Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly are names etched into the psyche of cycling aficionados. Michael Hearn and Brendan Mooney look back over their stunning careers
JIMMY MAGEE was conducting a normal post race interview with Sean Kelly after Stage Three of the 1987 Nissan International Classic in Killarney.
“Now Sean,” Magee enquired in his ever so passionate voice, “it would be extra special for you to win this particular race?”
Stephen Roche sat next to Kelly, resplendent in his World Championship Rainbow Jersey. These past four months, Roche had won the World Championship, Tour de France and the Tour of Italy.
But, on this day, Kelly was in yellow leading his own national tour. “Yes,” Kelly replied with that familiar shrug of his head and puff through his lips. “If Stephen won the Tour de France, it’s very important for me now to win this Nissan.”
Was Kelly off his head? Did he really think for one moment a win in the Nissan Classic, for him, would equal Roche’s achievements that season? Or was he asked by the organisers to make these types of comments in order to build the race’s reputation?
“Don’t compare us,” Roche said in Dublin after his win in the Tour de France, “look at what we have achieved together!”
However, when somebody looks back at the history of world cycling over the next Millennium, they will see only two cyclists succeeded in winning the Tour de France, Tour of Italy and World championships in the same year.
Stephen Roche is happy with that. When the Dubliner completed the treble back in 1987 only the legendary Eddie Merckx had preceded him.
“It made a huge difference,” he said. “For me, as regards cycling, it practically wiped out everything I had ever done before. People still say, ‘He had a great year in 1987 did he win something else?’ People will forget I won Paris Nice and I was second four times. I won 55 races, but they were pushed into the background.
“My last win on La Bourboule (1992) had a great impact,” he insisted. “It was my last win and it was also done in a fairly significant style; in the fog in La Bourboule. We set out in 30 degrees and we finished in six degrees with hail and dense fog.
“The Tour of Italy was phenomenal,” he said. “I won two stages and I had a couple of fabulous mountain stages. It was very significant in my career both on and off the bike in that my character kind of shone in that race. I was against my own team and I still held out not only against my own team but the Italian public as well, who were very reluctant to see me win it after taking the lead from Viscentini, but I stuck to it. No matter what happened, I was not going home,” he recalled.
“Having said all that, back in Italy now I’m a god. Even before the end of the Tour of Italy in 1987, I was accepted as their champion. I was getting hundreds of letters from fans condemning the minority.
“It was a very significant part of ’87. It hardened me up. It brought out the hard side of my character and it also gave me more confidence for the Tour de France.”
Today Viscentini is running his father’s funeral business while his Belgian team mate, Eddie Schepers, who endeared himself to the Irish people for his part in defending Roche, is doing really well and maintaining contact with Roche.
“He is very content with himself. He is working for an industrial cleaning company and has about 20 women working with him. He also does a bit of PR for the company,” Stephen said of his friend and ally. He will send him one of the new bikes he has produced for Christmas.
The famous Roche smile is broadest when he recalls the nerve splitting seconds - that seemed like minutes or even hours - when he stalled on the road with the finish in sight in the world championships.
“I remember there were so many things going through my mind at that point. First of all, I had ridden very, very hard all day. I did not know what was left.,” he said.
“I knew one thing was going for me. I still felt really, really strong. But, with Teun Van Vliet, Rolf Golz, Sorenson and Winterburg there, I knew there was no way I was going to beat them in a sprint. I was going to be fifth.
“I knew I had to do something myself before the sprint. I had ridden all day for Ireland, for myself and then, if it did not work out for me, Sean was my next kind of thing.
“I was looking around for Sean. But, first of all, I was bluffing. They knew they would beat me in a sprint. They knew I would have a tendency to throw the race to Sean if I was outnumbered. I was bluffing and buying time. I knew Sean himself had not got it won. Moreno Argentin was there and he was looking very strong. I knew Sean would have had difficulty in winning, so it was a situation where I would get what I could out of myself or wait and see. Sean could have been second and I could have been 10th.”
He took his chance and it paid off. History was made on that damp afternoon in the Austrian hills. Winning was the most important thing.
“It’s nice to be looked upon as a legend. I marked my era somewhere along the line and that means a lot to me. I will be remembered sometime during the new Millennium for what I have achieved.
