Sean Kelly was one of cycling’s true “hard men” and he dominated the sport for more than 6 years. He was the flag bearer for English-speaking cyclists around the world, and inspired a generation of young cyclists.
Kelly’s career began in 1977 when Flandria team manager Jean de Gribaldy flew to the small village of Carrick-on-Suir in the South East of Ireland looking to hire him. When Gribaldy met him, Kelly was driving his father’s tractor down a country lane!
Kelly was a strong, fearless sprinter and was recruited to be Freddy Maertens’ lead-out man and understudy. In his first year as a professional Kelly beat Eddy Merckx, and showed glimpses of the talent that would lead to the great successes of the future.
The Irishman was world No.1 between 1984 and 1989, won Paris-Nice a record seven times, and the Green points jersey in Tour de France four times. He was a complete rider who could sprint, time-trial, and climb with the best. Only in the very highest mountains of the Tour de France could he be beaten. He was able to dominate any one-day Classic through sheer power, cunning and tactical awareness.
Kelly undoubtedly possessed immense talent, but his utter dedication to the sport and consummate professionalism guaranteed his success.
Herman Nijs, whose house became a second home for Kelly in Belgium, said “Whenever Sean came back from a race, no matter how late or dark it was he would clean his bike before anything else”.
When Kelly first began staying with Nijs and his wife, they were puzzled as to why every night at 9pm, no matter what, he would disappear to his bedroom. They speculated that he might have been reading or writing letters home, but weren’t really sure what he was up to. One evening they crept to his bedroom door and peeped in, to find that Kelly was fast asleep.
During his career Kelly won almost every important race on the calendar. Given his absolute dominance in one-day races, the most surprising absence from his palmares is the World Road Race Championship – the race that he should have won several times. He came closest in 1989 on a rain soaked circuit at Chambery, in the French Alps. He rode the perfect race tactically and was on great form, but chose the wrong gear for the sprint finish. He was beaten into third by Greg Lemond and Dimitri Konysjev, and was so upset that he could barely contain his tears after taking the bronze medal.
“Looking back I think that LeMond was just too good for me that day. Some of the Tour of Flanders I finished second in – that happened three times – were definitely disappointments too. I was second three times and there were some where I definitely think I was in the shape to win. I just didn’t do things tactically right at the end”.
“When you look back at those later, when you look back with hindsight, you say, ‘I should never have allowed that guy to ride away. I was strong enough to control everything.’ But you gamble a bit, and then you lose”.
Despite being unsuited to the high mountains, which prevented him from winning the overall classification in the Tour de France, Kelly was still able to take a commanding win the Tour of Spain.
“If I could, there is something I would definitely change about my career. I did a very big amount of races in the early part of the season. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have done as many of the Classics and the small stage races. I should have focussed more on the Tour. Had I done that, I think the podium would definitely have been possible”.
“It’s hard to say if I would have won the Tour with that reduced programme, you just don’t know. But I think I would have been much closer and given it a much better run if I hadn’t had so many races. Coming to the Tour, I was maybe just over-raced because of that intense early part of the season”.
The quiet spoken Irishman was the rider’s rider and the professional’s professional. Ever gracious and allowing his performances to do the talking, Sean Kelly was the last great champion to race the whole season, from the early-season stage races, through the full calendar of Spring Classics, the World Championships and the Tour de France, which he rode an incredible fifteen times.