Paris-Nice – Le Championnat d'Irlandais

Sean Kelly Paris Nice 1985 - Photo: Presse SportsFor eight years in the eighties, Paris-Nice was an Irish race. Between Stephen Roche's win in 1981 and Sean Kelly's last visit to the top step of the podium in 1988, no other nation took victory in la course au soleil. An impressive enough stat. Made even more impressive when you look at the history of the race: it's never happened before.

The story of Paris-Nice's Irish years is very much the story of Ireland's two stars of the era, of who they were, where they came from and how they came to make the impression on European cycling that they did. And that story begins with the man from Carrick-on-Suir, Sean Kelly.

  1st
2nd
3rd

1981

1,110 km
36.637 kph
Stephen Roche
(Peugeot)
en 30h17'50"
Adri Van der Poel
(Daf Trucks)
à 1'19"
Fons de Wolf
(Vermeer Thijs)
à 1'55"

1982

1,186 km
36.998 kph
Sean Kelly
(Sem)
en 32h03'21"
Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle
(Peugeot)
à 40"
Jean-Luc Vandenbroucke
(La Redoute)
à 1'12"

1983

1,161 km
38.650 kph
Sean Kelly
(Sem)
en 30h02'19"
Jean-Marie Grezet
(Sem)
à 1'03"
Steven Rooks
(Sem)
à 1'14"

1984

1,123 km
37.815 kph
Sean Kelly
(Skil)
en 29h41'50"
Stephen Roche
(La Redoute)
à 12"
Bernard Hinault
(La Vie Claire)
à 1'46"

1985

1,187 km
38.079 kph
Sean Kelly
(Skil)
en 31h10'19"
Stephen Roche
(La Redoute)
à 23"
Frederick Vichot
(Skil)
à 54"

1986

1,216 km
36.620 kph
Sean Kelly
(Kas)
en 33h12'20"
Urs Zimmermann
(Carrera)
à 1'59"
Greg LeMond
(La Vie Claire)
à 2'27"

1987

1,173 km
37.461 kph
Sean Kelly
(Kas)
en 31h18'46"
Jean-François Bernard
(Toshiba)
à 1'07"
Laurent Fignon
(Système U)
à 1'10"

1988

1,018 km
37.085 kph
Sean Kelly
(Kas)
en 27h27'01"
Ronan Pensec
(Z Peugeot)
à 18"
Julián Gorospe
(Reynolds)
à 36"

Sean Kelly Flandria - Photo: Pierre Dieterle When Kelly turned pro and joined Flandria in 1977 the team was split into two squads. The main one - DS'ed by Guillaume (Lomme) Driessens - was based in Belgium and was headed by Freddy Maertens and Michel Pollentier, with Marc Demeyer acting as their road captain. They were, unquestionably, the best team there was at the time, Maertens in the rainbow jersey and at the height of his amphetamine-fuelled powers. Kelly was signed up to form part of a new French-based development squad, which Jean de Gribaldy was DS'ing. A former pro himself, De Gri was a moderately successful directeur sportif, with riders like Hermann Van Springel and Joaquim Agostinho passing through his hands.

De Gri's young guns would mostly spend their season tackling the minor races - Kelly's first outing as a pro was in the six-day Étoile de Bessèges, followed up over the next few weeks by the Tour of the Mediterranean (where he won a photo-finish sprint but the race commissaire called it in favour of the other rider, Jan Raas), the Tour of Corsica and the GP de Lugano (where Kelly officially scored his first victory as a pro) -  with Driessens having the option to call any of the riders into the main squad as and when he wanted them. The twenty year old Kelly got the call-up for Paris-Nice.

La course au soleil was a rude awakening for the Irishman, his introduction to the real hardships of life as a domestique in the pro peloton. In those first few weeks riding for De Gri, Kelly had had a lot of freedom. There was little or no freedom working in the service of Freddy Maertens.

Maertens' victory in the prologue of the 1977 edition of Paris-Nice meant Flandria spent the rest of the week defending their leader's white jersey. If Kelly wasn't at the front driving the pace or chasing down breaks then he was expected to be at the back fetching water bottles or - worse - pushing his leader up the hills. He was also expected to help bring Maertens to the finish line, with the Belgian bagging five stage wins en route to overall victory.

