Photo: The Kelly Legs
There they stand, not really on a podium, but some kind of platform, shared with various unknown well-wishers. There they stand, the stark personification of their profession to the point of absurdity; not a single extraneous bit of fat, just lean, honed muscle encased in thin, grimy skin. It takes more than 10,000 hours to get legs like these. These are the legs of Sean Kelly. These are the legs that have just spent 6 hours, 47 minutes and 51 seconds riding 246.7 kms to triumph in the 1984 edition of Liege-Bastogne-Liege, beating Phil Anderson and Greg LeMond to win the oldest of the five “Monuments.” 193 riders started, only 55 finished.
In 1984 cycling was on the cusp of clipless pedals becoming the norm in the peloton, a move spearheaded by Bernard Hinault in a collaboration with Look, better known for their ski bindings. Within a couple of seasons almost all riders would use them but some opted to stay with the tried and true clips and straps that had been ubiquitous for decades. It wasn’t that Kelly was against developments such as aluminum or carbon frames, better, non-wool clothing (he had turned professional in 1977 when the bikes and clothing hadn’t changed much in fifty years), but when it came to how he was connected to his bike, Kelly was old school and resolutely, determinedly, stuck with clips and straps well into the 1990s.
One issue with clips and straps was the wear and tear the strap buckle could do to the outside of the shoe. Kelly’s solution? Duct tape. Ride/race specific and carefully trimmed, duct tape achieved several things: it protected the outer side of the shoe and added some security should laces come loose. Remember, this was before Velcro straps with their ease of one-handed adjustment became commonplace. The mystery here is just what brand of shoe Kelly’s wearing. 1984 was truly Kelly’s coming out year. He won an astonishing thirty-three races. Soon Sidi, Gaerne and Vittoria would come offering big money to the Carrick man to wear their shoes, but in 1984 he was still riding . . . what? I’ve seen pictures where he’s clearly wearing the (now non-existent) French brand Rivat, but then in others he seems to be wearing Adidas shoes while in some Puma shoes with their distinctive “swoosh” seem to be that day’s choice. However, close inspection of several pictures tell an inconclusive story which jives with the times. It was not unusual, in fact it was commonplace, for riders to ride frames made by a preferred builder but decaled with another name. Even today, non-sponsor compliant logos are often covered up or obliterated.
Close inspection of several Kelly photos from 1984 seem to show him wearing Adidas shoes with rather clumsily rendered Puma stripes on the side. This photo offers little concrete proof save to say they are mostly black mesh with plastic soles, and low cut around the ankle. Puma cycling shoes of this level had white soles; I think they’re Adidas Eddy Merckx shoes with the three white stripes literally blacked out and the tape helping with the cover-up.
Shoe brand aside, from a more aesthetic point of view this picture has always been a favorite of mine. The incredible curvaceous muscularity of Kelly’s legs is emphasized in contrast with the nondescript pant legs of his companions. His black, curved sole cycling shoes jar marvelously with the assorted sneakers and heels around him. The various faces in the background, including the little boy who looks at the camera from between Kelly’s ankles, seem miniscule in comparison to the legs, giving the latter an almost monumental quality. And for a rider who won four of the five “Monuments” a total of nine times, monumental seems to be the perfect word.