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King of the Classics: Sean Kelly

From issue 53 • Words by John Wilcockson w/images from John Pierce

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A visit with Sean Kelly at his Irish hometown in 1984

Today, Sean Kelly is best known for his phlegmatic television commentary on Eurosport, providing skilled analysis of major bike races alongside more excitable colleagues. Kelly acquired his in-depth knowledge of Europe’s classic races and grand tours from his 16 years as a professional cyclist, including five years as the No. 1 racer in the world. At the time of this visit with Kelly, in his hometown of Carrick-on-Suir, the Irishman had just topped the world rankings for the first time—after a 1984 season headed by victories in two monuments, Paris­–Roubaix and Liège–Bastogne–Liège.

As the ferryboat approached the rocky coastline of southeast Ireland I could almost feel the skein of history unraveling beneath its wake. This is where Viking long ships landed in the eighth century, where the Normans arrived to claim Ireland for the crown of England in the 12th century, and where German U-boats hunted down Allied ships in World War II. On this gray November day in 1984, a wind out of the west blew salty air into my face and whipped up steely waves after a four-hour crossing of St. George’s Channel—which followed a five-hour drive from London. After docking in the harbor at Rosslare, there’d be another 90 minutes of driving to reach Carrick-on-Suir, a town of gray stone buildings that bestrides the River Suir, the boundary between the counties of Tipperary and Waterford. That’s where my photographer and I would meet up with the most famous son of this town of 5,000: Sean Kelly.

Previously, Carrick’s best-known citizen was an Irish nobleman named Thomas Butler, the 10th Earl of Ormonde, a so-called cousin and lifelong friend of England’s Queen Elizabeth I. He lived in the Elizabethan mansion he built in the 1560s adjacent to the Norman-style castle the first Earl erected on the Suir’s left bank 250 years earlier. Ormonde Castle remains Carrick’s most prominent building, and this is where Kelly suggested we meet. The 10th Earl—known as Black Tom because of his mane of black hair—died in the castle in 1614 at the then ripe age of 82. Should his ghost still watch over the ancient structure, he’d have been pleased to see that visiting his home on this overcast winter’s day was an equally dark-haired young man whose mount was not a flaming white charger but an aluminum-alloy bicycle, and whose “earldom” now covered the world.

After a firm handshake, the smiling Kelly told us, “I haven’t been here since I was seven or eight. And I couldn’t appreciate it then like I do now.” The smile remained as we looked around the building, which was in the middle of an extensive restoration program. He could hardly contain his pleasure when he sat at a dark oak Tudor dining table and admired the 100-foot-long banqueting hall that bears the crest of Queen Elizabeth I and the famous Carrick Knot—the golden replica of which adorns the uniform of sailors in the U.S. Navy.

The caretaker had opened up the building especially for our visit. “It’s supposed to be closed for the renovations,” he said, “but being a Monday morning the workers probably didn’t feel up to it. Yessss…they were probably on the beer last night.”

Kelly himself was not averse to a glass or two of the “black stuff”—especially as he was then being paid by Guinness to appear on their biggest billboards throughout the Emerald Isle. That summer the brewers had honored the Irish star on his 28th birthday with a reception at the Guinness headquarters in Dublin, where, after downing a few pints, Kelly had revealed unexpected touches of humor. Back in Carrick, as the November sky darkened early, we went to a pub with his friends from the Carrick Wheelers cycling club and saw a lot more of Kelly’s relaxed, joking side—in contrast to the taciturn persona we’d come to expect at bike races.

After a frosty, starlit night, the next morning felt like the first day of winter, with a misty dawn of cold sunlight and a hint of ice on the puddles left by the weekend’s gusty showers. Plumes of smoke were rising from open fires within the tightly packed, gray-and-white-painted homes of Carrick—some of which Kelly himself had likely helped build when he apprenticed as a bricklayer…before he discovered a more lucrative trade.

Carrick sits in a landscape without frills, very much like rural Brittany, another land that has sired great cycling champions, such as Paris-Roubaix champions Louison Bobet and Bernard Hinault. Carrick’s back roads are mostly patched or potholed. Still, they are good, solid roads. And this is a land of good solid, people. The Ireland of Sean Kelly.

