Sean Kelly's career
John James 'Sean' Kelly is an Irish former professional road bicycle racer. He was one of the most successful road cyclists of the 1980s, and one of the finest classics riders of all time. From turning professional in 1977 until his retirement in 1994, he won nine monument classics, and 193 professional races in total.
Kelly is the second son of Jack (John) and Nellie Kelly, farmers of 48 acres (190,000 m2) in Curraghduff. Born on 24 May 1956, he was named John James Kelly after his father and then, to avoid confusion at home, referred to as Sean. Seán is an Irish version of John.
Kelly began cycling after his brother had started riding to school in September 1969. Joe rode and won local races and on 4 August 1970 Sean rode his own first race, at Kennedy Terrace in Carrickbeg, part of Carrick-on-Suir. The race was an eight-mile (13 km) handicap, which meant the weaker riders started first and the best last. Kelly set off three minutes before the backmarkers. He 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.
At 16 he won the national junior championship at Banbridge, County Down.
Kelly as amateur
Kelly won the national championship again in 1973, then took a senior licence before the normal qualifying age of 18 and won the Shay Elliot Memorial race in 1974 and again in 1975 and stages in the Tour of Ireland of 1975. The 1976 Olympic Games were in Montreal, Canada, and Kelly and two other Irish riders, Pat and Kieron McQuaid, went to South Africa to ride the Rapport Tour stage-race in preparation. They and others rode under false names because of an international ban on athletes competing in South Africa, as a protest against apartheid. Kelly's team was caught out when a journalist from the London Daily Mail tried to have British riders, as he understood them to be, pictured with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who were in South Africa for a second honeymoon. The reticence of team officials to allow riders to be pictured intrigued him and he learned they were riding in secret. He sent pictures to the Daily Mail, where cycling enthusiasts identified them.
The Irish were suspended from racing for six months. They were racing again when the International Olympic Committee banned them from the Olympics for life.
Unable to ride in Canada, Kelly rode the 1976 Tour of Britain and then went to Metz, in France, after a London enthusiast, Johnny Morris, had arranged an invitation. The club offered him £25 a week, free accommodation and four francs a kilometre for every race he won. Kelly won 18 of the 25 races he started in France and won the amateur Giro di Lombardia in Italy. That impressed two French team managers, Jean de Gribaldy and Cyrille Guimard. De Gribaldy went to Ireland unannounced to discuss a contract with the Flandria professional team. He didn't know where Kelly lived and wasn't sure he would recognise him. He took with him another cyclist, to point out Kelly and translate the conversation. Kelly was out driving a tractor and de Gribaldy set out again in the taxi that had brought him from Dublin, hoping to find Kelly as he drove home. They found him and went to Kelly's stepbrother's house. De Gribaldy offered £4,000 a year plus bonuses. 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 as professional
Kelly's first professional race was the Étoile de Bessèges. It started on 7 February 1977 and lasted six days. Kelly came 10th on the first day. The Flandria team was in two parts: the strongest riders, such as the world champion Freddy Maertens, were in the main section, based in Belgium. Kelly rode with the second section, based more in France because Flandria wanted to sell more of its mopeds, scooters and bicycles there. The strongest riders in both camps came together for big races. Kelly was recruited as a domestique for Maertens in the main team for year's Paris-Nice - shortly afterwards he won his first race, the opening stage of the Tour of Romandy - and stayed in it for the Tour de France, in which he also won a stage.
Kelly stayed with de Gribaldy for 1977 and 1978. Then in 1978 Michel Pollentier was disqualified from the Tour de France after cheating a drugs test on the afternoon that he took the race lead. He left the team at the end of the season and started his own, with a new backer, Splendor. Both Maertens and Pollentier wanted Kelly. Pollentier and Splendor offered Kelly more and made him a team leader. But Splendor was new and logistic problems became obvious. The bikes were in poor state - enough that Splendor decided not to ride Paris-Roubaix - and the manager, Robert Lauwers, was replaced. Kelly rose above it and rode for himself.
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 a reputation as a sprinter who could not win 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. Kelly won Paris-Nice and four of its stages. On the last of those, a time-trial to the col d'Eze, he beat Gilbert Duclos-Lasalle and pushed him out of the lead. That year he also won the maillot vert (the green jersey of best sprinter) of the Tour de France. He finished third in the world championship in England 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 Critérium International and the Tour de Suisse as well as the maillot vert of the Tour de France the second time in a row.
Height of professional career
Kelly confirmed his potential in autumn 1983. A leading group of 18 entered Como in the Giro di Lombardia after a battle over the Intelvi and Schignano passes. Kelly won the sprint by the narrowest margin, less than half a wheel separating the first four, against cycling greats including Francesco Moser, Adri Van Der Poel, Hennie Kuiper and world champion Greg LeMond.
