Profile: Sun sets on classic rider: Sean Kelly

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The Independent Online
SO Sean Kelly rides again. The Dutch auction over his 1994 contract went on well into the opening month of the season. But just when it looked as if he would fail to reach his reserve price, and his magnificent career would simply peter out, Kelly signed last week for a newly registered French team, Catavana-Corbeil-Cedico.

It is not a particularly potent force. Its most respected members - Marc Madiot, the leader, his younger brother and perpetual shadow, Yvon, and Patrice Esnault - are well into their thirties. But they have all been garlanded in their time. Marc, for instance, has twice won the toughest of all the spring classics, the Paris-Roubaix, ridden over the broken cobbles of the Nord. Something to be proud of, even if Kelly has won it three times. And since Kelly has his own agenda, Catavana should prove adequate company for a rider now in his 38th year and starting his 18th season as a professional.

This morning Kelly is due to line up with them at Fontenay-sous- Bois for the start of the eight-day Paris-Nice, the Race to the Sun, which he has won a record seven times. No matter that he is unlikely now to add an eighth win to his cv Fighting for the overall lead day

after day is a younger man's game. But going for a stage win or a one- day classic is another matter. Kelly has not come back just to sit at the back of the peloton. Not after the indignities of 1993.

That was his worst year, his form so poor and his spirits so low that eventually he suffered the affront of being dropped by Lotus for the Tour de France. It was no way for a rider who had topped the world rankings for five years to leave the stage, and it persuaded him to postpone his retirement. In a final summer's racing to the sunset he would give himself a second chance to bring down the curtain more gloriously.

In particular there are two pieces of unfinished business to attend to. The elusive Tour of Flanders, where he has been runner-up three times, and the World Championship, where he has twice had to settle for the bronze, though they are made for his style of stubborn, canny riding and strong finish. To win either at the last gasp would be a minor miracle. To win both would turn Carrick-on-Suir into a place of pilgrimage.

It is just outside this little market town on the Co Tipperary border that Kelly was brought up in a tin-roofed cottage on his parents' 45-acre smallholding. It would not support the three of them so at 14 he became an apprentice bricklayer, and soon after began cycle-

racing with Carrick Wheelers, a sport for which he showed a precocious talent. By 18 he was in the Irish Olympic squad.

Carrick, where there is a Sean Kelly Square behind the main street, is inordinately proud of him. Whenever the now defunct Nissan Tour hit town, schools would close, shops would offer discounts, the bunting and banners would be raised and licensing hours extended. 'You have given the town fame and prestige in Europe and beyond,' the council chairman once publicly told him.

Kelly is just as unaffectedly loyal to Carrick. There he has his home, spends his short winters, and is believed to have invested much of his earnings in land, though money isn't something he talks about. He also turns out regularly in the Wheelers' Christmas Hamper Race, and being Kelly does his damnedest to win it.

His has been the kind of peasant's progress familiar enough on the Continent, where the term has no pejorative sense. It is the honoured path of other famous landworkers' sons like Anquetil, Poulidor and Thevenet. It helps account for Kelly's gritty toughness, his tenacious pursuit of money and success, and his taciturnity. Even in radio interviews he has been known to reply to questions with a nod.

It seemed inevitable that he would eventually turn professional, but the chance came sooner than he expected. He was shopped for accepting an invitation to race in South Africa in the summer of 1975, and consequently barred from the next year's Montreal Olympics. To retrieve his season he took up another offer to ride as an amateur with the Metz cycle club. And though far from home and even more tongue-tied from lack of French, by the autumn he had won 20 events, including the amateur Tour of Lombardy. It was then that the professional managers began waving contracts.

Kelly declined, fearing that if he failed as a pro there would be another hiatus before he got his amateur licence back. But one manager, the wealthy Jean de Gribaldy, who ran the Belgian Flandria team, pursued him back to Ireland. He flew to Dublin, took a 95-mile taxi ride, and turned up unannounced at the family farm. Even then, Kelly, though impressed, would not sign on the spot. He mulled it over for a week before accepting his fate.

In his first pro season Kelly had the satisfaction of beating Eddy Merckx, the finest all-

rounder the sport has produced, into second place in the Circuit de l'Indre. But otherwise his progress was frustrated by having to act as understudy to the latest Flemish Arrow, Freddy Maertens, the most lethal finisher of his day.

Kelly, whose job was to lead him out in the sprint, learnt a lot from him, but now wanted to apply it to his own advantage. After two years he left Flandria for Speldor, and when three years later he rejoined the ungrudging de Gribaldy, now at Sem, it was as undisputed top dog. So began the golden period of the Eighties when Kelly's dogged temperament, his tactical sense, and the courage and speed with which he thrust himself into almost imperceptible gaps between the sharp elbows of the finishing sprint, were highly rewarded. One Tour of Spain, two Tours of Switzerland, four green points jerseys in the Tour de France, and more than a dozen classics fell to him.

There was also a strain of ruthlessness in his make-up, which most notably surfaced in the 1987 Paris-Nice. When the race leader, his friend and fellow Irishman Stephen Roche, punctured on the Col de Vence, it was Kelly who forced the attack which cost him the race. Roche was furious at the time, seeing it as treachery, but three days after the event they went out training together as though nothing had happened.

What Kelly had to concede to him that year was the ability to carry the yellow jersey home in the Tour de France. For several seasons Kelly was listed among the race favourites, but although he climbed and time-trialled capably, he always feared that if he concentrated on those skills he might squander his most precious asset, his cutting speed in the sprint.

Still, if the boyish-looking Roche briefly supplanted Kelly as Ireland's sporting hero in 1987, he declined as suddenly as he had risen. The chunky, strong-jawed Kelly might not have Roche's charm, but it was his career at the top which endured. It would be encouraging for all the oldies if Kelly's comeback puts him back on the podium once or twice, whether or not he gains his twin objectives. In the mid-Eighties a sing-along number was performed, at least in Carrick, with the lyrics: 'All the world is mad about Kelly; He is Ireland's number one. All the world is mad about Kelly; He's Ireland's favourite son.'

Perhaps it will yet be revived. It could go down well in the Eurovision Song Contest.