Kelly hated it. "Paris-Nice had been a race I wanted to ride," he told David Walsh, "but my outlook changed pretty quickly. It was so bloody hard. For three-quarters of the stage you worked for Maertens, then you got dropped and ended up finishing five or six minutes down. By the time you finished Maertens had already received his bouquet of flowers for winning. Paris-Nice opened my eyes. I would be glad to get back to the French Flandria team where things were easier. I didn't want to ride too often for Freddy."

By the time the 1982 Paris-Nice came around, a lot of things had changed in Kelly's life. He'd done two years with Flandria, picking up scraps here and there in minor races (he once beat Eddy Merckx, in the 1977 Circuit de l'Indre et Loire - the old order changeth), or when freed from Maertens' leash (he took the first of his five Tour de France stage victories in 1978). Then he went off to Splendor when Pollentier broke away from Maertens. Three years there were enough for Kelly - there were victories, including stage wins in the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España, but he was increasingly being side-lined as a specialist sprinter - and he reunited with De Gri.

Le vicomte didn't want Kelly just for his sprinting abilities. He wanted Kelly to be the undisputed team leader. In Kelly's last year with Splendor he wasn't even the undisputed sprinter, with Eddy Planckaert coming on board a team that was tilting toward too many chiefs - Kelly and Planckaert, as well as Claude Criquielion and Johan de Muynck - and too few indians. And even what indians there were seemed to think they were chiefs.

Take the 1981 Flèche Wallonne. Ten kilometres out from the finish five riders were out on their own - Adri van der Poel and Daniel Willems alongside three Splendor riders: Kelly, Criquielion and Guido van Calster. Van Calster was one of Splendor's domestiques. In the 1980 Vuelta a España he had worked hard for Kelly. A few months later, Kelly repaid him by leading him out in a sprint during the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré. Van Calster won the sprint, with Kelly second. That's the way it works as a domestique, you do your job and sometimes you get scraps from your master's table. Sometimes though domestiques get greedy and want more.

Coming from the Wallonne region of Belgium, Criq wanted the Flèche  victory. But, as a Belgian, so too did Van Calster, even though his proper role should have been as lead-out man for Kelly. Somehow the three Splendor riders - despite having the advantage of the weight of numbers - contrived to finish third, fourth and fifth, with Willems taking the race from Van der Poel and Kelly finishing behind his domestique, Van Calster, and Criq bringing up the rear.

De Gri wouldn't have been happy to see Kelly being stymied by such disorganisation. But nor was he surprised by it. His response to Kelly leaving Flandria after two seasons had been pragmatic - while not happy to lose Kelly he could see that the end of the road was nigh for the team and reckoned that a spell in Belgium might actually benefit the Irishman. "Things are bad there," he explained to Walsh. "No organisation, right from the Federation level down to the riders. Sean would suffer because of the Belgian system but it would do him good. Belgium would further his education and he would eventually want to come back to France."

When Kelly passed on word mid-way through the 1981 season that he had had enough of Belgium, De Gri was ready for him and ready to build a team around him. The man who had flown into Dublin and taken a near two-hundred kilometre taxi ride down to Carrick-on-Suir in December 1976 in order to convince Kelly to turn pro was now ready to take on the most difficult task of them all: to convince Sean Kelly that he could beat all comers, all the time.

One other thing had changed in Kelly's life: he was no longer the sole Irishman racing on the continent. He was even in danger of not being the most successful Irishman racing on the continent. There was a new kid on the block, Stephen Roche, and his victory in the 1981 Paris-Nice was in danger of over-shadowing Kelly's own achievements over the previous four seasons.

* * * * *

Stephen Roche Peugeot - Photo: Guy Dedieu Looking at the start of the 1981 Paris-Nice you would never have predicted the outcome. Stephen Roche was in his neophyte season. His team, Peugeot, had an embarrassment of riches when it came to potential race winners. Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle (winner in 1980). Pascal Simon. Michel Laurent (winner in 1976). Roche was down there with Britain's Graham Jones: one of the team's make-weights, a water-carrier. Roche's intended role was not unlike Kelly's role in his first Paris-Nice, back in 1977.

Roche's path to the pro peloton differed from Kelly's only in detail. Kelly had come to the pro ranks with very little European experience. He'd spent his time in Ireland, with the 1976 Summer Olympics the pinnacle of his ambition. But after his sanctions-busting trip to the South African Rapport Toer in 1975, the following year Kelly was banned from the Olympics for life. He upped sticks and moved to France for the Summer of 1976, riding for VC Metz, where he came to the attention of De Gribaldy, particularly through his victory in the amateur Giro di Lombardia.

