Kelly captures hearts with a final flourish

Robin Nicholl in Carrick on Suir reports on a fond farewell for the Classics king
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They knew Sean Kelly was popular, but the pedalling pilgrims who turned up to pay homage in his final race had the organisers overwhelmed and under-equipped for the demand as 1,200 club cyclists flooded into town here yesterday on the banks of the river Suir.

It was a classic farewell to the King of the Classics and he made it a day to cherish by winning ahead of the Irish amateur, Declan Lonergan.

Kelly was always a man of the people, unmoved by 194 successes, including yesterday's, in a professional career spanning 18 years, and he wanted to share this last race with them.

So it was thrown open to all and they pedalled into Main Street until it was choked. All shapes, ages, and persuasions. Some on sleek racers, some on mountain bikes, and a few with machines that had just about stood the test of time.

The faithful came from Belgium and England to stand in line with hundreds of Irish to pay 20 Irish punts for a place in the race, a limited edition racing jersey and the right to say: "I once raced with Eddy Merckx, Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche, Laurent Fi g non and Roger de Vlaeminck."

Many will have to wait for a reissue of the coveted jersey. They ran out, as did competitors' numbers once 800 had signed on. The important thing was being there.

Anyone who knows cycling could not fail to be impressed with the response to Kelly's invitation to join his party. He is a genuine hero - unassuming and fearless. His fellow "greats" recognised that, and their presence in the race brought a quality that could not have been matched in a world championship.

Merckx was determined to fit it into his diary, flying into nearby Waterford with de Vlaeminck, another classics specialists, hours before the start.

"I am very busy, but I had to come. Sean is such a great champion." That tribute from a man who dominated racing in the Seventies, winning five Tours de France and three world titles.

"This race is for fun," Merckx said before the pack funnelled its way out of town past Sean Kelly Square. The first 40 of the 50 miles were pedalled at a controlled 15mph so that the less fit could complete the big lap, and in the car monitoring the speed was Bernard Hinault, another name with five Tours and world titles to his credit.

For the last 10 miles, only the first 50 were allowed to race on the smaller town circuit. For the rest, the moment of glory was over as they returned to the ranks of the spectators, while grimaces replaced the smiles on the faces of the ambitious, espe c ially when Kelly caught the leaders on the final lap in the town centre.

"The people have done me a great honour turning up in such numbers, and that riders such as Merckx have spared the time makes me even prouder," Kelly said, as humble as the day he was plucked from the seat of his dad's tractor and plunged into an alien, hard-headed world of professional racing with only his bike for comfort.

Jean de Gribaldy, a businessman with an aristocratic family, was known as "Le Vicomte", but he wanted Kelly so badly that he flew to Dublin, and haggled a taxi driver into taking him 160km to Carrick on Suir to negotiate with Kelly.

"My offer is £4,000," De Gribaldy announced. "Make it six," Kelly said, and three weeks later he signed his first professional contract.

It put a slow-burning fuse to his career which, when it finally detonated in the mid-Eighties, created a blast which was felt throughout racing, with 32 victories the highpoint in 1984.

"He was unbeatable," Fignon said. "And when you did beat him it was never easily. It was always after a hard fight."

Mary Robinson, the president of Ireland, paid her tribute with her first visit to Kelly's home town. "His courage, his endurance and his modesty have made him an inspiration to others. He has brought honour to Ireland. He has been a great ambassador for us."

"It's no more than he deserves," Roche said. "He always was my inspiration."

Yesterday's victory was to be expected, but, as always, Kelly had to work for his success just as much as he had done in taking 12 one-day classics, four green jerseys for consistent high placings in the Tour de France, victory in the Tour of Spain and abronze medal in the world road-race championship at Goodwood in 1982.

From a farming background, Kelly always appreciated that you could only reap well if you had sown correctly. From this upbringing, too, came the raw character he needed to survive in those early uncertain professional days, and later earn respect when the going got rough.

There was an emotional touch to his victory as he crossed the finish line with his four-year-old twins, Nigel and Stacey, waving the chequered flag.

"Smile. It's Sean Kelly Day," stated the poster, and the biggest smile around was on the face of the man himself.

Kelly is back home in style, but whenever he walks along Main Street - the scene of his final win - in days to come it will be as though he has never been away. Success could never spoil the King of the Classics.