Blazin' Saddles: Sean Kelly gives his verdict on the 2018 cycling season
Cycling legend and Eurosport commentator Sean Kelly tells Felix Lowe what his stand-out moments were from 2018 – including Britain's Grand Tour triple crown and Alejandro Valverde's rainbow bands. Kelly also gazes into his crystal ball ahead of next season's world championships in Yorkshire and mulls over some tough decisions facing Dave Brailsford at Team Sky.
Former Vuelta a Espana champion, classics supremo and multiple monument winner Sean Kelly took time out from the recent Rouleur Classic event in central London to discuss all things cycling.
Having followed all the major races from the Eurosport commentary box alongside the likes of Carlton Kirby, Rob Hatch and Matt Stephens, King Kelly was happy to discuss who and what impressed him most this year, while looking ahead at 2019 and what should be yet another intriguing season.
Eurosport: Evening, Sean. Let's get right to the point. What was your best moment of 2018?
Sean Kelly: There have been so many great moments in 2018. We've been spoilt with such great racing in the big tours this year. For me the Giro was the big one. That breakaway in stage 19 with Chris Froome doing 80km solo.
We thought many times during the race that Froome wasn't at the level he'd like to be at to challenge to win the Giro. And then he managed to go on that breakaway and ride 80km on his own – and hold off a chasing group of five riders, including [Thibaut] Pinot and [Tom] Dumoulin. He won that Giro and that was amazing. It was just another indication of what a big champion and what a great three-week tour rider Chris Froome is.
Eurosport: Now, Sean, you were pretty handy in the classics in your time. We had five different winners in the monuments this season – which was your favourite race?
Sean Kelly: I think it would have to be Paris-Roubaix and the breakaway of Peter Sagan. I for one was very much doubting that Sagan could hold on. When he went on the attack, I thought he was going to burn himself off too far out. But he did that amazing ride and got himself across to the breakaway in front, continued on, and got his Roubaix victory.
But that's the way the classics have been in the last few years: long breakaways. We saw last year Philippe Gilbert in the Tour of Flanders going from much too far out, I thought, but he managed to hold on in the end. It got very close for him but that's the way the riders are thinking now because if you wait to the very end then you get too many riders in the finale and gets very complicated. These long breakaways are the ones that are winning the classics.
Eurosport: In the world championships we saw 38-year-old Alejandro Valverde finally get his gold medal. It's a title that eluded you in your career – are you not tempted to come out of retirement for another pop?
Sean Kelly: Well, it was an amazing performance by Valverde. But we have seen Valverde perform in the world championships so many times so very well. He's been up there in the medals for many years. This year he got one of those dream days when you're feeling so good. You could see him in the worlds, he was just following, following on the climbs all the time. He was looking at what was happening out on the front, and when you can do that, you know you're on a really good day.
Bike racing is like that – when you get to 36, 37, 38, you can still be so competitive in the one-day races. In the big tours it's a bit more complicated: when you get older you don't recover as well or as quick as you'd like to. But what a performance from Valverde in the world championships.
Eurosport: We have three British winners in Grand Tours this season with Froome, Geraint Thomas and Simon Yates. Looking ahead, what can we expect next year?
Sean Kelly: It's going to be very difficult to repeat 2018 with three British riders winning the big tours. There's going to be a lot of pressure on those riders. It's not a situation where one rider won two big tours this year, for example; that would have been a bit easier because they could have said, 'For next year I'm going to focus on one big tour'.
Now all those riders who won last year will want to go back and prove they can do it again. Which races they focus on for now, we don't know. It's going to be interesting to see which riders focus on which three-week races.
Eurosport: Put yourself in Sir Dave Brailsford's shoes – who do you pick between Froome and Thomas when it comes to the Tour?
Sean Kelly: It's a complicated one and it's difficult enough in a big team to win a big tour. That's a big ask. But when you have a team where two riders want to win the same big tour, it becomes very complicated.
" Will Chris Froome be going for the Tour of France? I certainly think so. Will Geraint Thomas be going for the Tour of France? I think he'd like to. "
But will Thomas be happy going to the Giro, maybe? Then, the following year, having full team support at the Tour de France? That may be a scenario that Team Sky could be trying to do.
So, Geraint Thomas going for the Giro and Chris Froome focusing on the Tour – that would be a great situation for Dave Brailsford. But will the riders be happy with that? I don't know.
Eurosport: British fans will be excited that the worlds are coming here next year – what can we expect from Yorkshire?
Sean Kelly: It's going to be another difficult world championships and of course, Yorkshire, that time of year, weather conditions can be a problem. And if you get wet weather conditions then it will make it more difficult again.
I think there are going to be a lot of riders capable of winning it and that's always interesting. It's not like it's a world championships that's flat and you can say there are only three or four sprinters capable of winning. There's going to be so many riders who think they can go to Yorkshire next year thinking 'I can be world champion here'.
Eurosport: On reflection, what was your stand-out race and who was your stand-out rider of the year?
Sean Kelly: I think the Vuelta was a very interesting race and of course your stand-out riders are the new ones. I think Enric Mas [Quick-Step Floors] was excellent in the Vuelta this year. He proved that he could climb, he proved that he could time trial very well, and of course he got on the podium in the Vuelta. So I think for me he's the stand-out rider and one for the future.
Eurosport: What about Simon Yates's comeback to win the Vuelta after coming so close in the Giro – how impressive was that?
Sean Kelly: I was always expecting Simon Yates [Mitchelton-Scott] to give a big three-week tour a run. He has been developing these past years and getting stronger. He was excellent in the Giro, did too much, too early. Of course, the time trial in the Giro was always the problem for him with Dumoulin and those riders. He was really concerned with those guys so he was trying to take as much time bonuses as he could in the earlier part but paid the price dearly in the end.
But he bounced back in the Vuelta, where I felt he was much more experienced. He was much more mature in the Vuelta because of the mistakes he made in the Giro, and he won a magnificent Vuelta. Tactically, he won it very well – and that's something you have to be able to do in a three-week tour. So, I think Simon Yates is here for the years to come. He'll be a challenger for the big tours – which ones that will be we will have to wait and see.
Eurosport: Many thanks, Sean. We look forward to hearing you commentating on all the races next year. Enjoy the off-season and see you in 2019.