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, .
Other victories include the Critérium International, Grand Prix des Nations and smaller tours including the Tour de Suisse, Tour of the Basque Country and the 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 a 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 substantial 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 him that he could target the overall win at Paris–Nice.
Kelly later won the “Race to the Sun”, claiming four of its stages and famously beating Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle during time-trial to the Col d’Eze to take-over 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 that motivated him to adjust his focus to becoming more of an all-round rider.
However, that year’s spring classics season proved a disappointment for Kelly, who only mustered a 12th place finish in Paris-Roubaix after suffering multiple punctures.
Kelly rebounded by winning the points classification in the Tour de France, where he finished second in five flat stages before winning a reduced bunch sprint in Pau following the climb of 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.
In celebration, 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, along with triumphs in the Criterium International and the Tour de Suisse, as well as the points classification in the Tour de France for the second time in a row.
Kelly further solidified 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 race calendar, 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.
After the cobbled classic, Kelly won all three stages in the Critérium International including beating Roche in the final time trial.
In 1984, Kelly claimed an astonishing 33 victories, which also saw him finish in fifth place in that year’s Tour de France – his best achievement thus far in a Grand Tour event.
Oddly, Kelly missed out on winning the points classification in that year’s Tour.
Kelly was wearing the coveted green jersey right up until the final stage, but lost it to Frank Hoste during the finale along the Champs-Élysées.
Kelly 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. He also 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, Kelly won Milan–San Remo, along with another victory in Paris–Nice, while finishing second in the Tour of Flanders and winning Paris–Roubaix again.
That year also marked his first podium finish in a Grand Tour, after finishing third in the 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.
Kelly’s second win in the Nissan Classic came after a duel with Steve Bauer, who took the yellow jersey from him after he crashed numerous times. But, despite going into the final stage three-seconds behind Bauer, the determined Irishman reclaimed the jersey when a third place finish on the final stage earned him enough bonus points to seize the overall title.
Kelly won Paris–Nice for an incredible fifth time in 1987, beating Roche on the final day who was leading the race until an untimely puncture.
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 a fifth place finish in the 1988 World Championship Road Race, Kelly returned to Ireland to win the Nissan for the third consecutive time.
Kelly also won on record seventh Paris–Nice that season, along with a victory in the Gent–Wevelgem Classic.
Kelly returned to the Vuelta a España later that season, which started on the mountainous island of Tenerife where his team struggled in the second stage, losing their influential rider Thomas Wegmüller to dysentery. The team experienced further loss after losing significant time during the time-trial around Las Palmas.
However, on the Spanish mainland, Kelly concentrated on winning sprints, battling with Jorge Dominguez, the BH teammate of leader, Laudelino Cubino.
After his team regained more than a minute over the next four stages, 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 off of Cubino’s lead.
Following the 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 heavy cross-winds.
Kelly maintained the gap between himself and Fuerte and started the time trial on the penultimate day just 21 seconds behind his rival.
Confident that he could overhaul the leader, Kelly “put it in a big gear and gave it everything”, ultimately solidifying the leader’s amarillo jersey and beating Fuerte by almost two minutes.
After his Vuelta win Kelly returned to Carrick-on-Suir where a parade was held in his honor.
Next season proved to be far-less less profitable for Kelly, who finished a disappointing 46th in the Tour de France, just over an hour behind th winner Pedro Delgado. In addition, he finished third behind Rolf Gölz in the Nissan Classic and third in a rainy World Championship Road Race in Chambéry, France, behind Dimitri Konyshev and Greg Lemond.
Kelly switched to the Dutch PDM team for 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 Cup Championship. He also won the Tour de Suisse that season,
Kelly broke his collarbone at the start of the 1991 season, with lingering effects forcing him to pull out of the Tour de France.
Kelly was later met by tragedy when his brother Joe was killed in a race near Carrick-on-Suir.
To honor his brother, Kelly came back to win his fourth Nissan Classic by four-seconds over Sean Yates and then went on to win the Giro di Lombardia at the end of the season.
The next year, Kelly moved to the Festina team, with his eye on winning Milan–San Remo Classic.
As fans greatly recall, race favorite Moreno Argentin attacked from the leading group on the final climb of the Poggio, breaking clear and subsequently opening up a gap of around eighty-seconds at the top.
From there, the Italian rider looked poised for victory, as he made his way along the descent.
Not far behind, Kelly was following in the slipstream of Maurizio Fondriest and Argentin’s teammate Rolf Sørensen.
With two kilometers to go, Kelly attacked and later bridged his way Argentin under the flamme rouge.
After a short game of cat and mouse, Kelly emerged from Argentin’s wheel during the closing 200 meters to seize the victory.
In 1992, Kelly travelled to Colombia to compete in the Clásico RCN, where he won the second stage. He also finished second in the year’s Irish National 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, which saw such luminaries as Eddy Merckx, Laurent Fignon, Bernard Hinault, Roger De Vlaeminck, Claude Criquielion, Stephen Roche, Martin Earley, Acacio Da Silva and Paul Kimmage in attendance. Kelly won the sprint ahead of Roche.
Kelly’s career was remarkable in the sense that it spanned an era that coincided with several other great riders from Merckx to Miguel Indurain.
For instance, Kelly’s Tour de France was also the first for Bernard Hinault, while LeMond and Laurent Fignon emerged in the early eighties to challenge him in both the Grand Tours and Classics.
Kelly also witnessed the rise of Miguel Indurain and the early career of Lance Armstrong. His career also coincided with fellow countryman Stephen Roche’s famous 1987 Tour de France-Giro d’Italia-World Championship triple as well as classics specialists such as Francesco Moser, Claude Criquielion, Argentin and Eric Vanderaerden.
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.”
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. Moreover, victories in such such brutal classics like Paris–Roubaix showed his ability to win races during the worst of conditions.
Kelly was also a formidable descender, once clocking a amazing speed of more than 77 mph (124 km/h) while descending from Col de Joux Plane to Morzine during stage 19 of the 1984 Tour de France.
Nowadays, Kelly is a commentator for the English-language services of Eurosport. He also created the Sean Kelly Cycling Academy in Belgium.
Additionally, 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.
Kelly also participates in long-distance charity cycling tours with Blazing Saddles, a charity that raises 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, and regularly cycles with SportActive cycling holidays in Mallorca.
The inaugural Sean Kelly Tour of Waterford was held on 19 August 2007, attracting almost 1000 participants.
The event has since ballooned to over 8,000 riders, and spread out over the two days.
In 2013, Dublin City University awarded Kelly with an Honorary Doctorate in Philosophy in recognition of his contribution to Irish sport.
Kelly also has been the subject of several books, including a biography Kelly, A Man For All Seasons by David Walsh.
Additionally, he published his autobiography Hunger in 2013.
Lá breithe sona Sean!
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