A belated happy birthday to John James “Sean” Kelly, who was born on May 24, 1956.
Regarded as perhaps the greatest cyclist of the 1980s, and certainly one of the finest “Classics” riders of all time, since turning professional in 1977 until his retirement in 1994, Kelly won no fewer than nine “Monuments” in the “Classics” calendar and 193 professional races in total.
For instance, Kelly won Paris–Nice seven years in a row and the first UCI Road World Cup in 1989. In addition, he also won the 1988 Vuelta a España and had multiple wins in the Giro di Lombardia, Milan–San Remo, Paris–Roubaix and Liège–Bastogne–Liège.
Other victories include the Critérium International, Grand Prix des Nations and smaller tours including the Tour de Suisse, Tour of the Basque Country and Volta a Catalunya.
Kelly was born the second son of a farming family in Curraghduff in County Waterford. He was named John James Kelly after his father, but in order to avoid confusion at home, the family decided to referred to him as Sean, which as many know is the Irish form of John.
Kelly’s education ended at the young age of 13 when he was forced to leave school to help on the farm after his father fell ill. He later began working as a bricklayer in order to further help support his family.
The young Kelly’s introduction to cycling came by way of his brother Joe, who had established himself amongst the locals as a fledgeling rider after winning a few local races.
Kelly later entered his first race in 1970 at Kennedy Terrace in Carrickbeg, County Waterford, part of Carrick-on-Suir. The race was an eight-mile (13 km) handicap, which meant the novice riders started first, while the more seasoned juniors began last.
As story has it, Kelly set off three minutes before the more experienced juniors, and was still three minutes ahead when the course turned for home after four miles (6 km) and more than three minutes in the lead when he crossed the line.
This would prove to be a portend for the young Irishman, as later that year he won the national junior championship at Banbridge, County Down.
Kelly won the national championship again in 1973, which led to him earning a senior license before the normal qualifying age of 18.
The following year, he won the Shay Elliot Memorial race in 1974 and again in 1975, followed by stages in the Tour of Ireland the next season.
In 1976, Kelly, along with two other Irish riders, Pat and Kieron McQuaid, went to South Africa to ride the Rapport Tour stage-race in preparation for the 1976 Olympic Games. However, the trio was forced to ride under false names because of an international ban on athletes competing in South Africa, as a protest against apartheid.
For this, cycling’s governing body later imposed a six-month ban for Irish riders, which was met with a lifetime ban from International Olympic Committee.
Unable to ride in that year’s Olympic Games in Canada, Kelly instead rode the 1976 Tour of Britain and later moved to France to race for an obscure cycling club team that offered him a salary of £25 a week, free lodgings and four francs a kilometer for every race he won.
During that period, Kelly won 18 out of 25 races he started in France, including the amateur Giro di Lombardia. This impressed the famous French team managers Jean de Gribaldy and Cyrille Guimard to the extent that they went to Ireland in search of Kelly who since returned to his family’s farm.
Legend has it, that after traversing the Irish countryside, De Gribaldy eventually found Kelly driving as tractor in the fields outside of his stepbrother’s house, where he offered him £4,000 a year salary plus bonuses to ride for his Flandria team.
A week later Kelly asked for £6,000 and got it. He signed for De Gribaldy with misgivings about going back on his promise to return to Metz, where the club had offered him better terms than before.
Kelly left for France in January 1977 and lived for two years at De Gribaldy’s home, along with four other teammates.
Kelly’s first professional race was the -six-day Étoile de Bessèges in 1977, wherein he finished 10th on the first day. The Flandria team at the time featured two parts, the strongest riders, such as the world champion Freddy Maertens, were in the main section, based in Belgium, while Kelly rode with the second section, based more in France. However, for the big races, both contingents came together. In this case, Kelly was selected to ride as a domestique for Maertens in the main team, but shortly afterwards he won his first race, the opening stage of the Tour de Romandie. In 1978. The following season, Kelly rode his first Tour de France, for which he won a stage.
Kelly remained with de Gribaldy for 1977 and 1978. But, later that season, Michel Pollentier was disqualified from the Tour de France after failing a drug test.
As a result, Pollentier left the team at the end of the season and started his own, with a new backer, Splendor.