The castle caretaker had shown us a faded photograph of Carrick just after World War II: there was a donkey cart in the main street, with a churn of milk aboard. I’d seen two similarly laden carts in town this very morning. Growing up, Kelly did his share of milking cows at his family’s farm, along with digging the potato fields and collecting eggs from the hens.

We were now on our way to the farm, and if it hadn’t been for Kelly’s precise directions, we’d have never discovered its location. Three or four miles beyond the hill out of Carrick, there was a left turn between thorny-hedge-topped banks and a narrow lane that would not seem out of place in Paris-Roubaix. So that’s where Kelly learned to ride over stones and mud! A quarter-mile down, we took a left turn along an even narrower, bumpier “driveway” to the farm. There were three dogs waiting in the yard: two German Shepherds and a bustling black-and-white sheepdog named Rosie—and a low, tin-roofed farmhouse with potted geraniums in front of its white, spackled walls.

The famous son of this hideaway home seemed to come alive in the farm’s environment. Walking among some young cattle, Kelly showed a calm confidence. He then picked up a spade to attack a potato patch—with gusto. It was clear why he wished to return to Carrick once his racing career was over and buy his own farmhouse.

“He was always strong,” said his mother, Nellie, a short, strong woman with rosy cheeks and neat, graying hair, dressed in a faded housecoat. “When he was young, he could lift a bag of meal with no trouble at all.” She invited me into the house, where it was necessary to stoop to enter the living room. On the walls were some faded publicity posters in which her son appeared with former pro teams. “These are all the trophies he won as an amateur,” Mrs. Kelly said, pointing toward some dust-covered silver cups and plaques on two sideboards.

It was not an affluent home, but it had a good, lived-in spirit. There was no concession to the cold turn in the weather: the big open fireplace housed a couple of lonely logs, with just the ember of a glow. As we sat around the fading fire, Mrs. Kelly reminisced. “I still remember Sean’s first communion,” she said. “He was seven at the time. When we came out of church, what do you think he asked for as a present? A little bike. He was in love with the bicycle even then! And when he got it, I remember him asking if he could ride it straight away. I was a little worried as it was only about the fourth time he had been on a bike. But away he went around the town…and came back as happy as can be.”

Happy enough to keep on riding that black, single-speed Raleigh bike, until at age fourteen, he entered his first race with the Carrick Wheelers. I learned about Kelly’s entry into competitive cycling from the club secretary, Tony Ryan, over dinner the night before. “He just turned up at the club one evening,” Ryan said. “He had an ordinary bike, not a racing bike. We gave him three minutes’ start in his first race—a handicap road race, just an evening club event of eight miles. And we never caught him! He didn’t get so much start the next time.”

“Nah, they never saw me,” Kelly chuckled. “I was riding to and from school every day then, and doing a lot of cycling. So I was pretty fit.” That was no surprise, because to reach the family farm from the school in Carrick, he had to climb a hill that would earn a fourth-category rating in the Tour de France. And when he took up racing with his older brother Joe, there were some good climbs in the nearby mountains—the Comeragh and Monavullagh ranges to the southwest rise to 2,467 feet, and Slievenamom peak rises to 2,368 feet on the Tipperary side of the valley. This part of Ireland is far from the country’s traditional image of flat, mist-shrouded peat bogs!

Back in town, we had a lunchtime beer in the comfortable bar of the 18th-century Bessborough Arms hotel on Main Street, where Kelly gave us a wide-ranging interview. I first asked him if there was a moment early on when he realized he had more than average ability. “No, I t’ink the first two years I just enjoyed it really, and that’s why I continued in the sport,” he said. “I realized that I was pretty good at the game, and I decided to continue into the juniors and then the amateurs. When I was amateur, I had a certain amount of class, but I never thought about turning professional or anything like that.”

Kelly was good enough to twice win the Irish junior road championship, and in his first season as a senior in 1975, he was picked for the national amateur team. “Yesss,” he said in a thoughtful way, “but when you raced in this country at that time it wasn’t particularly hard to be picked for the Irish team because we had nobody here. The standard was awful. And I was only one of six to be picked for the Tour of Britain Milk Race. And right from the first day we had problems to follow the pace, and every day problems to finish within the time limit. So it just goes to prove the standards at that moment. We were the best in Ireland, and we had problems just to stay in the race!”

