Life's a sprint as Kelly keeps it steady on the Champs-Élysées


TV VIEW:IN THE past Seán Kelly was the man credited with being so monosyllabic that he actually nodded to a question on radio. Apocryphal perhaps. Of course it was then inevitable that one of Ireland’s greatest cyclists would eventually go on and make a career out of talking for Eurosport on cycling, the 21-stage Tour de France rolling to an end in Paris yesterday afternoon from Créteil, just outside Paris, to the Champs-Élysées.

Kelly, the Irishman who ate nails and spit rust, saddling his way around the cobbled routes of Europe, was the man who continued to ride with broken bones and gashed limbs when all others would have sought the sanctuary of the broom wagon. He was the Chuck Norris of cycling. Norris is the expressionless round-house face kicker, the indestructible, baddest man on the planet, who has achieved many things. Websites have been constructed around Chuck Norrisisms.

“Chuck Norris counted to infinity – twice,” says one. “Chuck Norris uses a night light, not because he’s afraid but because the dark is afraid of Chuck Norris,” says another.

So Kelly and David Harmon, whose first love is archaeology, took us through the peloton – meaning a little ball or platoon – as the four coloured jerseys rolled out from Creteil, green, white, polka dot and the yellow on the back of Cadel Evans, the first Southern Hemisphere rider ever to win the tour.

The last day of the race is one of those semi-serious, semi-processional rides, where the winner is never in doubt. Even if Evans had a mishap, a puncture or a fall, the rest of the pack would never attack, we were told. Others in the studio were not that sure. Aussie Evans’ buttock- shaped chin, Eurosport told us, deserved its own pair of Speedos.

Not so much racing at the beginning as chewing, chatting, talking to the cars and motorcycles that surround the riders, the 95-kilometre run was a mere sprint compared to the 205 kilometre stage between Pinerolo to Galibier Serre-Chevalier a few days ago. Mythic climbs up the mountains took them to an altitude of 2,645 metres, well into thin air zone and the highest in the race’s history.

Yes, yesterday’s pedal-thon was at odds with the mountain runs that burned off riders such as Ireland’s Nicolas Roche or Saturday’s time trial that handed the yellow jersey and the winner’s position to Evans, who went up the boulevard in the French capital one and a half minutes ahead of the field. The vibe was good and this year, for the first time in many, the spectre of drugs was not at the forefront.

“I think the people who really count sat down around a table and said, ‘the old era is over now let’s do it clean boys,’” declared Harmon in his inimitably enthusiastic patter. There was a short silence and they then broke off for an advertising break before Kelly could chime in with his opinion.

There was talk about clean cycling and the steady move away from the old dark days, stretching back to 1998 when the Festina team delivered its load of doping dung on the cycling community. Evans, Harmon told us, was coached by Aldo Massi, a staunchly anti-doping elder statesman who recently died of cancer.

It was a stage too in which there was little need for heroics, more of a tiller hand, steady and careful-as-she-goes type of end. Kelly again brought his analytical voice. There is an understated certitude about Kelly’s style. Never overelaborate, he also never attempts to modulate that south Tipperary lilt.

“There was no one real super in the mountains,” said Kelly. “Yis,” said Harmon at one stage mimicking him.

“I think it’s both brave and bold,” said Kelly of this year’s event. “It makes a change from what we’ve seen in the past where the sprint has dominated every stage. They needed to change it. For me, since I started commentating, which was when the tour started back in Ireland in 1998, it has been the best.”

The actual racing began yesterday at around the halfway stage as the riders ran under the river Seine, past the Louvre, the Egyptian Needle, up the arched Rue du Rivoli and onto the Champs-Élysées, the rough cobbles at the top around the imposing Arc de Triomphe, the traffic lights flashing orange all adding to a spectacular, explosive conclusion.

A sunny bright day in Paris, the crowd 20 deep, the metro closed to curb the numbers flooding into the finish area and still hundreds of thousands out to celebrate France’s biggest event.

“This is the unofficial World Sprint Championship,” said Harmon as the teams grouped in snaking lines of uniform colour inching towards the most famous conclusion of any race in world sport.

And cheeky Mark Cavendish did it again. Didn’t ya love it.