Both Maertens and Pollentier dearly wanted Kelly to join their new squad, offering him both a handsome salary as well as the position of team leader.
Logistics and the poor state of equipment prevented Splendor from competing in that year’s Paris–Roubaix, prompting Kelly to ride on his own.
Cycling journalist Robin Magowan recounted:
“In time the team improved. Kelly received few offers from elsewhere and Splendor matched those he did get. He was paid about £30,000 plus bonuses in his last season. But strengthening the team had included bringing in another sprinter, Eddy Planckaert, and Kelly’s role as a foreigner in the team was unclear. He heard that de Gribaldy was starting a new team and the two were reunited in 1982 at Sem-France Loire.”
By now, Kelly had developed the reputation as primarily a sprinter who could not win major stage races, although he did finish fourth in the 1980 Vuelta a España.
De Gribaldy employed him as unambiguous team leader, someone he believed could win stage races and not just stages. To this end, de Gribaldy encouraged Kelly to lose weight, convincing the latter that he could target the overall win at Paris–Nice: Kelly won the “Race to the Sun” and four of its stages
On the last of those, a time-trial to the col d’Eze, he beat Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle and pushed him out of the lead. Years later Kelly admitted that his countryman Roche’s emergence during his neo-pro season in 1981, during which he had also won Paris-Nice, was one of the factors which motivated him to adjust his focus to becoming more of an all-round rider. However, the spring classics season proved a disappointment, with Kelly’s best result being a 12th place in Paris-Roubaix after suffering multiple punctures.Despite that, that season he went on to win another of objectives set by de Gribaldy: the points classification of the Tour de France, where he took five second places on flat stages before winning a reduced bunch sprint in Pau after climbing the Col d’Aubisque. His points total was nearly three times that of the points classification runner-up the yellow jersey winner Bernard Hinault.
Additionally, he finished third in the world championship in England – the first worlds medal for an Irish rider since Shay Elliott’s silver in 1962- and at the end of the year married his girlfriend, Linda Grant, the daughter of a local cycling club official. Carrick-on-Suir named the town square “the Sean Kelly Square” in tribute to his achievements in the 1982 Tour de France and his bronze medal at the championship. The following year Kelly again won Paris-Nice and then the Criterium International and the Tour de Suisse, as well as the points classification in the Tour de France the second time in a row.
However, Kelly reconfirmed his status in the pro peloton following season, after famously winning the Giro di Lombardia in a sprint finish by less than half a wheel ahead of Francesco Moser, Adri van der Poel, Hennie Kuiper and world champion Greg LeMond.
Kelly dominated the following spring, by winning Paris–Nice for the third successive time beating Roche and that year’s Tour de France winner, Hinault. In addition, Kelly finished second in Milan–San Remo and the Tour of Flanders, but was unbeatable in Paris–Roubaix and Liège–Bastogne–Liège.
The day after Paris–Roubaix, the French daily sports paper, L’Équipe, pictured Kelly cycling the cobbles with mud on his face and had the heading Insatiable Kelly! referring to his appetite for winning that spring. He won all three stages in the Critérium International: the bunch sprint on stage 1, a solo victory in the mountain stage and beating Roche in the final time trial. Kelly achieved 33 victories in 1984. He was becoming a contender in the grand tours, as seen by finishing fifth in the Tour de France. This may have caused him to lose his grip on the points classification in that year’s Tour. Kelly was wearing it as the Tour was finishing on the Champs-Élysées but lost it in the bunch finish to the Belgian, Frank Hoste, who finished ahead of Kelly gaining points to take the jersey off Kelly’s shoulders.
He won Paris-Nice for a fourth time in 1985, again beating Roche. In addition, he won the points classification for the third time and finished fourth in the 1985 Tour de France. Kelly won the first Nissan International Classic beating Van Der Poel that year as well, which was followed by another victory in the Giro di Lombardia.
The following season, he won Milan–San Remo in 1986 after winning Paris–Nice once more. He finished second in the Tour of Flanders and won Paris–Roubaix again. He finished on a podium in a grand tour for the first time when he finished third in the 1986 Vuelta a España.