But Roche also feels Irish cycling did not benefit sufficiently from the achievements of himself and Sean Kelly. “The cycling enthusiast benefited because they got a buzz from it. It encouraged kids to get involved and parents to actually put their kids into cycling, but I think the Federation did not have it in their imagination to develop cycling on the back of what we had done. When my career was over and Sean’s career was over, all of a sudden, they were saying what can we do now, when it should all have been done during the course of our careers. It was a mistake on the part of the Federation, but it was not the first nor the last.”
Today, away from the stresses and strains of a professional cyclist, he is enjoying family life with his wife Lydia alongside his busy business career and he gets excited when talking about his eldest son.
“Nicolas is absolutely screaming,” he insists enthusiastically. “He has developed into an incredible bike rider and all round athlete. He plays rugby, he plays football, he runs and he swims for his school. Everything he does he is exceptionally good at.
“He won the Youths Tour of Manchester this year with the green jersey on his back. Last year, he finished sixth and this year he won it by winning two stages as well.
“He is also the regional champion back home, which is important. He had eight wins in 20 races. This winter, he has really developed. Every Sunday, he goes out with us and would knock the legs off anybody in our group and there are lads there who are good. He is only 15. The nice thing is he’s not obsessed by it. He will ride a bike with us on Sunday. He goes out with the club on a Wednesday afternoon for two hours. He joins the lads in the gym on Tuesday and Thursday nights and he plays football and rugby with his school and he swims and runs with the school.
Stephen and Lydia’s daughter, Christelle, is involved in dancing and synchronised swimming. She indulges in five hours of sport with the school every week, with two hours of dancing and three hours of synchronised water dancing.
Stephen’s youngest son, Alexis, will also be an athlete and Lydia is expecting their fourth child for April.
They have bought a hotel on the beach in Villeneuve Loubet Plague - right next to the horse racing track and just 15 minutes from Nice. The hotel has 28 bedrooms and they are currently renovating 12. They have a 100 seater restaurant, a seminar room and a solarium and a 160 seater restaurant outside.
But as Roche thundered in triumph over the finish line in Austria that famous day, we also discovered something significant in the character make up of Sean Kelly; something which tells us why he was, and still is, loved so much in Ireland.
Two minutes before Roche crossed the line that day in Austria, it looked for a moment it could have been Kelly’s day. For Kelly, one of the world’s great sprinters, was right there when the final move unfolded. A fair bit behind in 5th position, Kelly had a perfect view of the thrilling options open to Roche. What must have been going through his mind?
In early season, Kelly had been unbeatable. In Paris Nice, he stole victory in a race which appeared to have Roche’s name written all over it. But, when the final dice was thrown in Villach, perhaps the previous Tour of Spain was, again, haunting Kelly’s mind. Within four days of victory in Spain, he climbed off his bike as tears splashed uncontrollably on his yellow jersey. Despite overnight surgery on the infectious boil on his rear, he just couldn’t continue the race in which he had been invincible.
Or maybe he was thinking of the Tour de France; Roche’s tour. The tour which brought about the cruellest twist of fate for King Kelly. On the road to Bordeaux, on stage 12, he crashed out of the race breaking his collarbone. His season in bits.
Every time we play the tape of the 1987 World Championships, it shows Roche looking back one last time. Then he turns, attacks, and races into history.
How does Kelly react now with the eyes of the world on him? Does he bury his head in distress as Roche flashes across the line? Or does he move over to the side and roll over the line as inconspicuously as possible?
None of the above would ever be Kelly’s style. In what will be remembered as one of the great sporting gestures, Kelly instantly moves out to the centre, sits back on his saddle, and punches the air celebrating the Irish victory. A victory for Roche, in which, he had played a crucial part.
Why didn’t you go with Roche’s group, then Sean? “Today, I just wasn’t strong enough,” he said afterwards.
Kelly had spent the summer recovering from that broken collarbone, and he lacked serious race fitness. “The Italian,” assured Kelly, “had I brought him with me would have been too strong for the two Irish jerseys today.”
For an overall examination of both cyclists; it’s important to look at the entire professional cycling season. The majors of cycling are divided in two: the Classics and the three big Tours of Italy, Spain and France.
