Book Review: “Hunger” by Sean Kelly

December 3, 2013 § 12 Comments

For all the retro riding, wool jersey wearing, down-tube shifting, Velominati masturbators who think it’s just not real road riding unless you’re banging over cobbles in the rain and sleet and mud while dragging a tire behind you on your third 100-km loop on Flandrian farm roads in January, Sean Kelly’s autobiography will enlighten you: He, Sean Kelly, one of the hardest of the hard men, didn’t particularly like any of that shit.

He did it because he was a professional, and to his way of thinking, a professional did what his employer told him to do.

Coal miner’s daughter

Kelly is a terrible writer. The Kindle version of the book is filled with mistakes, and Kelly writes the same way he once laid bricks. However, the brute force and brute honesty of the book make up for it.

Kelly writes openly about his despicable decision to violate the international athletic ban and join fellow douchebag Pat McQuaid by racing in South Africa during apartheid. To his discredit, he never seems to understand how deplorable his actions were, and worse, his experience in South Africa left him completely unmoved. “Different lifestyles,” was how he summarized a despotic regime that brutalized people based on the color of their skin.

To his credit, he never complained about being banned from the Olympics due to his actions. Kelly admits to knowing the risk, and to uncomplainingly accepting the consequences. This factual, unromantic approach to life is one of the things that made him such a superb racer. He was devoid of illusions, and focused only on the task at hand, which for him was essentially hard, hard work and a shit-ton of it.

No diapers, no thank you

One can look at the Froomes and Frandys of our modern peloton and grimace when comparing their pampered lives to the career of Kelly. He went to France as an amateur, followed instructions, and won races. As a professional he rode for Jean de Gribaldy at Flandria, and was lucky to race under a manager who was years ahead of his time. Gribaldy demanded shorter quality rides as well as a long mid-week rides in a era when it was all about huge mileage. Moreover, he was fanatical about weight and diet.

Under de Gribaldy’s tutelage, Kelly became King Kelly. The book chronicles his successes, but is amazingly humble. Most telling is Kelly’s description of his attitude towards inclement weather and tough riding conditions. He never liked it, but since it was his job, he went out and did his best. The sheer number and volume of races that he did each year was likewise incredible, but he did it because his manager demanded it, not because he was some kind of glutton for punishment.

Drugs, yes, please

Kelly’s book is likewise frank about drugs. He was busted twice for doping, and he never reviled Paul Kimmage — unlike many of his contemporaries — for breaking the code of silence about drugs. “A lot of what he said was true,” says Kelly. As with his Olympic ban, Kelly doesn’t go into too much detail, but he never evades the truth. Kelly was a pro. Pros doped. Complete the syllogism yourself.

You’ll enjoy this book. It’s a complete rejection of the Velominati and their faux hardman ethos. You’ll also appreciate what a hard working professional Sean Kelly really was.

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§ 12 Responses to Book Review: “Hunger” by Sean Kelly

  • RGT says:

    Another Kelly pictorial autobiography worth a look: “Sean Kelly: A Man for All Seasons”

  • Amsterdam Hammer says:

    I had the honor of racing with him in his last pro season, a nice guy on top of hard man !

  • CyclePower says:

    Velominati hate? Do I detect cattiness in the velo blogosphere? Honestly, the styles of your two blogs are pretty darned similar, both in prose and content.

  • Nice review. Thanks. I know the Velominati ‘rules’ could be taken as ironic but there are a bunch of DB’s out there who seem to treat them as real. I always think they should have made rule #5 “Harden the F up”, rule #1 and stopped there. What mythical hardman cares about rule #8 – color matching?

    • fsethd says:

      Kelly didn’t rub his hands gleefully when it rained, contrary to myth. He was just tougher and better than the others when it did.

      Yes, Velominati has taken on a seriousness that its founders may not have intended. I’m still amazed by puffcakes who shout out “Rule number … “

  • Rob says:

    Kelly rode the Vitus 979 frame for a few years and won big on it. The Vitus was one of the early alloy frames to hit the market. The tubing was held together with epoxy. Boy, we’ve come a long way.

    • fsethd says:

      And Hans Schneider found out how that epoxy stuff worked in a post-Tour of Texas circuit race on Allen Parkway in Houston when the top tube separated from the head tube. His injuries were … private.

  • Mike says:

    Nice review, I think I will pick this up. And, oh look, I’m all caught up here!!

    • fsethd says:

      It’s a very good, quick read, but it’s only available in really expensive hardback (over $26), or Kindle for $9.99.

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