Two kilometres to go on stage 6 of the 1978 Tour de France, a relatively short 162 kilometres through western France from Mazé Montgeoffroy to Poitiers. Ahead of the peloton are five riders, Gerrie Knetemann, Joseph Bruyère, René Bittinger, Sven Ake-Nilsson, and the young Irishman, Sean Kelly, in his second year as a pro. The breakaway is working hard, riding bit-and-bit to share the effort and keep the pace high. Kelly and Bittinger have a potential advantage over the other three. They are both on the same Velda-Flandria team and can use this to increase their chances of winning the stage. The five riders managed to jump clear from the pack with twenty kilometres to go and have been holding a few tens of seconds gap. Behind them the rest of the Velda-Flandria team have no intention of helping the peloton sweep them up. Nor do the Ti-Raleigh, C&A, and Miko-Mercier teams, who in Knetemann, Bruyère, and Ake-Nilsson respectively also have a chance at the stage victory.
The gap is still small however and the five waste little time in tactical riding. If they want to win they need to keep the pace high and not waste valuable seconds jockeying for position. On the final bend Kelly jumps from second place, overtaking Ake-Nilsson and sprinting for the line, just holding off Knetemann’s final surge. Kelly has won his first stage at Le Tour in his first appearance at the race.
Sean Kelly is one of the legends of cycling and of Le Tour. He won his first race, aged 14, in his home town of Carrick-on-Suir, Ireland, winning a 13 kilometre handicap by over three minutes. A successful amateur career followed and he turned pro in 1977 for Jean de Gribaldy’s Flandria team riding as a domestique, winning the opening stage of the Tour de Romandie and stage 6 of Le Tour in 1978. Further success eluded him for a couple of seasons until he won 5 stages and the Points competition in the 1980 Vuelta a España and two stages in that year’s Tour. In 1982 he won his first Paris-Nice, going on to win seven editions in a row from 1982 to 1988, beating the record of five wins by the great Jacques Anquetil. Later that year he won his fourth stage in Le Tour and his first of four victories in the sprinters Green Jersey competition. A Tour record until Erik Zabel claimed his fifth Green Jersey in 2000. In 2013 Zabel confessed to using EPO, cortisone and blood doping from 1996 to 2003, a period that included all six of his Tour Points Classification wins. At the time of writing he still officially holds the wins and the record, though many, including myself think that the honour remains with Kelly.
The Irishman was one of that rare breed of sprinters who could also win stage races. In addition to his record seven wins at Paris-Nice, Kelly also won the Tour de Suisse (1983 and 1990), the Volta a Catalunya (1984 and 1986), the Vuelta Ciclista al País Vasco (1984, 1986, and 1987), the Critérium International (1983, 1984, and 1987), the Setmana Catalana de Ciclisme (1988), the Driedaagse van De Panne-Koksijde (1980), the Nissan International Classic (1985, 1986, 1987, and 1991), and the Vuelta a España in 1988. With wins at Milan-San Remo (1986 and 1992), Paris–Roubaix (1984 and 1986), Liège–Bastogne–Liège (1984 and 1989), and the Giro di Lombardia (1983, 1985, and 1991) he sits tied with Fausto Coppi and Costante Girardengo as the third most successful Monuments rider of all time. Only Roger De Vlaeminck and Eddy Merckx are ahead of him. He also won the season long Super Prestige Pernod International three times in a row (1984, 1985, and 1986), and its replacement in the calendar, the UCI World Cup in its inaugural year in 1989. Only Merckx has won more UCI approved season long competitions, winning the Super Prestige seven times in a row from 1969 to 1975. Kelly sits in second place alongside Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, each with four wins.
Somewhat surprisingly he only won five Tour stages in fourteen appearances. This belies his ability. In 1985 he was pipped into second place on five separate occasions, finishing third on another four. By the time he retired Kelly had racked up over one hundred top ten finishes at Le Tour. It was this remarkable consistency that earned him the four Green Jerseys.
The Green Jersey (maillot vert) was first awarded in 1953 when a points system was reintroduced as an additional classification to commemorate Le Tour’s 50th anniversary. The first overall winner was Fritz Schär who accumulated the lowest points total, 271, by the time he reached Paris. Today the winner is the rider who accumulates the most points which are awarded to the top fifteen placed riders on each stage and during designated intermediate sprints. The competition is designed to reward consistency on all stages but is effectively dominated by the sprinters who fight it out for points on the flat stages allowing the specialist climbers and time-triallists to take the points in the mountains and against the clock. Breakaways often gobble up many of the points available at the intermediate sprints, leaving the sprinters to fight it out for the crumbs they leave behind. In most years it’s often the most competitive of the several classifications of Le Tour with the Green Jersey changing hands several times. On several occasions the Green Jersey is only decided on the final day, as happened in 1984 when Kelly was pipped at the post by Franck Hoste on the Champs-Élysées. Hoste was third, Kelly fifth, allowing Hoste to seize the Green Jersey with a total of 322 points to Kelly’s 318, less than a bike length between victory and second place.
In 1983 he dominated the Green Jersey competition, winning with 360 points to second placed Frits Pirard’s 144. Having placed in the top 10 in eight of the first nine stages, including the Team-Time-Trial on stage 2, Kelly found himself in the Yellow Jersey at the end of stage 9. If it hadn’t been for the climbs of the Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin, and Peyresourde along the 201 kilometres of stage 10 from Pau to Bagneres de Luchon he may have held it for longer. Kelly suffered badly on the climbs but still only lost 8 minutes and 45 seconds to Pascal Simon who donned the Yellow Jersey at the end of the stage. By Paris he was in 7th place overall, had placed in the top 10 on thirteen of twenty-two stages, and won the second of his four Green Jersey competitions. In 1984 he was 5th overall. In 1985 he placed 4th, thanks to another display of supremely consistent riding with sixteen top 10 finishes from twenty-three stages.
By the end of the 1980’s Kelly’s win rate was beginning to decline. His last major victories came in 1991 when he won the Giro di Lombardia for the third time, and 1992 when he won his second Milan-San Remo. He retired in 1994. His last race as a professional was the annual Christmas Hamper race at Carrick-on-Suir. He won it in a sprint against Stephen Roche, fittingly bookending his amateur and professional racing career of twenty-four years as he had started it back in 1970 aged just 14 with a win in his home town.
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