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Kids who grow up in the country tend to be short on options. Farming is less an occupation than a family inheritance, something bequeathed from father to son through generations, as indelibly a part of identity as a chin. And being handed the family farm can be as much an honor as a curse, for those who dream of something more, carrying the weight of a family has a way of snuffing out ambitions like a match dropped in a toilet.
Words: Patrick Brady
Illustrations: Matthew Burton
Sean Kelly grew up in Curraghduff, a tiny hamlet in Ireland’s County Waterford. His family farmed 48 acres there—about the size of a small college campus. Kids who don’t leave the farm become the cautionary tale for those who do. Staying on the farm means a life that varies only according to the seasons, that the years blend until the only memorable events are those years that were out of the ordinary—the floods, the droughts, the bumper crops.
After only eight years of school, Kelly began to work the family farm. It was his brother who took up cycling first and Sean soon followed, entering—and winning—his first race at the age of 14. Despite a stint as a bricklayer, nothing captured Kelly’s heart the way bike racing did and he progressed through the amateur ranks, winning the national championship before being signed to his first pro contract at the age of 21.
Kelly’s development almost certainly owes to the fact that he was signed to second-rate teams with no strong general classification riders. Though his first team included then current world champion Freddy Maertens and the talented Michel Pollentier, Kelly was initially relegated to the B squad of lesser riders, where he received little mentoring.
It is in those early years as a pro in which his cast was set. Though he could be a capable and loyal domestique, Kelly understood bike racing in its purest form: as a sprinter. And while notable, the greatest sprinters the peloton has seen, men like Mario Cipollini, Alfredo Binda and Mark Cavendish, are rarely spoken of with the reverence reserved for a Tour de France champion. If there’s one thing a victory in the Tour de France does, it is to convey greatness on its winner, and confirming greatness without having won the Tour is difficult—some would say impossible. At least, usually. For every rule, there is an exception, and Sean Kelly is one such exception.
“King Kelly” as he was called, is often referred to as the greatest rider never to win the Tour de France. It’s an odd distinction—the best to never—and it’s unlikely that anyone would want to be remembered that way.
So why is he remembered more for what he didn’t do than what he did? Easy. It’s a simpler story. So prolific was he in winning, that to say Kelly is the greatest rider never to win the Tour de France is to say Kelly won everything but the Tour, which is very nearly the case.
Kelly’s record in the classics is one envied by nearly every pro cyclist. He won Milan-San Remo twice. He won Paris-Roubaix twice. Same for Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He was thrice victorious at the Tour of Lombardy. Alas, he failed to take all the monuments, coming second at the Tour of Flanders three times.
It would be easy to look at that record and decide that Kelly was a man for the one-day classics, but that would be to misunderstand him. Kelly raced from March to October and lined up for everything—Grand Tours, one-day races, short stage races, you name it. It was this approach that made him so formidable in the spring, and so much more … manageable … come the Tour.
Kelly admitted as much, revealing in several interviews late in his career that he raced too much in the early season and often arrived at the Tour without the form he’d enjoyed in the spring. But to say he raced too often doesn’t get at the heart of the problem—yes, problem. It could be said that if he was on the line, he was there to race. And that’s why his palmares is a virtual inventory of the world’s great bike races.
Too much of a good thing
Kelly’s best years were from ’82 to ’88, but his best year was 1984. That was the year he won a stunning 33 races, a record that catapulted him to the top of the world rankings, a spot he held until ’89. His six years as the world’s top rider remains a record, one that is likely to stay, given that the way the rankings are calculated are now weighted much more on the present than the past.
Kelly put the world on notice that this would be no ordinary season early in the year. His first win was a small race, the Gran Prix Aix-en-Provence in the south of France. It was the 1980s answer to races like Qatar that feature warmer weather than would be seen during most of the spring campaign. In Paris-Nice, he won stage 2 as well as stage 7, enabling him to take the overall victory—for the third straight year. The Criterium Internationale went even better for him, winning the opening road stage, the second stage, which was set in the mountains, and the final time trial, which resulted, naturally, in his overall win. He also raced the Tour du Pays Basque and took the first, third and fifth stages on his way to securing the overall.
Of course, once the classics began, the field was even tougher. At Milan-San Remo he missed out on the win, taking second to Francesco Moser. His luck was no better (or worse) at the Tour Flanders; he finished second to Johan Lammerts. But Roubaix was to be different.