This was the modest Kelly speaking, because this 18-year-old newcomer actually won a stage of what at the time was one of the world’s most prestigious stage races for amateurs, who included the state-sponsored teams from the Soviet bloc. “Yes, I won a stage,” Kelly conceded. “I got away in a break and I sat on the break all day and won the sprint. By Irish standards, it was a great ride, something out of this world; but on European standards, it was nothing great really. But as an Irish rider hadn’t won a stage for a big number of years, it was super to get a win.”

What Kelly didn’t say was that that stage went over some steep climbs in England’s Peak District into the city of Sheffield—where Vincenzo Nibali would win a stage of the Tour de France 40 years later. “Well, yes, it was a race-winning break,” Kelly admitted. “There were t’ree of us who got to the finish…and I won the sprint from a Pole and eventual race winner Bernt Johansson. Because of the break, that moved me up a lot on general, and I was t’ird going into the last stage. But I punctured twice. The first time I changed a wheel and got back, but the second time I never made contact with the bunch.”

It was an early lesson for Kelly: a strong team was essential in high-level bike racing. He’d learn another lesson later that year when he agreed to race under an assumed name (“Alan Owen”) for a “British” team at the Rapport Toer, a stage race in South Africa, even though there was a ban on foreign athletes competing in that apartheid country. Kelly was found out and as a result, he lost his chance of riding for Ireland at the 1976 Olympic road race in Montreal—which would be won by Milk Race winner Johansson. Instead of traveling west to Canada that summer, Kelly traveled east to race for an amateur club in eastern France, the VC Metz.

Kelly said he didn’t go there with a view to turning pro; he just wanted to become a better bike racer. But that connection led to his getting a contract offer from a leading French directeur sportif, Jean De Gribaldy. I asked Kelly if it hadn’t have been for De Gribaldy whether he would have even turned professional.

“I think that’s very doubtful,” Kelly said, “because in 1976 when I did go to Metz, for t’ree months, and I won I think 16 races, including the amateur Tour of Lombardy, it was after that he got in contact with me by phone, and I said, no, I wasn’t interested in passing professional, because I was too young at that moment. I was only 19. And I’d arranged to go back for another year at Metz. He telephoned three or four times. And I said no, and then I came back to Ireland at the end of September. One day, I was at home, and this fellow arrived along with a taxi. And we got talking, and he offered me a contract for the next year. And I said I’m not interested. But in the end, I said I’d think it over for a week, and he’d get back. And that’s what he did. But if he hadn’t done that, I’d have gone back to Metz, and I was going to ride a lot of the early-season classics, the amateur classics. So I would have probably got a contract….”

De Gribaldy signed Kelly for two years with the French branch of the Flandria-Velda team—whose leader was then world champion Freddy Maertens. While Kelly did win eight races in those first two seasons, including a sprint stage of the 1978 Tour de France (“I was always pretty fast”), he was mainly riding for Maertens. Kelly then left De Gribaldy and raced with a totally Belgian formation, Splendor, where he was the team sprinter, picking up some 20 wins in three seasons. He added another two Tour stages, along with five stages at the Vuelta a España, but the closest he came to a big classics victory was fourth place in the 1979 Milan-San Remo.

Kelly’s fortunes began to change when he returned to De Gribaldy in 1982 to head the Sem-France Loire squad. So I asked him: “Was there a connection that big wins started coming when you returned to De Gribaldy’s French team?”

“In the team itself, the atmosphere in the riders was probably better than it was at Splendor,” he said, “because there were a lot of very, very good riders at Splendor. And there was jealousy between the riders. So when I went back to De Gribaldy there were fewer big riders on the team, and I went there as the sprinter. Everyone would work for me in the sprint, and that’s when I won Paris-Nice. And that was a new life for me….”

The weeklong Paris–Nice traditionally ended with a 10-kilometer uphill time trial from Nice to the Col d’Èze, high above the Mediterranean. Starting that stage in 1982, Kelly was four seconds behind race leader Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, who was favored to win. But goaded by De Gribaldy in the team car, Kelly won the stage by a wide margin to end up the overall winner by 40 seconds.

“It was really up to me on the last stage, eh?” Kelly said. “I went out and did a good, super time. And I think I just proved to myself that I was capable of doing it. I’d never had the confidence in myself before, so that’s an awful lot at the back of your mind. If I had won a big classic, say four or five years ago, it would have changed everything, because what I really did lack was confidence in myself. When I won my first Paris-Nice, that’s when I started to get the confidence….”