Kelly dominated the following spring. He won Paris-Nice for the third successive time beating Roche as well as the Tour de France winner, Bernard Hinault who was returning after a knee injury. Kelly finished second in Milan - San Remo and the Ronde van Vlaanderen, 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.
Sean Kelly in Milan San Remo, 1984
Kelly achieved 33 victories in 1984. He was becoming a contender in the grands tours, as seen by finishing fifth in the Tour de France. This may have caused him to lose his grip on the maillot vert 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 in 1985, again beating Roche. He won the maillot vert for the third time and finished fourth in the 1985 Tour de France. Kelly won the first Nissan International Classic beating Van Der Poel. At the end of the season, he won the Giro di Lombardia.
He won Milan - San Remo in 1986 after winning Paris-Nice. He finished second in the Ronde van Vlaanderen 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. Kelly missed the 1986 Tour de France due to a serious crash in the last stage of Tour de Suisse. 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 in 1987 on the last day after Roche, the leader, punctured. Later, leading the Vuelta a España with three days to go, he retired with an infection. His bad luck continued in the Tour de France, retiring after a crash tore ligaments in his shoulder. After the world championship, in which he finished fifth behind Roche, Kelly returned to Ireland to win the Nissan for the third consecutive time.
Kelly won his seventh Paris-Nice in spring 1988, a record. He won Gent-Wevelgem several weeks later. He returned in April to the 1988 Vuelta a España. He stayed two minutes behind the leader, Laudelino Cubino, during the first two weeks then finished fourth behind Parra and Anselmo Fuerte on stage 13 (won by Fabio Parra), 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. Kelly maintained the gap between himself and Fuerte and started the time trial on the second last day 21 seconds behind. He won and took the leader's amarillo jersey. The following day Kelly won his only grand tour, over West German Raimund Dietzen. He also won the points competition. After his Vuelta win Kelly returned to Carrick-on-Suir where a parade was held in his honour.
Kelly finished 46th in the Tour de France, just over an hour behind Pedro Delgado. He was no longer a contender for overall victory after this and said he'd never win the Tour de France. Kelly finished third behind the German, Rolf Gölz, in the Nissan Classic ; that year Kelly finished third in the sprint at the rainy world road championship of 1989 at Chambéry, France, behind Dimitri Konyshev and Greg Lemond. Lemond won his second rainbow jersey as world champion.
Kelly switched to the Dutch PDM team and stayed there three years until the end of 1991. The following year he won Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the maillot vert in the Tour de France, and the inaugural UCI Road World Cup championship. 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.
Twilight of his career
Kelly won the Giro di Lombardia for a third time in 1991 but started 1992 regarded as past his prime. He moved to Festina and prepared for Milan - San Remo. Race favourite 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 team-mate Rolf Sorensen. Kelly was behind these two in third position . Kelly attacked with three kilometres 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 Clasico RCN, where he won the second stage. His PDM team-mate, 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.
While some sprinters remain sheltered in the peloton until the final few hundred metres, Kelly could instigate breaks and climb well, proving this by winning the Vuelta a España in 1988. 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 maillot vert 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.
Post Cycling Career
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.
The inaugural Sean Kelly Tour of Waterford was held on 19 August 2007. Kelly was one of the 600 participants. The second was on the 24 August 2008. Kelly was one of the 2,048. The 2009 tour went ahead on the 30th August 2009. It attracted over 3,400 participants. On 29 August 2010, 3708 cyclists took part in the Tour and about 5,000 on 28 August 2011.
Kelly's view on today's riding
Asked about his first Tour, Kelly recalls his overriding emotion was fear. "It was frightening being on the start line with the big names," he says. "Nowadays riders come up through the elites and get to ride with the pros. By the time they reach the Tour they'll have raced against these guys for a number of years. Back then [when amateurs and professionals were segregated we didn't have the experience."
But when comparing life then and now, Kelly admits that the current generation has problems of its own. "I think that there is more pressure to succeed than there was in my day," he says. "It's so difficult to get into the Tour that you have to put up a performance. Managers have to be pushing for results all the time.
"It's no longer a case of taking it easy, sitting back and waiting for a couple of days and then perhaps getting away in a break a bit later on in the Tour; now it's full-on from the start.
"The Tour has grown into a worldwide event and during the three weeks teams gain a big proportion of their publicity and exposure for the year."
It's not only the Tour that has grown more intense. Because of the UCI points system the pressure is on right from the start of the season.
"The whole thing has changed," Kelly says. "Early in my career you could come to the Etoile de BessÀges at the start of the season with 500 or 600 miles in your legs. But now, with 600 miles training you wouldn't be able to follow. Maybe you'd survive the first day, but by the second or third day you'd be gone, because the average speed of the racing is so much higher.