1984 Paris-Roubaix accompanied by a great tune by Christopher Cross.
The ’84 Paris-Roubaix was one of those raw days that helped to give the race its nickname—the Hell of the North. Though it didn’t rain that day, it had rained in the days prior to the race, making for muddy conditions. With less than 50 km to go Kelly and Rudy Rogiers caught Alain Bondue and Gregor Braun, but the quartet quickly splintered with Braun and Bondue getting dropped and Rogiers leading Kelly into the Roubaix Velodrome. With half a lap to go Kelly wound up his sprint, coming around Rogiers and gapping him before the line. In tight bunch sprints Kelly would raise only a single arm in triumph out of caution and consideration for the other riders. This was a day in which he was clear enough to raise both arms in his signature double-punch into the air.
At Liège-Bastogne-Liège Kelly was able to make the final selection of an ultra-elite group. There were nine riders present and the group had a 1:40 gap to the rest of the field. In addition to Kelly, there was defending champion Steven Rooks, ‘80 Tour de France champion Joop Zoetemelk, ’83 Tour champion Laurent Fignon, world champion Greg LeMond, Phil Anderson, Acacio Da Silva, Claude Criquelion and Marc Madiot. Kelly dove into the final turn, which that year was less than 100 meters from the line. He exited the turn with Phil Anderson and Greg LeMond on his wheel; it was the first, and remains the only, sweep of the Liège-Bastogne-Liège podium by English-speaking riders. His next success was at the Tour of the North, which he won, before heading to the Tour of Switzerland. There, Kelly took the first stage on his way to finishing fourth overall.
By the time riders took to the road in Monteuil for the prologue of the ’84 Tour de France, Kelly was considered one of the favorites. Bernard Hinault was back following a year out of the Tour due to injury. Laurent Fignon, the returning champion, was less favored for the win than Hinault; many thought, given his age, his victory the year before was a fluke. Due to his amazing spring campaign, there was speculation that Kelly might take his first Grand Tour. Though he was wary of his climbing abilities, in ’84 there were only five climbing stages, four in the Alps and one in the Pyrénées. This seemed to be a course suited to the Irishman.
Let’s cut to the chase: Kelly didn’t do it. He spent the race focused on the green points jersey and despite wearing it for a portion of the race, he lost the jersey on the Champs Élysées to Frank Hoste, with whom he’d battled the entire race. Hoste finished four points to the good. Rather than selectively look for stage wins, Kelly had battled each and every sprint, failing to take a single stage. He finished fifth overall, 16:35 down on Fignon.
After winning a string of post-Tour criteriums, Kelly closed out his season with wins at the GP Plouay, two stages at the Tour du Limousin, Paris-Bourges, three stages and the overall at the Tour of Catalonia and Blouis-Chaville. He had a near miss at the Grand Prix des Nations time trial, taking second to the Tour’s runner-up, Hinault.
By his own admission, Kelly says he lined up for something on the order of 120 races that season. That’s nearly four solid months of racing. And yet he won 33 races, giving him a winning rate of just more than 25 percent.
A Year Wiser
Following a good, but less dominant spring, Kelly arrived at the start of the Tour de France considered a favorite yet again. The ’85 race was very similar to ’84. There were five mountain stages—two in the Alps and three in the Pyrénées—and five time trials—a prologue, a team time trial and three individual time trials. Kelly appeared to be in terrific form.
So what did he do? He focused on the green jersey yet again. Stage one was taken by Rudy Mathijs, with Eric Vanderaerden finishing second and Kelly third. The next day Kelly was second to Mathijs. Following the team time trial where Kelly’s Skil team finished tenth at 2:52, the first breakaway made it to the finish in stage 4. Kelly finished ninth, second in the field sprint.
Stage 5 was rinse and repeat. Kelly finished 11 seconds down on Henri Manders, leading the field in for second place. Stage 6 didn’t see Kelly at the head of the field, but in stage 7, again he led the field in following a disintegrating breakaway, this time for seventh. By now, Kelly was fifth on GC, only 1:09 down on the yellow jersey.
Stage 8 was the race’s first ITT. Hinault schooled the entire field, finishing 2:20 clear of second-placed Stephen Roche. Kelly was seventh and gave up 2:52 to the Badger, but rose to third on the GC, at 2:54.