After that first Paris-Nice victory, Kelly clicked up more big successes, including the green jersey as points winner in the 1982 and ’83 Tours de France and the overall title at the 1983 Tour of Switzerland; but his true breakthrough, right at the end of his seventh season as a professional, at age 27, came at the 1983 Tour of Lombardy. In what was the most exciting and closest sprint finishes we’d witnessed in a monument classic, four riders threw their bikes to the line, with Kelly just getting his wheel across the line first ahead of newly crowned world champ Greg LeMond and the Dutch standouts Adri van der Poel and Hennie Kuiper.

Kelly’s Lombardy victory, which greatly elevated his stature, happened just a year before our interview. Reflecting on that breakthrough—and the amazing streak of 26 wins he took in the following 12 months—the Irishman said, “As people say, I’ve always had the class to win, and I think I proved that last year when I won the Tour of Lombardy. And I think I proved it this year in the Tour of Flanders when I attacked on the Mur de Grammont—I made the race really, splitting it up. And I think other years I would have never even t’ought of doing that.”

As he scored victory after victory in 1984 in an unassuming and seemingly unemotional manner, Kelly sometimes seemed almost too calm to be real. Even the continental journalists who had known him for many years found it hard to determine what he was actually feeling—or what he was capable of. But they got an insight at the finish of that Tour of Flanders in which he’d shown such confidence….

After making the decisive counterattack on the Mur de Grammont (the “Muur” in Flemish), only four riders could stay with Kelly around the 11-kilometer loop that closed the seven-hour battle over the cobbled hills and back roads of windswept Flanders. Two of the four riders, Panasonic teammates Johan Lammerts and Ludo De Keulenaer, contributed nothing to the pace—but they started to attack in turn as the end approached. Kelly chased each one down until Lammerts eventually went away unopposed to take the win. This double-dealing of the Panasonic riders deeply angered the Irishman. “That’s not the way to race,” he exclaimed in an excited, high-pitched voice after taking the sprint for second. “What Lammerts and De Keulenaer did was scandalous. This defeat will rest heavy on my stomach.”

The media had never seen Kelly so angry. But angry he was. For here he was taking second place in a big classic for the second time in two weeks after being the runner-up at Milan-San Remo. Kelly was fired up about being beaten, and it was this unexpected spark of anger and pride that led him to teach everyone a lesson the following Sunday in Paris-Roubaix, which he won with a vengeance, making it his peak race of the season.

“Yes,” Kelly said, “when I did see what happened in the Tour of Flanders…I said, now, next week, in Paris-Roubaix, I’ll just go out and do better again. Attack farther out…and that’s exactly what I did.”

That win gave Kelly a classics streak of first (Lombardy), second (San Remo), second (Flanders) and first (Roubaix)…and a week later would come Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the fifth of the five monuments. In modern times, only two other riders have been competitive in all five monuments: Eddy Merckx and Roger De Vlaeminck. It takes a very adaptable (and strong!) rider to complete long solo forays over slimy cobblestones one Sunday, and the next weekend tackle steep hills with the very best climbers. That’s what Kelly did at the 1984 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where all the other major players were Tour de France contenders (or winners): Phil Anderson, Claude Criquielion, Laurent Fignon, Greg LeMond and Joop Zoetemelk.

Kelly matched the climbers to join a 20-strong group that escaped on the Haute-Levée climb about 70 kilometers from the finish. There were still another four climbs, including the steepest one, La Redoute. “ Fignon got away and Anderson went after him, but I was never nervous,” said Kelly, who continued to ride smart. “I didn’t go mad right in the front, riding on my own. I just rode round the front…and Criquielion started riding right after La Redoute. Zoetemelk rode a bit also. So I just rode as much as Criquielion rode, and not any more. In the end, we just managed to get back, and it was so close to the finish it worked out super for me because there was very little time for the other ones to do much attacking—and I just won the sprint.”

Because of his success in those five monuments, I asked Kelly if that made him a marked man. “Yes, that’s true,” he said. “For example, in the Tour of Lombardy at the end of the year, an awful lot of the riders based their race on me. After a group got away, every time I went to get out the saddle, there were always 10 riders on my wheel. So now it’s more difficult…but then, it gets so hard in the end of a classic you haven’t that many riders together—and it’s not many to beat.”

