Seán Kelly: Back to the Finestre with the Irish cycling legend

In 1987, Kelly was among the Irish riders who left an indelible mark on cycling history

Seán Kellyt at the Tour de France 1990. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Seán Kellyt at the Tour de France 1990. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

We’re somewhere between the Colle delle Finestre and that last sprint into Villach when Seán Kelly eventually cracks. Humbly, stoically, as is his style.

“Well, we’re doing an interview here – I’ll be with you after,” he says to the middle-aged man in lycra carrying a retro cycling jersey and black marker. He’ll soon be back.

Back soon to the Finestre – scene of Chris Froome’s resurrection in last year’s Giro d’Italia – and to Villach where, in 1987, Irish riders left their indelible mark on cycling history. Now where were we?

Because Kelly’s been signing autographs and retro jerseys since arriving into the lobby of the Rose Hotel, freshly scrubbed after the Atlantic Challenge sportive – a 135km loop from Tralee and over the Conor Pass and far out Dingle Peninsula.

He’s a guest of the organisers, Chain Gang Cycling Club, obliging of his time and aura throughout the ride (a 1,500 sell-out). Even after finding a quiet corner, Kelly is still being reverently accosted, firstly by an Italian trio, who produce a pristine PDM cycling jersey.

Seán Kelly signs a PDM cycling jersey for Italian fans at the Rose Hotel in Tralee
Seán Kelly signs a PDM cycling jersey for Italian fans at the Rose Hotel in Tralee

“Milan-San Remo, catching Argentin coming down the Poggio, I’ll never forget . . .” one of them reminds Kelly, referring to his ninth monumental win, in 1992, when he caught the Italian Moreno Argentin after a fearless descent. It was the last big prize of his 18-year professional career. Kelly, still sharply cut chin and nose, slicked-back hair, head half bowed, signs the jersey and says nothing.

Those Italians could only have been teenagers then, perhaps forgetting Kelly was wearing a Festina jersey in 1992, having ridden for PDM from 1989-91. There are some people in the sport who would consider both jerseys to represent an era when cycling had a morality system entirely of its own: a year earlier, Kelly’s Tour de France was cut short when the PDM team withdrew ahead of Stage 11 suffering from food poisoning, later linked to a supplement which riders had been injecting, not illegally, at the time.

Uneasy alliance

Kelly was off the scene by the time all that morphed into the Festina affair in 1998, and yet the PDM jersey offers some reminder of cycling’s often uneasy alliance with its own history. Kelly’s own presence and unmistakable profile in the hotel lobby, even if among his own breed, offers a reminder of another sort: you can’t fake legend.

“What age are you now, Seán?” I ask him, a soft teaser, knowing Kelly is prone to answering certain questions with a nod. Even on the radio.

“I am now 62,” he says, pausing, as if reluctant to give that much away. Once in the Eurosport commentary seat, we all know, Kelly flows with insight and authority, and his enthusiasm and openness over the next hour is unexpected. If only in reminding that, with Kelly, it’s still all about the bike.

“Riding at this age is, you know, like running,” he adds, as if to share that enthusiasm. “You do a career, you finish, and you still feel a need to get out. Once you keep in contact with it, don’t let yourself go out of shape too much, you can still do 100km, 130km, only at a slower pace. Thank God I still feel good, still enjoy it. It’s not that I ride the bike every day. You ride maybe two or three times a week, or if you’re doing some event like this you might ride four or five days on the trot.”

Kelly’s story has been told many times. He’s been the subject of three auto/biographies, the latest, Hunger, in 2013. In 2017 there was also Barry Ryan’s 385-page tour de force The Ascent, tracing Irish cycling to the global pinnacle that was the Kelly-Stephen Roche era, during which Roche won the Giro, the Tour and the World Championships, and Kelly won everything else, including four green jerseys in the Tour, the 1988 Vuelta a España, seven successive Paris-Nice, 193 pro wins in all. Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix Kelly won twice in three years.

Ryan asks some questions of that era, too, ground also covered in Hunger (including Kelly’s two doping positives for stimulants, in 1984 and 1988, already answered away countless times). What interests Kelly here is the present state of Irish cycling, not just in the peloton.

Mass popularity

No one could have imagined now mass popularity of cycling when in 1976, not yet 20, Kelly left the family farm at Curraghduff, four miles into the Waterford side of Carrick-on-Suir, to spend the summer racing in France, and was first spotted by Jean de Gribaldy, famed directeur sportif of the Flandria team. Such chance discoveries are less likely today, even with more young riders out there for the taking.

“Now, sure, it’s such a cool thing to do. Everybody is out riding. Part of the problem is it’s grown so quickly, people are not used to the number of cyclists on the road, are losing it a bit with cyclists. And the riders as well, sometimes they mightn’t be the best behaved. On club runs, say, they might take over the road a bit too much.”

This popularity hasn’t necessarily made it easier for Irish riders to break into the pro peloton, or for cycling to attract more commercial interest. For the first time since 1953 there will be no Rás Tailteann, after it failed to secure a headline sponsor, and last year the Belgium academy team which Kelly lent his name to, under manager Kurt Bogaerts, also ceased.

Seán Kelly arriving home to a hero’s welcome at Dublin Airport in 1988, following his Tour of Spain triumph. Photograph: Peter Thursfield/The Irish Times
Seán Kelly arriving home to a hero’s welcome at Dublin Airport in 1988, following his Tour of Spain triumph. Photograph: Peter Thursfield/The Irish Times

“Look at the Rás, one of the oldest races, they couldn’t manage to find a sponsor to keep it on the road. Maybe the Government should have come on board and kept it going, with the interest that is in cycling now.”

