Hunger: The Autobiography, by Sean Kelly
Reviewed by Shane Stokes
Hunger: The Autobiography
Given that he retired almost 20 years ago, it may seem surprising that Sean Kelly has only now written his autobiography and got his side of the story out into the open. But, in other respects, it’s not unexpected. Kelly was a man of few words when he competed as a professional cyclist.
Although he has opened up considerably in the years since, his natural introversion gradually diminished by the television-commentary work that requires him to talk for hours on end, he remains a matter-of-fact character.
His former racing colleague Stephen Roche is by nature more expansive, more expressive and more welcoming of the limelight. For Roche attention was one of the perks; for Kelly it was something to be endured.
He’s famously remembered as the guy who once nodded in response to a question on radio. In Hunger he claims not to remember it, but it is not difficult to imagine it happening.
For that reason the chance to delve deeper into Kelly’s background, his career and his motivation is to be welcomed. World number one between 1984 and 1989, winner of the Tour of Spain and four-time green-jersey champion in the Tour de France, plus the victor of several tour stages, countless Classics and a slew of stage races, the Co Tipperary rider is one of the top 10 cyclists of all time. He’s also one of the most successful Irish sportsmen ever.
The book begins near the end, documenting Kelly’s final Classic win, in the 1992 Milan-Sanremo. Nearing his 36th birthday, and with the scars and scrapes and toil of 18 professional seasons starting to weigh him down, the veteran raised his game one more time and pulled off an unexpected win.
The key was the Poggio climb – or rather its descent. The Italian rider Moreno Argentin went over the top 15 seconds clear of the rest and, in superb early-season form, seemed destined to triumph. Kelly had other thoughts. The hill is followed by a serpentine descent into Sanremo, a looping, twisting road with dangerous switchbacks every few hundred metres.
Argentin went down fast; Kelly went down even faster. He eked out metres over the other riders in his group with each hairpin curve, drawing clear, and his skill and recklessness brought him closer and closer to his prey.
He got across to Argentin just before the final kilometre, then blasted past him in the final sprint. Although he wasn’t as strong as the Italian starting the race, he defeated him through a combination of tactics, skill and risk-taking.
“When the race comes down to the sharp end, when everyone is prepared to bare their teeth, it is the one who is prepared to bite that will win,” he writes.
In other words, the one with the greatest hunger.
Those who have followed the sport will know many details of his career: the victories, the defeats, the triumphs and the disappointments. Hunger takes the reader through those again but this time from Kelly’s perspective. There’s also a fleshing out of previous aspects of his story, with details of his early years at home in Ireland among the most fascinating.
He talks about his character, about growing up as a quiet kid on a farm near Carrick-on-Suir. “I was shy, but that wasn’t the only reason I kept my mouth shut. I took after father. If I had nothing to say I didn’t feel the need to fill the silence with blather,” he writes.
In another section he describes his focus on earning, and keeping, money. “Father lived according to the rhythm of the farm, knowing that in times of plenty you put a little something away for the days when there was not so much to spare,” he explains. But he then goes on to say that it was his elder brother Joe who made a bigger impression. “I didn’t like looking across at Joe and seeing his pile of savings after I’d spent all my own money.”
Harrowingly, Joe would die in his 30s as a result of a cycling accident, but he played a big part in his younger brother’s life. He got Kelly into the sport, his own interest in cycling setting his sibling on a path that would lead him to the top.
That route would see Kelly land major amateur success at home and abroad, be banned from the Olympics after his fellow Irishman Pat McQuaid convinced him to race in South Africa during the apartheid era, secure a pro contract after winning the amateur Tour of Lombardy and go on to early sprint success in the Tour de France.
Other landmarks are covered in the book: briefly wearing the yellow jersey in the 1983 tour, taking his first Classic win later that year, developing into the world’s best one-day rider, finishing fourth and fifth overall in the Tour de France and then winning the Vuelta a España, and experiencing the biggest disappointment of his career when he was outsprinted by Greg LeMond in the 1989 world road-race championships.
He goes into considerable detail about his life, but this is not a tell-all book about the sport; the subject of doping is passed over relatively quickly, with Kelly explaining away his positive tests for Stimul and codeine in 1984 and 1988 respectively. The first, he suggests, was a testing error; the second was because he had used a cough medication without verifying the ingredients were all allowed.
The allegations made against him by his former team worker Willy Voet are not mentioned. Kelly doesn’t deny substances were abused in the sport, though. He defends Paul Kimmage’s Rough Ride book, which spoke of the subject. “A lot of it was true, so why criticise him?” he asks.
Kelly was always pragmatic. That sentiment comes through repeatedly in this well-written book, but so too does his hunger.
Shane Stokes is Cycling Correspondent and editor of the website velonation.com