This was it. If ever there was an occasion that should have told Kelly he was a real contender for the yellow jersey, this should have been it.
Somewhere there is a parallel universe, a place where Greg LeMond didn’t get shot, a place where Michele Ferrari flunked out of biology, a place where Andy Hampsten actually won the Tour.
In that better world, Sean Kelly goes back to his bedroom that night, considers his place in the world and makes a decision to pursue the GC, Hinault be damned. In the stages that follow, he sits on wheels, allows others to close gaps, eschews sprints in favor of saving something for the high mountains and time trials.
On stage 17, the stage that takes in the Tourmalet and Aspin before ascending to Luz Ardiden, the day of LeMond’s epic wait, when he sat up for teammate Hinault, Kelly is fresh, in the break, hits the jets and finishes on same time with the stage winner, Pedro Delgado, taking the yellow jersey and holding it to Paris. We can dream, right?
The reality is that Kelly was the most existential of riders; not to sprint for whatever place he could within his group was anathema to his very being. No rider has ever been more present in his need to achieve.
So what really happened after stage 8? Kelly took the field sprint for sixth place following a five-man breakaway. No lesson learned. Amazingly, on stage 12, the second Alpine stage, he showed his true ability. On the day of the Colombians—Fabio Parra and Lucho Herrera took first and second—Kelly led home the favorites, a mere 38 seconds back, this following a stage of 269 km and seven categorized climbs. Sean Kelly was one of the world’s finest climbers, only he didn’t know it.
The next day in the Villard de Lans time trial, Kelly finished tenth, 1:42 down on Vanderaerden but only 35 seconds down on Hinault. Stage 15 was same stuff, different stage: Kelly finished third, leading the favorites to the finish. On stage 16 he faltered, only finishing sixth—third in the lead group.
Stage 17 was the fateful day of Paul Koechli’s betrayal of Greg LeMond, telling the wunderkind not to ride for himself, that Hinault—who had been less dropped by the leaders than dumped in a ditch and left for dead—was only 40 seconds back. LeMond and others have estimated that Hinault may have been down as much as three minutes. The American was the heartsick girl waiting for her dream date to call.
Kelly was fourth on the stage, behind three of the finest climbers of that generation: Pedro Delgado, Luis Herrera and Fabio Parra. Fourth. Ahead of LeMond (fifth), Phil Anderson (eighth), Joop Zoetemelk (11th) and Stephen Roche (12th). Hinault would finish 18th, 1:13 behind Kelly’s group.
Kelly often told journalists that he would have a bad day in the high mountains. July 17 was a double-stage day. Stage 18a wasn’t it. The course took in the Soulor and finished atop the Aubisque; Roche escaped and the ensuing chase saw riders finishing alone or in twos and threes. Kelly came second, rolling across the line alone. In the afternoon, stage 18b wasn’t it, either. Kelly again led the favorites across the line, third behind a two-man breakaway.
Bordeaux, aside from being known for some of the greatest wines, is perhaps the spiritual home to sprinters. Because every approach to the city is flat, races that end in Bordeaux end in sprints. Eric Vanderaerden took this one, with Kelly a close second.
LeMond took the final time trial around Lac de Vassiviere. Hinault was a mere 5 seconds back, while Kelly was at 54 seconds, giving up only 49 seconds to Hinault.
Mathijs, who took stages 1 and 2, threw the victory salute on the Champs Élysées, but at his shoulder … never mind, you know the drill. History shows that Kelly took home the green jersey with 434 points to Greg LeMond’s (yes, Greg LeMond) 332. That year, the top pure sprinter was Vanderaerden in fifth with 258 points. But because of the race between LeMond and Hinault, often forgotten is the fact that Kelly, a sprinter, finished fourth, at 6:26.
The Big Picture
It’s easy to see Sean Kelly’s career as a case of what might have been. Imagine Marlon Brando saying, “I coulda been a contender,” with an Irish brogue. However, in interviews, Kelly himself has no such illusions.
At a celebration of his career when he retired he told an interviewer who questioned him about possible regrets, “Cycling has been everything for me. If I had stayed in Carrick on Suir, as a farmer or as a bricklayer—as I was before I became a cyclist—I would never be as well off financially as I am, and as well known. I made a name for myself, I’ve travelled the world. So you know cycling has brought me so much, it’s brought me everything, really.”
From Issue 14. Buy it here.