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Kelly and Roche and the acquiescent ascent of Irish cycling

Barry Ryan’s new book ‘The Ascent’ looks at doping in Irish cycling which media ignored

Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly at the Nissan Classic in 1988. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Perhaps lost amid all the sad and glorious sporting reflection of recent days is the memory of Jimmy Magee and the masterfully acquiescent interview. This is where the subject simply listened or nodded as Magee heaped praise upon their achievement, and no one felt more comfortable in that situation than Sean Kelly.

“What a ride Sean, still the hardest man in cycling?” Magee might have asked after his seventh straight Paris-Nice victory in 1988 – Kelly’s only response being to pull on another layer of clothing.

Or, “talk about risking life and limb on that descent,” after Kelly’s still-frightening ride down the Poggio to win the 1992 Milan-San Remo, the ninth monument classic of his career – Kelly responding this time by knocking a bead of perspiration off his nose.

And such interviews, remember – deftly orchestrated by Magee – would normally go out on the radio. 

When Stephen Roche entered this same arena the responses were significantly more animated, the praise the same: Magee consistently championed Kelly and Roche as the two greatest riders of their generation, which of course they were. 

This month 30 years ago their careers and that of Irish pro cycling reached a zenith. At the 1987 World Championships in Villach along Austria’s southern border, a five-man Irish team – with no manager – took on the cycling superpowers and beat them all. Tactics meant nothing against the 12-man squads from Italy, Belgium and France and their only advantage was pure strength of will. 

The only plan was to support Kelly, built for a course like Villach and now more than ever primed to win that elusive rainbow jersey. Roche had won the Tour de France to go with his Giro d’Italia and would set aside their pseudo-polite rivalry; so would Ireland’s two other leading pros, Paul Kimmage and Martin Earley, while Kelly’s old junior rival Alan McCormack also made the long trip from the US to lend his wheel. 

Still stranded

What unfolded didn’t go exactly to plan yet made sporting history nonetheless. They all rode their legs off, then, 400m from the finish, realising Kelly was still stranded in the group just behind, Roche broke towards the left-hand barrier and didn’t let up until five metres before the line, when he flung both arms straight above his head. 

Roche held off Italy’s defending champion Moreno Argentin by a single second; Kelly rolled across the line in fifth, arms also punching the air. For the first time since Eddy Merckx in 1974 – and the only time since – a rider had won the Triple Crown of cycling, and Magee was certainly no exception in his instant hailing of this feat. 

Exactly why this isn’t hailed so instantly 30 years later is a little problematic and many of the reasons can be found in The Ascent, a new 385-page tour de force by Cork cycling journalist Barry Ryan. He was hardly born when Kelly and Roche began their ascent in the peloton, and Ryan has no vested interest in their story beyond the sheer veracity of it, which is exactly how he tells it. 

Ryan – reporting with since 2010 – is already known for questioning some of the veracity of Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford, who responded by banning him from Sky’s media event on the second rest day of this year’s Tour, reportedly accusing Ryan of “writing shit” and to “stick it up your arse”. 

There’s similar cursing throughout The Ascent, mostly compliments of Kimmage, who at times sounds more like character from Nil By Mouth but at no point lacks veracity either. Ryan talks with all the central characters in Irish cycling – including Kelly, Roche and David Walsh – and while their stories have been told before (Kelly has two authorised biographies, Roche three) this is the first time they’ve been told in sync. 

Doping in the peloton is only briefly mentioned in the opening 100 pages, including Shay Elliott’s self-confessions, because this is how the story unfolded: towards the end it reads more like the descent of Irish cycling – especially the careers of Kelly and Roche. 

Dilated pupils

Even Walsh, the man now hailed for helping to bring down Lance Armstrong, was mostly acquiescent in his early pursuit, ignoring Kelly’s dilated pupils, his face “a really strange white”, at the 1984 Paris-Brussels, where Kelly later tested positive for the amphetamine-based product Stimul. Walsh made no mention of it in any of his race reports, also making mostly woolly arguments to support Kelly’s innocence. 

Likewise with Kimmage, also at Paris-Brussels, who on approaching Kelly with Walsh heard Kelly’s jersey pocket rattling with pills: “Did you f***ing hear that?” he asks Walsh. “But again,” he says now, “you kind of thought, was it something else?” 

Only when The Ascent reaches its final chapter, “The Book of Evidence” – long after Roche’s 1987 Giro showdown with Roberto Visintini, or the time he lost and regained at La Plange at that year’s Tour – does the less acquiescent picture emerge. By now Kimmage has admitted to doping not once but three times (“maybe watching Stephen Roche win the Tour de France and me going out was the last step for me”), and had written his own self-confessions in A Rough Ride

By now there’s a guilty verdict against Prof Francesco Conconi and proof he’d doped former riders at the Carrera team, including Roche. And another confessional, Breaking the Chain, by Kelly’s former soigneur Willy Voet, where he talks of systematic doping, long before he joined Festina. “Above all, I don’t want to smash the legend of Kelly,” Voet later told L’Équipe. “He was a champion.” 

And then one of the last words in The Ascent from Walsh, still pondering the revelations about Kelly to this day: “You’d wonder: does it diminish your regard for him? A little bit, but not completely.” 

And you begin to wonder how sadly acquiescent that must be.

The Ascent by Barry Ryan is published by Gill Books (€24.99)