comes across every bit the plain speaker he is in 'real life'. if memory serves, it was after the 2009 braveheart ride in kilmarnock, when we had all sat down to munch on cake and slurp some less than impressive coffee. sean pulled up a chair and sat down beside me midst a conversation regarding garden sheds. unfortunately, memory does not recall why sheds were under consideration, but mr kelly had joined in every bit as enthusiastically as the rest of us.

during this verbal dissertation, i was aware of a largish chap hovering behind our respective chairs, obviously wishing to have a brief word with sean kelly. at an opportune break in shed discussions, he opened with "i loved that last win in milan-sanremo; what gear were you using at the sprint?" it was, as we all know, a pointless question, but one phrased to allow the speaker to have at least some commnication with the great man. "the right one" replied kelly.

that's exactly what you get from hunger; sean plain and simple. remarkably self-effacing, aware that he's a worthy addition to the panoply of professional cycling, but with no great desire to impress this on each and every reader. it's likely that you'll learn a lot more about sean kelly than you knew before the start, including that fact that he's well aware of his reputation for being a man of few words.

in the 1975 milk race, he was part of a group of three riding into sheffield, his co-conspirators being the swede bernt johansson and poland's jan trybala. "Johansson and Trybala seemed to think the stage was between them anyway." johannson stood to take the yellow jersey at the finish line, so the two were discussing the likelihood of trybala being allowed to cross in first place. kelly sat in their slipstream and as they entered the finishing straight "I put my head down and attacked hard."

"Neither Johansson nor Trybala were happy with me but I kept my response short. Two words did it."

it has never failed to impress me the powers of recall displayed by many a professional rider. while i struggle to remember what i had for tea on friday, kelly can relate who his breakaway companions were from almost forty years ago.

kelly's opinions of the farming life are not kept secret in the opening chapters, though he had yet to consider taking steps to emulate the career paths of many of the italian and french riders of the forties and fifties; ultimately opting for the road rather than the byre. "As a teenager, I grew resentful of the animals, so dumb and needy. I cleaned up their shite, fed them and then there'd be some more shite to clean up. But father had me lined up to be a farmer." not only dismissive of a potential career, but unafraid to descend into the vernacular to do so.

it is this level of plain speaking that makes sean kelly an endearing author and storyteller. it's perhaps unlikely to suggest that those less than enamoured with the irishman (though i figure they'd be few and far between) would be found reading his autobiography in any case, but there is a not unexpected dearth of sensationalism to the career of a rider who was the world's number one for several years on the trot. he even brings to light the apocryphal anecdote regarding his having once nodded by way of answer in a radio interview.

and what should certainly not be misread as a lack of respect for cycling's great heritage, concerns his winning of paris-roubaix in a year when the finish was not in the velodrome at roubaix. several of his interlocutors post race had asked if he felt such a win was diminished through not having followed the grandstand finish. "I'd won the race, so we could have finished in a car park for all I cared."

strangely, it is this almost careless disregard for his own importance in the professional cycling firmament (except when it came to contractual negotiations) that leads the book to take on an almost intangible air of excitement. the important races throughout this career are exploited in great detail where kelly feels them worthy of dissection, yet almost cast aside where little of personal importance or result took place. "The Tour de France was not a memorable one for me. I finished 46th, an hour behind the winner, Pedro Delgado."

careful reading often proves his narrative to be greater than the sum of its parts.

throughout the book's 33 chapters, there is never any doubt as to the identity of the man who shaped the majority of his professional career. from kelly's description, jean de gribaldy, kelly's ds at flandria "was the Matt Busby of French cycling, with a reputation for spotting the best young riders and making them into champions." sean describes him as having been a directeur sportif well ahead of his time, both in methods of training and diet. "(He) believed in hard racing, lots of training and eating little. He kept his riders hungry, in a very real sense." though he would leave de gribaldy's jurisdiction during his career, the impression made by the man who brought him into the world of professional cycling would remain a telling voice on kelly's shoulder throughout the remainder of his career.

though the book opens with a foreword by sir bradley wiggins, the telling commendation is that of contemporary rider, robert millar. this chapter 'respecting sean kelly' is appended to the end of kelly's narrative. frequent praise towards millar is a regular feature throughout the book, though rarely directly, but it is robert's testimony that echoes the impression most of us have of king kelly.

"Then a thought occurs to me. Sean Kelly would have left an hour ago, on time, on schedule and probably with no gloves either. I stop whingeing to myself and do the three hours." and "No bragging, no showing off and no slagging his rivals. It's little wonder the press found him so difficult to interview." though it does seem a little ironic that the last statement should come from a rider who, for his own reasons, fulfilled a similar stature with regard to the world's press.

hunger. the autobiography is an intriguing and intensely readable book. the pace all but parallels the shape of kelly's racing career and personality, and much like the man himself it brokers no fuss, faff or extraneous detail. for me it was a particularly important read in the light of my knowing considerably less about the irishman than surely ought to have been the case before now. lionel birnie's peloton publishing (the very same that brought us two excellent volumes of cycling anthology) is to be soundly congratulated for successfully transferring the man's personality and career into print. with the 100th tour de france currently underway, now is the ideal time to take note of a rider who played a singularly important part in the tours of the eighties and nineties.

it's been a long time coming, but sean kelly's 'hunger. the autobiography' must surely be seen as an essential piece of cycling history.

'hunger: the autobiography' is available direct from or via prendas ciclismo

monday 1st july 2013