He is Ireland’s most successful cyclist, ever. Regretfully in his own country he is often remembered as the one that didn’t win the Tour. Few cyclist, including Tour de France winners , can match the record of Sean Kelly.
The farmer’s son from Carrick-on-Suir County Tipperary is fourth in cycling’s Hall of Fame for classic race wins. His 22 victories have only been surpassed by the 29 of both Bernard Hinault and Jacques Anquetil. The person that leads the classic rankings is not surprisingly the legendary Eddy Marckx, who won 50 classic races.
The classics are the top one-day road races of the cycling calendar. Many of these date back to the 19 century and the five most prestigious are known as ‘The Monuments’. Kelly won a total of nine.
Some of the races became nothing more than his own personal property, the Paris Nice Classic he won seven times, a record that still stands. However other wins had to be groundout by grim determination. Paris Roubaix, which he won twice, was fought out on both occasions in atrocious weather conditions on cobblestone roads.
By the end of his career Kenny had bagged all the Classics, but one. The one that got away, three times, was the tour of Flanders. On each occasion he came in second.
In all the Irishmen notched up a phenomenal 193 wins. In 1984 alone he won 33 races. His racing schedule started in March and finished in October and it became his style to open and close the season with a victory.
It’s not surprising that Kelly attracted his own fair share of mythology. One story has its origins in his fabled sprint finishes. The rule that outlawed head butting, as riders jostled for position nearing the finish line, the story goes, was instituted to deal with Kelly’s competitive streak.
What is not disputed is the esteem, those who know about cycling, have for the Irishman. In bars in the Basque country the picture of Miguel Indurain always hangs in pride of place. In the photograph jammed into the frame there is always invariably a picture of Sean Kelly.
He is remembered as the hard man of cycling. That reputation was earned more because of his work rate and endurance than aggression. His 1992 race in the tour of Milan San Remo has entered cycling lore. By that time most believed that Kelly was past his prime, and having raced professionally for 14 years he probably was . The race favourite that day was Argentin. He looked to have an unassailable lead at 10 km to go. That’s when Kelly broke from the chasing group and descended down the precipice known as the Poggia Pass with what can only be described as wanton disregard for his safety. He caught Argentin on the straight and then overtook him a kilometre from the finish, making it his second win of the Classic.
Kelly retired the same year. Today his involvement in cycling is more charitable than competitive. Blazing Saddles, a charity for the blind, is an organization he’s been connected with for over 10 years. His other cycling pursuits comprised of commentating on Eurosport and as the manager of Sean Kelly cycling team, based in Belgium.