Kelly recalls golden era when Irish cycling ruled the roost

Kelly recalls golden era when Irish cycling ruled the roost
MADRID, SPAIN - DECEMBER 17: Juan Martinez Olive, Pedro Delgado, Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde, Alberto Contador, Roberto Heras,  Melchor Mauri, Fabio Aru, Alexandr Vinokurov, Sean Kelly, Joop Zoetemelk, during the 75th Vuelta a Espana 2020 Route Presentation in Hotel Auditorium of Madrid last December. Picture Tim de Waele/Getty Images

In normal times Sean Kelly would have been at the Giro d'Italia this week, migrating around the country for three weeks in his role as co-commentator for Eurosport.

He, along with erstwhile friend and colleague Rob Hatch would share the driving, weaving and ducking their way through the chaos of the crowds after stages. Not unlike his time in the peloton.

Getting from A to B and picking his line through gaps was something Kelly did better than most and though he'll turn 64 next week, the man from Carrick-on-Suir still craves the organised mayhem and buzz that professional cycling brings.

By this stage of the year he'd usually have called a dozen or more races from Paris-Nice to Paris Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders and Milan-San Remo. 

He'd squeeze in a training camp towards the end of April, shedding the kilos he'd put back on during the Giro TV coverage.

But normal times have been replaced by a new template. And Kelly, cycling, and the rest of the world has been left recalibrating and reassessing in the Age of Coronavirus.

Not good news for the Type A personalities.

“The break was okay in the beginning because you’re always catching up around the place at home.

“This time of year I always watch the Classics and semi-Classics because if you’re doing the commentary on the big ones you have to watch them, the likes of E3 and all those ones.

“I’m doing a bit of mountain biking and running to stay in shape. I’ve been out a bit, not long spins, but two or two and a half hours most days, maybe a run twice a week as well,” he offers by way of his ´new normal´.

“Anything is better than highlights of the 2013 Giro or that Zwift racing they have now on TV!”.

Of course, turbulence and uncertainty are nothing new to Kelly or professional cycling. 

Two months after he became the first and only Irishman to win the Vuelta A Espana 32 years ago this week, the owner of the Spanish KAS squad he was racing for died and the team would soon fold.

The family business which had sponsored teams since the fifties withdrew from the sport, leaving Kelly searching for a contract for the following year.

May is usually synonymous with Ireland's only UCI-ranked stage race, Ras Tailteann, but when main sponsors An Post pulled out in 2017 a temporary reserve fund was used to cover costs to allow it run the following year.

Alas, the required investment wasn't found last year so the race was cancelled for the first time since its inception in 1953 and this year's event has also been canned.

Kelly's own third-tier continental racing team operated for over 10 years, but lacking the investment to allow it to grow, it too disappeared in 2017.

Not too dissimilar to today's landscape then, though a global pandemic is less of a pothole and more of a crater that threatens to swallow a sport as volatile as bike racing.

“You've always have it (uncertainty) and teams pulling sponsorship when you least expect it.

“It’s maybe one or two teams every year but the difference now is everybody is really affected, even the biggest teams.

“Sponsors are saying 'well if we don’t get exposure this year, next year we will have to look at it more seriously and we might not have the budget to support a team because we have to cut back to pay for other things'.

“Even the bigger teams like Team Ineos are starting to shout that they might not be in the best condition. They are looking for millions from the UK government so it just shows that even they can get into difficulty. 

“It’s a difficult one for the riders because contracts are going to be very difficult to get. Places are going to be hard to find in other teams and you won’t be able to look for your big salary because teams won’t be paying it.

“A lot will depend on what happens with the Tour de France; if that doesn’t go ahead, or the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta A Espana ... well that’ll be a disaster.

It’ll be a big, big mess because a lot of the teams will be just scraping the barrel to survive. And if they do survive it’ll be difficult to get a place with any sort of a decent salary. Everybody is under pressure to keep their head above water.

Speaking of the Vuelta, yesterday marked 32 years to the day since Kelly rolled into Madrid resplendent in the maillot amarillo as winner of the three-week tour.