I then mentioned that the more he raced, the better he seemed to go. “Yes, with a lot of racing, I seem to ride better and better, that is true. But after a certain amount of time, you pay for that as well. Towards the end of the year, when you’ve ridden 160 to 165 races, you start to feel the effects—it’s more physical than anything.”

But others raced less than him, I said: “Bernard Hinault rode only 104 races in 1984, about 60 fewer than you.” “Yes. Only 104,” Kelly shrugged. “That’s quite a small number. I think if you ride 125, 130 races, that’s just right. When you ride 165 races in the year, you’re tired, you know. T–i–r–e–d.”

“But,” I said, “your boss De Gribaldy likes you to race a lot. How do you get on with him?” “We get on very well,” Kelly replied. “He’s quite strict—with the dope and things like that, you know. He’s very strict on it. And training-wise, he’s very old-fashioned all the time. There’s probably more to be said for than against that.”

And what about staying healthy? “I get a check-up, with a blood sample, t’ree times a year. I go to my local doctor, the family doctor in Belgium. It’s not always all right. If I have very low iron, say, you have to take some sort of medicine for that.”

I then asked him if he enjoyed his newfound fame. “I like it,” he said without hesitating. “With me, it didn’t happen overnight. So it’s something you get used to gradually. At times, it’s very, very annoying. You have to do this, you have to do that, there’s always people after you for interviews.

“And,” he added with a wry grin, “there are journalists annoying you…and television. But that’s part of your job. That’s the price of fame. It takes time to get the know-how…but that’s what the sport lives off. That’s what you live off, the sponsors…that’s what keeps everything turning.”

Despite his growing fame, both at home and in Europe, Kelly remained a homeboy. “When I think of settling down, I only think of coming home to Ireland,” he said. A major factor in that choice goes back to the day in rode his first bike race at age 14. One of the spectators at that club event was a shy 12-year-old girl, Linda, daughter of Dan Grant, chairman of the Carrick Wheelers. “We’ve had a long, drifting relationship since then,” said Linda, who would marry Sean in the winter of 1982. They had a big wedding, one of the few occasions when Kelly felt the need to dress formally. Linda wore a long, lace-laden white dress, and her new husband sported a bow tie and tuxedo.

Ever since he signed with a Belgian team in 1979, Kelly’s European base was in Vilvoorde, a northern suburb of Brussels. He stayed with Herman and Elise Nuys, longtime friends of Irish cycling, who Kelly called his second parents. And that’s where he and his new bride would live through 1983 and ’84. And when Sean and Linda would return there for the 1985 European season, they intended to buy their own house in the same area. It would be their first real home.

“I have got used to living in Belgium now,” said Linda, whose red hair was cut in a bob, much like Kelly’s mom. “It was difficult at first, because I have a lot of good friends here in Carrick. I was the supervisor at the knitwear factory. I didn’t like giving up work….” But she knew that one day they’d return to Carrick, the place where the world’s top cyclist is truly at home.

My final question for Kelly was: “Do you think getting married played a part in your big improvements?” His reply was typical Kelly, the world’s No. 1 cyclist, who will always be a country boy: “Well, when you’re married, you have more responsibilities. When you go out there, you know what you’re riding that bike for—to support a wife, and to support a family later on. Maybe that gives you more of a driving instinct. And when you come back after a race, back to your wife, I think it does improve your performances. That is, if the marriage is going all right—and you’re getting on well with the wife!”

Postscript: Sean Kelly raced for 10 more years after this interview, and he remained ranked No. 1 in the world for five years through 1988. He placed fourth in the 1985 Tour de France (his best ever showing), won the Vuelta a España in 1988, took Paris-Nice seven years in a row through 1988, won the Tour of Switzerland twice, and in addition to the four major classics he’d already taken, he went on to win two more editions of the Tour of Lombardy, two editions of Milan-San Remo, and further editions of both Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, along with Ghent-Wevelgem and the Grand Prix des Nations (the equivalent of today’s world time trial championship). After Kelly retired in 1992, he did build a home near Carrick-on-Suir, where he still lives.

From issue 53. Buy it here.