However, Kelly was forced to miss that year’s Tour de France due to a serious crash in the last stage of Tour de Suisse. But, he returned to Ireland and won the Nissan Classic again. His second win in the Nissan came after a duel with Steve Bauer, who took the yellow jersey after Kelly crashed numerous times. Kelly went into the final stage three seconds behind Bauer and took the jersey when he finished third on the stage and won bonus seconds.
Kelly won Paris–Nice for an astonishing fifth time in 1987 on the last day, after Roche, who was leading the race, punctured.
Later that season, Kelly was forced to abandon the Vuelta a España with three days to go, as a result of an infected saddle sore. His bad luck continued in the Tour de France, retiring after a crash that left him with torn shoulder ligaments.
After the World Championship that season, in which he finished fifth behind Roche, Kelly returned to Ireland to win the Nissan for the third consecutive time.
Kelly won his record seventh Paris–Nice in spring 1988. He also won Gent–Wevelgem several weeks later.
Kelly returned to the Vuelta a España later that season, which started on the rugged mountainous island of Tenerife where his team struggled in the second stage, losing the influential rider Thomas Wegmüller to dysentery and losing further time in the time-trial around Las Palmas. However, on the Spanish mainland, Kelly concentrated on winning sprint time bonuses, battling with sprinter Jorge Dominguez, the BH teammate of leader, Laudelino Cubino.
After regaining a minute in four days, the race reached the mountains where Kelly relied on help from Robert Millar of team Fagor-MBK to stay within two minutes of Cubino after the mountain trial to Alto Oviedo. He then finished fourth behind stage-winner Fabio Parra and Anselmo Fuerte on stage 13 to the ski-station at Cerler, cutting a minute and a half into Cubino’s lead. From this stage, Fuerte had moved into second overall and later took the jersey from Cubino on the 16th stage to Albacete when the leader got caught on the wrong side of a split caused by cross-winds.
Kelly maintained the gap between himself and Fuerte and started the time trial on the second last day 21 seconds behind. Confident that he could overhaul the leader, he “put it in a big gear and gave it everything”. He took the leader’s amarillo jersey, beating Fuerte by almost two minutes. The following day Kelly won his only grand tour, over West German Raimund Dietzen and also won the points competition. After his Vuelta win Kelly returned to Carrick-on-Suir where a parade was held in his honor.
Kelly finished a disappointing 46th in the 1989 Tour de France, just over an hour behind Pedro Delgado. In addition, he finished third behind the German, Rolf Gölz, in the Nissan Classic that year and third in the sprint at the rainy world road championship of 1989 at Chambéry, France, behind Dimitri Konyshev and Greg Lemond.
Kelly switched to the Dutch PDM team the next season, and stayed there three years until the end of 1991. The following year he won Liège–Bastogne–Liège, the points classification in the Tour de France, and the inaugural UCI Road World Cupchampionship. Kelly won the Tour de Suisse in 1990. In March 1991, he broke a collarbone, then pulled out of the 1991 Tour de France and then while Kelly was competing the Tour of Galicia in August, his brother Joe was killed in a race near Carrick-on-Suir. He came back to win his fourth Nissan Classic by four-seconds over Sean Yates and then went to and won the classic at the end of the season, the Giro di Lombardia.
Despite being past his prime, Kelly won the Giro di Lombardia for a third time in 1991. The next year, he moved to the Festina team in hopes of winning Milan–San Remo.
As fans greatly recall, race favorite Moreno Argentin attacked from the leading group on the final climb, the Poggio. He broke clear after several attempts and reached the top eight seconds before the rest. It seemed he was on his way to a solo victory as the peloton descended the Poggio, where Maurizio Fondriest led, marked by Argentin’s teammate Rolf Sørensen. Kelly was behind these two in third position. Kelly attacked with three kilometers of descending left. Sorensen could not hold his acceleration and Kelly got away. He caught Argentin with a kilometre to go. Both stalled, the chasers closing fast, Argentin gesturing to Kelly to take the front. Kelly stayed on Argentin’s wheel. The two moved again, preparing for a sprint; Kelly launched himself and in the final 200m came past Argentin to win his final classic.
In 1992, Kelly travelled to Colombia for the Clásico RCN, where he won the second stage. His PDM teammate, Martin Earley, pushed him into second place at the 1993 Irish road championship.