More importantly, young riders need that steady path of development – Sam Bennett being the shining example. Now 28, Bennett first made his mark in the 2009 Rás, the youngest-ever stage winner, before some inevitable crashes, physical and mental. Kelly is slow to take credit for Bennett’s emergence as one of the best sprinters in the pro peloton, but recognises the pathway nonetheless.

“He started with Carrick-on-Suir, with the other club, Carrick Wheelers, then we had him in the Seán Kelly An Post team for a period, and he went through some hard times. So there was quite a lot of work done with him, and we got him to the stage where he won a stage in the Tour of Britain.”

Shining hope

For this year’s Tour, Dan Martin, eighth last year, will again be the shining hope. “This year’s route is a good one for the climbers, there’s not a lot of time-trialling, and if Dan really comes good in July, who knows, he might be able to challenge for the podium.”

There is further presence there – Nicolas Roche, Ryan Mullen – although, with Philip Deignan retired, it’s already about the next generation, and Kelly reckons Eddie Dunbar, now with Team Sky, is one to watch. With Sky becoming Team Ineos from May 1st, there will be no lack of support (owner Jim Ratcliffe, Britain’s richest man, is set to add €5 million to the team budget of €40 million). Right now the new Evo Pro team is Ireland’s only registered UCI team, and Kelly believes that Irish pro scene could be better.

Young riders need the guidance, and if that structure isn’t there, they start going their own way, and you lose them

“It should be better. I think certainly the talent is there. But you have to nurture it along, three or four or five years, from a junior level. And you need funding to do that. The Sport Ireland funding doesn’t give a lot to the national federations, so if you had more backing, financially, then you could take riders at 16 or 17, and look after them for a number of years.

“Because bike racing is an expensive sport. And if you want to get the right sort of events, the right coaching, you do have to go abroad for the last number of years. Young riders need the guidance, and if that structure isn’t there, they start going to their own way, and you lose them.”

Irish cycling got €440,000 in high-performance funding for 2019, well below sports such as rowing (€620,000), sailing (€800,000) and athletics (€840,000). In January, British Cycling got a fresh funding injection of £5.69 million (€6.6 million), bringing the total grassroots investment in cycling to £17.3 million (€20.07 million).

Some questions go beyond funding, starting back on the Finestre, when Froome, unable to explain how his levels of salbutamol were twice the permitted amount in the 2017 Vuelta, began Stage 19 of last year’s Giro in fourth, three minutes and 22 seconds down on race leader Simon Yates. By the finish, Froome was in the pink jersey. Even from Kelly’s view in the Eurosport commentary position, wasn’t that damaging to cycling?

‘Performane-enhancing’

“No, you have to just tell the story as it is. Then, they seemed to be able to prove it to a point where it wasn’t taken as a positive. Some people would say yes, there was a certain amount of performance-enhancing. Others would say no, not at all.

“With Team Sky, at the beginning, it was about marginal gains, and we see then that they did push the limits out. But I think that’s the way it is in any sport now. Anything to get that little advantage, without breaking any of the rules. And we have seen some really bad times – the doping problem went on for 12, 15 years. Things have improved now, big-time, but it’s never going to be totally sorted.”

Does he feel Lance Armstrong was singled out with his lifetime ban? “Well, I have no comment on that . . .”

So to that last sprint into Villach in Austria, at the 1987 World Championships, where the five-man Irish team took on the cycling superpowers and beat them all. The plan was to support Kelly, but it was Roche – having already won the Tour to go with his Giro – who stole the show. Paul Kimmage, Martin Earley and Alan McCormack were the loyal support acts, only now it all feels like an uneasy alliance for perhaps other reasons.

Competing as a smaller nation, to win that race was the big achievement, that joy was genuine

“Well no, you just go your own way, pretty much. You see the guys occasionally, at some event or something. But we wouldn’t be in contact like we’re calling each other up every second week or anything like that.”

And, it seems, no regrets, that closing scene in Villach remembered as much for Kelly raising his arms when rolling over the line in fifth.

“That was the best way we could do the race, tactically. And it was the attack that Stephen went with that stayed out front. Competing as a smaller nation, to win that race was the big achievement, that joy was genuine.”

With that he sits back, humbly, stoically, still all about being Seán Kelly. You can’t fake legend.

Seán Kelly on the road near his home at Carrick-on-Suir in 2007. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
Seán Kelly on the road near his home at Carrick-on-Suir in 2007. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Seán Kelly on Sam Bennett: ‘He’s proved himself now’

Knowing the pro peloton as he does, Seán Kelly is disappointed yet not entirely surprised Sam Bennett is unlikely to ride the 2019 Giro d’Italia in May, as his German-based team, Bora-hansgrohe, intend giving a start to Pascal Ackermann (who happens to be German), even though Bennett has shown the better form this season. Bennett’s next grand Tour will likely be the Vuelta a España, in August.

“It’s disappointing for Sam, given the performance he had last year, winning three stages, he should really be going back. So you could see a change. He’s at an end of contract this year, and there should be some other teams that are interested in him.

“He’s proved himself now, won against all the best the last two years. In Paris-Nice, there were eight of the best sprinters in the pro circuit and he was able to beat them, on two occasions. You have to have the boldness, be able to fight your corner, and of course it’s the final 200m, that kick, that explosive power, and that’s something Sam has definitely got.”

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