"In my last seasons people would be turning up at the Ruta del Sol saying they'd got 6,000 miles in their legs. This is because teams and riders realise they can pick up points at a time when perhaps the big boys aren't going full-on. And their salaries depend on those points."
Kelly's Major Results and professional Teams
King Kelly swaps the bike for a Tornado Jet in the SportActive Challenge 2008
Sean Kelly was taking part in the first edition of the SportActive Challenge in which a well known athlete attempts to do something out of his range. So, instead of donning a cycling kit, he was being custom fitted into RAF flying gear that had to sit perfectly.
Sean Kelly’s training regime and his advice to cyclists in lock-down
This article first appeared on Stickybottle in April 2020.
Sean Kelly is still in very good shape and leads SportActive cycling holidays in Mallorca. In this piece we ask him about his current training regime and what advice he would offer to cyclists during the Covid19 lock-down period
Sean Kelly has said cyclists can still train both indoors and outdoors and could also try running during the current lock-down period.
However, while the 1988 Vuelta winner and former world number one rider has urged cyclists to try running for training, they should approach it very cautiously.
Kelly himself says he is keeping fit in lock-down; sticking to a short off-road loop close to home for his cycling and doing some running.
He says those cyclists who need to top-up lower intensity general fitness training with higher intensity efforts can added in the turbo trainer.
But he believes cyclists can train outside, once they are staying within 2km of home, despite the lock-down and can use that limited opportunity to keep themselves ticking over.
While Kelly said he is not training to race, he is still in great condition; maintaining his fitness even when on long Eurosport commentating trips abroad and also leading SportActive cycling holidays in Mallorca.
“First of all, we obviously don’t know when racing or sportives will be on again,” he told stickybottle of the difficulty in trying to assess training requirements at present.
“The UCI has said racing won’t start until after June 1st, and that’s depending on how this crisis goes across Europe and all over the world really.
“And with the sportive events it will be the same situation. But if you’re preparing for sportives it’s much easier than for riders who are preparing for racing. With sportives, you could go to an event in August or September and you can ride a bit slower.
“You’ll know you haven’t as much training done as you normally would so you can say to yourself ‘I’ll just go out there and enjoy this event’. So you have that choice, but with racing it’s a different scenario of course.”
Kelly’s overall message is straightforward: make the best of the opportunities you still have and “just keep riding your bike.”
“You can ride close to your home when you can; do laps. So you can do some of that and then do the more intensive stuff on the turbo trainer; on Zwift and so on.
“But even on a basic turbo trainer you can do a lot if you do a few sessions a week; you can get that really high intensity training done.”
Kelly said he has not touched the home trainer of late himself, but pointed out he only had to train for general fitness rather than for racing.
“I’ve been getting out on my mountain bike,” he said. “I have a circuit close to home with is about 2.7km and that is within that 2km (radius) of my house.
“So I’ve been riding around that and I’ve ridden the mountain bike for two hours around that.
“And then I do a small bit of running as well. I always do a bit of running anyway when I am away on the Tour de France, when I don’t have my bike. So I’ve just upped my running a bit more now since Paris-Nice.
“I did a bit of running at Paris-Nice and before that I was running during the winter fairly regularly; getting out at least one a week.
“And really that’s enough to keep my fitness up. But of course my fitness is much different to what people who are racing would need.”
“I’d run in a wooded area on a pathway, it’s heavy enough going and it’s up and down terrain. I’d run at a slow enough pace, I don’t really push it at all.
“I would be concerned about getting injuries so for me the running is just about getting out there and doing that hour or hour and ten minutes and at times I might only do 45 to 50 minutes.”
While the Covid19 crisis may be a good time for cyclists to branch out and try some running for fitness, Kelly urged cyclists to take a very cautious approach.
“It could be a good time to start but I’d be surprised if any of the cyclists who race haven’t already done some running,” he said.
“Maybe people who have focused more on leisure cycling a bit more and those who have taken up the bike in the past few years; maybe a lot of that group hasn’t been running at all.
“So I think with any group of cyclists, you’ll get quite a number who have experience at some kind of running.”
However, he said “a big danger” for cyclists who start running is transferring their general fitness from the bike, which can be very high, into a running effort and causing injury.
“I’ve had it in the past, maybe 15 years ago or more; I’d be biking and then I’d go away on the Tour de France and start running and have good fitness from the bike but then you start running too quickly or too far and then you get injuries.
“Cyclists, you know, we think we’re unbreakable; you going to the physio and they tell you the same thing, that the cyclists come to them are doing too much running too quickly.
“You have to start off and do 15 or 20 minutes and then walk a bit, especially if you haven’t been running for months or even years. You need to run a bit and walk a bit and then build it up gradually.”
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