Kelly’s last year as a professional was 1994, when he rode for Catavana. He returned to Carrick-on-Suir at the end of the season to ride the annual Hamper race. That was Kelly’s last race as a professional. Eddy Merckx, Laurent Fignon, Bernard Hinault, Roger De Vlaeminck, Claude Criquielion, Stephen Roche, Martin Earley, Acacio Da Silva and Paul Kimmage were among 1,200 cyclists present.
The President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, attended a civic presentation to Kelly the day before the race. Kelly won in a sprint against Roche. Kelly won this race again six years later.
Kelly’s career was remarkable in the sense that it spanned the eras of several legends from Eddy Merckx to Miguel Indurain. His first Tour was also the first for Bernard Hinault and the two battled in the sprint of stage 15. Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon emerged in the early eighties and challenged Kelly in the classics as well as in the Tour, and Kelly witnessed the rise of Miguel Indurain and the early career of Lance Armstrong. Kelly’s career coincided with Stephen Roche as well as classics specialists including Francesco Moser, Claude Criquielion, Moreno Argentin and Eric Vanderaerden. Evidence of Kelly’s dominance can be seen from his three victories in the season-long Super Prestige Pernod International competition (predecessor to the World Cup). Kelly competed throughout the season, from Paris–Nice in March to the Giro di Lombardia in October, winning both in 1983 and 1985.
Cycling journalist Robin Magowan once again recounted:
“It is customary to talk of Kelly as quintessentially an Irish rider. For my part, though, I think it helps to place Kelly better as a cyclist to see him as the last of the Flemish riders.This is usually a title associated with the post-war rider, Briek Schotte who has become appropriately enough the man in day-to-day charge of the de Gribaldy teams. As exemplified by Schotte it stood for a certain type of mentality, willing to suffer, narrowly focussed, and hard, hard, hard. Kelly had all this in him from his Irish small-farm background: the outside loo: the dogs that have to be chained before you can step from your car; the one career possible, as a bricklayer on a construction site, stretching away and away into the grey mists. On the positive side, along with the self-reliance, came a physical strength that even by peasant standards is impressive. In a profession of iron wills, there is no one harder.”
Kelly is the subject of several books, including a biography Kelly and A Man For All Seasons by David Walsh.
Additionally, Sean Kelly published his autobiography Hunger in 2013.
While some sprinters remain sheltered in the peloton until the final few hundred meters, Kelly could instigate breaks and climb well, proving this by winning the Vuelta a España in 1988, as well as winning a stage of Paris-Nice on the climb of Mont Ventoux. His victories in Paris–Roubaix (1984, 1986) showed his ability in poor weather and on pavé sections, while he could stay with the climbing specialists in the mountains in the Tour de France. He was also a formidable descender, clocking a career top race speed of 124 km/h, while descending from Col de Joux Plane to Morzine on stage 19 of the Tour in 1984. He finished fourth in the Tour in 1985 and won the points classification in 1982, 1983, 1985, and 1989, the first to win four times, a feat he repeated in the Vuelta a España. Kelly won five stages in the Tour de France and 16 in the Vuelta a España.
Nowadays, Kelly is a commentator for the English-language services of Eurosport and has established and is involved in the Sean Kelly Cycling Academy in Belgium. In 2006 he launched Ireland’s first professional team, the Sean Kelly Team, composed of young Irish and Belgian riders based at the Sean Kelly Cycling Academy in Merchtem, Belgium. He rides long-distance charity cycling tours with Blazing Saddles, a charity raising money for the blind and partially sighted. Such tours have included a journey across America by bike in 2000. He also participates in charity cycling endurance events in Scotland (notably with the Braveheart Cycling Fund), England, France and Ireland. Sean Kelly regularly cycles with SportActive cycling holidays in Mallorca.
The inaugural Sean Kelly Tour of Waterford was held on 19 August 2007. Kelly was one of the 910 participants. The second was on 24 August 2008. Kelly was one of the 2,048. The 2009 tour went ahead on 30 August 2009. It attracted over 3,400 participants. On 29 August 2010, 3708 cyclists took part in the Tour. In 2011 the attendance ballooned to over 8,000 over the two days and 10 km, 50 km, 90 km and 160 km events.
In November 2013, at Dublin City University, Sean Kelly was awarded with an Honorary Doctorate in Philosophy in recognition of his contribution to Irish sport.
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