The American Greg Lemond won three Tours of France and after the 1986 Paris/ Roubaix Classic he told L’Equipe: “there are three great races in the season: Paris Roubaix, Tour de France and the World Championships. Win one of these and your career takes off.”
The words Classic and Kelly hum together like Lennon and McCartney. In everyday life, Classics are rare, but what is even more rare was Sean Kelly’s dominance in the monuments of this sport. A dominance we, most probably, will never see again.
Paris Roubaix is the queen of all classics. Its soft pet name, to an extent, is probably there to add an air of humanity to the challenge. The handle most often used is ‘The Hell of the North.’
The sight of a mud splattered Kelly winning this race twice in ’84 and ’86 remains a type of signature image of his legend.
The race sweeps from the Paris suburb, Compiegne, north to Roubaix over savage cobblestones, where man and machine vibrate to a point that could only be described as teeth shattering.
It normally rains, with a bit of snow thrown in for good measure. “Paris Roubaix without rain or snow,” said Kelly once, ignoring the elements at the start line, “is not a true Paris Roubaix.”
France, Italy and Belgium are three of the serious cycling countries, and home to the time honoured events: Paris/ Roubaix, Grand Prix de Nations, Milan san Remo, Tour of Lombardy, Liege Bastogne Liege and Tour of Flanders.
“People forget,” says cycling supremo Pat McQuaid, “That the classics are The Majors of cycling,” adding, “that in most cases, Kelly has conquered them all.”
Italy has been kind to Kelly, with two wins in Milan San Remo and the autumn race, the Tour of Lombardy, affectionately known as The Classic of the Falling Leaves, he has won three times in ’83, ’89 and ’91.
In the Hall of Fame list there is a staggering difference between Kelly and Roche; staggering insofar as Roche’s name amazingly, despite coming close on a number of occasions, doesn’t appear once in the list of classic victories.
For those of us who find it difficult understanding Roche’s near misses with the classics it is also equally puzzling to understand Kelly’s lukewarm relationship with the Tour de France.
But, in fairness to Kelly, it was never possible for him to prepare solely for the Tour de France, considering his status as a Classic rider. It’s worth noting, also, that no Tour de France winner bar Laurent Fignon, has won a classic worth speaking of during the 16 years of Kelly’s pro career. But it must be remembered Kelly did leave his mark on the Tour de France, winning five stages in total, and shares the record of four outright wins in the green jersey points classification.
But what Kelly did which separates him from Stephen Roche was to cross the big divide from the classics to the big tours. He did this in 1988, winning the Tour of Spain (Vuellta d’Espania). From start to finish, he controlled the Vuellta by taking the time bonuses early on, winning three stages in the process and bringing his career total to 17 stage wins in the race.
When we consider Kelly’s adaptation to overall victory in the mammoth tours we must also consider much more. There is the matter of seven consecutive Paris to Nice victories. The race they call The Race to the Sun. In Paris Nice, he won a total of 14 stages in his seven consecutive victories; an average of one stage victory in every four.
Like the deep blue sea, Kelly’s basket of honours appears endless. There are two wins in the prestigious Tour of Switzerland. There are also several regional tours in which he enjoyed victory like the Tour of Catalonia, Tour of Pays Basque ……
Incredibly, during a six year period from 1982 to 1987, Kelly was computer ranked, month after month, as the Number One cyclist in the World.
Also in the World Cup Series, an annual league system similar to motor racing’s Formula One World Championship, Kelly came out on top an incredible four times.
That day in Killarney with Jimmy Magee, in a way, there was a sense of method in Kelly’s madness when he said: “I must win this Nissan!”
Winning in Ireland meant a lot to Kelly. And for the Irish public: they too loved Kelly to win. Maybe it was his resolve, his shyness, or that typical Irishness we liked.
His honesty too?
“What went wrong today Sean?”
“I just wasn’t good enough,” he would say without excuse on a bad day.
Or maybe it was that sense of mystique he possessed. Or that he won more, and more often, for much longer? But, for whatever reason, Kelly was always seemed favourite.
Of the 8 Nissan Classics, Kelly won 4. For some reason Stephen Roche never figured at all. In these races, the most exciting sporting events ever witnessed in Ireland, Kelly came home every autumn to show us how it’s done on our own streets, on our own roads and mountains.
© The Examiner, 1999