The Longchamp chaingang; training in Paris with Sean Kelly

King of the Classics

Team Eurosport Commentary in action

RCUK’s ed. won’t be laughing shortly


Carbon frame, Brooks saddle

Longchamp racecourse in here

Classics king Sean Kelly, winner of nine of cycling’s “Monuments”, the Tour of Spain and a record seven consecutive editions of Paris-Nice and three-times Super Prestige Pernod International title holder, likes to train when he is in Paris, commentating for Eurosport alongside David Harmon, by joining the chaingang that circulates around the Hippodrome de Longchamp, hard by the Bois de Boulogne on the western edge of the city.

Hoping to find out what the fuss is all about, I join Kelly and Harmon as they set off for a few laps – or hours depending on how they feel. The Longchamp chaingang is an institution, taking place as it does every day and attracting cyclists from all over Paris and its environs, many of whom drive to the Hippodrome and park before extracting a bike that can be anything from immaculate and expensive to a right old nail and then joining in.

The format is simple; ride the cycle path around the outside of the Longchamp racecourse and either catch or be caught by a group. Catch one and its members will probably try to hang on. Get caught by one and you might as well do the same, although there are plenty of soloists ploughing a lonely furrow on our morning ride.

The weekday action seems to hot up from around 10:00hrs, prior to which only an early-rising hardcore, presumably of those with proper employment, is to be seen. Setting off from the luxury Eurosport hotel in Boulogne-Billancourt, where the legendary ACBB amateur team of riders such as Stephen Roche, Sean Yates and Phil Anderson was based, we arrived at Longchamp just in time to get in a quiet lap.

There’s surely nothing new that can be written about the career of one of the all-time greats of cycle racing; his nine Monument wins – two each in Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix Liege-Bastogne-Liege and three Tours of Lombardy – place him equal third in the Classics alongside Fausto Coppi and, with four Tour de France points jerseys and a Grand Tour to his name, there have been few such complete riders.

Following the great man through the morning Paris traffic is a real pleasure, the opportunity to observe his surprisingly neat and economical pedalling style and famously upright riding position not one to be missed. Kelly’s machine is a Principia Ellipse Integral C24T as ridden by his An Post development team and wears SRAM Force with DT Swiss wheels and the latest Hutchinson Fusion 3 clinchers. His legs are unshaved; “I had enough of that over the years.”

Harmon is riding a mystery metallic blue machine and is in serious training for a series of road record attempts with Team Wiggle Tandem, a prospect that clearly intrigues and mystifies his colleague. It also allows Kelly plenty of opportunity for a light ribbing, much of it concerning Harmon’s liking for the front of the bunch.

Which I quickly discover is not such a great place to be. Dawdling along, we are suddenly in the middle of a decent-sized bunch going at about 25mph and made up of a wide selection of cycling talent ranging all the way from, well, a multiple Monument winner to someone on something apparently retrieved from the depths of the Seine. There is sparse conversation and, if the riders recognise Kelly, there is little sign but for a few nods and quick words.

Perhaps it’s because the pace is too high for pleasantries.  A hefty chap in a pale “Bretagne” jersey is on the front and this, according to Kelly, is not good news. I soon see why as, being the one sat on his wheel, I take over on the front on a slight rise into a stiff breeze. Maintaining his pace for perhaps 10 seconds, I have to pull off and retreat to the safety of the bunch while Monsieur Bretagne returns to the front for another pull.

In fact, he does the same whenever the pace drops below about 25mph, which is not often since he has several willing accomplices. Staying tucked away out of the wind, I get my breath and legs back and after an hour and about a dozen laps start feeling quite comfortable. As Harmon points out, it really is great training at any level of fitness provided you can stay in the bunch, a short spell on the front a great speed session for those who can manage it.

After another few laps I try a turn on the front along the tailwind-assisted leg and fondly imagine I am hurting a few legs. Soon enough we pull out as I have a Channel crossing to catch and leave the chaingang to it, although Kelly returns later for the evening session.

Weekdays see two peaks of participation, the evening ride said to be a little faster since it draws a fair number of hardened racing types who are at work during the day. Weekends see the cycle route around Longchamp so popular that, by midday, there is often one long line in circulation with riders going at different speeds joining in or dropping out like some sort of 3.2km lap Madison. Riding ceases during horse race days but is otherwise a near-constant feature of Paris cycling life and one worth taking in if staying in Paris with time to spare and a bike to hand.  

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