It meant that at that time, Irish riders simultaneously held all three winners´ jerseys of the sport's Grand Tours after Stephen Roche won the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France in 1987.

Of the three, however, Kelly's win was arguably the sweetest, not least because he had to withdraw 12 months earlier with a saddle sore, despite leading the race with four stages remaining.

“Having to withdraw so close to the end when I could have won was one of the biggest disappointments of my career,” he recalled.

“I had pretty much done what I needed to do to win and then to pull out, being in a Spanish team like KAS, was very disappointing. It didn't happen suddenly like when you crash and break a collarbone and you're out, though. 

"I was starting to realise 2-3 days out that I'd struggle so I was a little bit more prepared for it compared to when I crashed out of the Tour de France and did my shoulder.” 

Little wonder that ´88 would be so focused on putting that right. “I got a feeling that I could win it from ´87 so over that winter we started thinking about the Vuelta and we brought in some riders we thought could add to the team for the following year. The Vuelta was the big goal for 1988.

“Our team wasn't interested in the classics and I remember signing with them two years earlier and them telling me the most important thing was the Vuelta and some of the other Spanish races like Pais Vasco and the Tour of Catalonia.” 

He'd win three editions of the former and two of the latter, earning him unconditional and complete support for the 1988 Vuelta.

“The plan was not to lose anything in the early days but not get into the race lead too early because you start using up your team when you need them for later,” he remembered.

Indeed, with four time-trials including one on the penultimate stage, it was a course designed for an all-rounder like Kelly.

Kelly recalls golden era when Irish cycling ruled the roost
Halcyon Cycling Days:
Tour of Spain 1988
Sean Kelly celebrates after his victory in the 1988 Vuelta. Picture: James Meehan/Inpho

“I was probably better in the time trials than the guys I was up against, so I knew could take time there. The BH team were our biggest rivals and had three guys leading them; Pino, Fuerte and Cubino. All were good climbers, but I knew I could beat them against the clock.” 

Kelly's team did lose one of their strongest domestiques when Swiss powerhouse Thomas Wegmuller pulled out on stage two with stomach issues, but that setback was tempered by the fact the aforementioned rival Cubino took the race lead the same day.

It meant BH used up valuable reserves defending the jersey for the next two weeks, while Kelly chose his moments.

“Wegmuller was able to do the work of two men on the flat so it was a big blow to lose him. But my plan remained the same; chip into the lead any way I could. Back then, there were time bonuses on the finish line and throughout the stages, so I chased those precious seconds where I could.” 

Ten top-5 finishes, six podiums and two stage wins would attest to that, the first of which came on the mountainous stage 11 to Valdezcaray which put Kelly into second overall at 2´04” - the perfect place from which to pounce.

“As the days ticked away and we got into the last days everything was going well. I was getting up there in the bunch sprints which I was used to doing anyway in races, but some of the other GC guys weren't interested or able to get up there. 

"The time-trial on the penultimate day was something I was looking forward to but it was still a long way out. It was in the back of my mind that if I got there within 15 seconds of Fuerte who was leading, I knew I could win.” 

As it transpired, Kelly arrived in the Madrid municipality of Las Rozas for the 30-kilometre test against the clock trailing Fuerte by 28 seconds.

“There's always a feeling that somebody can do something unbelievable so you have to push yourself to the limit all the way. 

After about 5k I got that feeling where I knew from experience I was on a good day. I was just able to go so deep.

He would finish over a minute clear of his closest challenger - and two ahead of Fuerte, to firmly assume control of the race.

And to cap it all off he sprinted into Madrid the following day in fifth.

“It was a big relief to do it,” he reflected. 

“When I went to the dinner table after the time-trial everyone was a bit more chilled out as the job was pretty much done. It´s a lovely feeling, compared to the other big mountain days where this a bit of tension after a hard day and the hard days to come. But relief was the overwhelming emotion. 

"And to see what it meant back home as well. There was a massive response. Coming back for the Nissan Classic that year was an eye opener for us. Looking back at those stage finishes and the crowds along the roads.

“Winning the Giro, the Tour, the Vuelta and the World Championships...they were dream years for Irish cycling."

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