Things were only a little bit different for Roche. Like Kelly before him he left school early, he at fifteen, Kelly at fourteen. Like Kelly, he made a name for himself in the little pond of the Irish domestic scene. He came to the attention of Peter Crinnion, a contemporary of Shay Elliott's and himself a veteran of the European pro scene, who took him under his wing. In 1979 Roche won the Rás, the biggest Irish stage race. That Rás victory has, with hindsight, come to be seen as foreshadowing events later in Roche's pro career.

Stephen Roche 1979 Ras - Photo: Edward Dawson Roche was part of the ICF team in the race, representing one of the two Irish cycling federations (as with the British, there had been a schism in Irish cycling, which saw two federations competing with one and other). Roche's nominal team leader was Alan McCormack. But the ICF team was pretty strong. In addition to McCormack and Roche, who both went on to have pro careers (McCormack in the US), there were Oliver McQuaid (brother of Pat) and Stephen Spratt (who himself would win the Rás in 1986 and 1992) as well as John Shortt and Tony Lally. Collectively, they acted like they were a team in name only.

Roche won the second stage of the race. Shortt took the lead the next day. Roche replaced him the day after, with McCormack winning the stage. Two days later, McCormack and McQuaid left Roche on the road into Carrick-on-Suir but failed to unseat their team-mate from the race lead. McCormack tried again two days later, on the penultimate day and it was Roche himself, wearing the race leader's jersey, who had to chase him down. On the last day, a split stage, Roche stormed through the morning time trial and sealed his overall victory. Looking at events later in his life - particularly his Giro d'Italia victory in 1987 - you might be tempted to think Roche learned a lot about the importance of team work in that Rás.

The Rás victory, along with a third place in the Tour of Ireland later in the year, made Roche a shoo-in to represent Ireland at the 1980 Olympics. As a neutral country, Ireland didn't join the US and UK boycott of the Moscow Games. (Not having British or American riders in the Olympics didn't matter much, they were still to discover the secrets of success.) On the day of the Moscow road race, Roche had an unrewarding day, finishing an anonymous forty-fifth. All that effort and so little to show for it. Would it have been any different for Kelly and Pat McQuaid had they made it to Montreal in 1976?

To prepare for the 1980 Moscow Games, Roche had taken a six month leave of absence from his job at Premier Dairies, where he'd completed his apprenticeship as a fitter, and moved to Paris, where he rode with ACBB. ACBB was the Foreign Legion's Sorbonne. Back in the day, riders like Shay Elliott and Tom Simpson had passed through its doors. In the eighties its graduates included Robert Millar, Phil Anderson, Sean Yates and Allan Peiper. At the time Roche was there, it was run by Paul Wiégant, formerly a directeur sportif to Jacques Anquetil.

Roche's Olympic dreams may not have come to much, but his time at ACBB did. Placings in some minor races helped, but it was victory in the amateur edition of Paris-Roubaix that started to make the difference. That day showed some of the best and some of the worst of Roche's riding.

Roche rode the pavé like he was born to it. He got into a break of four and then launched an attack on one section of  pavé which left just him and one other rider at the front of the race. That one other rider was Dirk DeMol. DeMol decided to let Roche do all the work on the road into Roubaix. And Roche - like he would do too many times in his pro career - did it.

Wiégant kept screaming at Roche from the team car, asking what the hell he thought he was doing, towing this Belgian into Roubaix. Roche tried to explain there was nothing he could do, DeMol refused to come around him. Wiégant shouted at him that he'd better win or he'd be going back home to Ireland. Roche tried to make DeMol come through, but the Belgian wouldn't budge out of Roche's slipstream. Knowing that there were two other riders not too far behind, Roche kept making the pace.

Three klicks out of Roubaix, Roche got cute. Coming up to a traffic island, he feinted left, despite the natural, faster, route being to the right. At first DeMol followed, then figured Roche was bluffing and flicked right. Roche stayed left, bunny-hopped onto the traffic island and, with DeMol having taken the faster line, jumped onto his back wheel. And then got sweet revenge by making the Belgian do all the work into Roubaix's vélodrome, where they had a lap and a half round the track to ride. Roche went for it from a lap out, and even though DeMol tried to gutter him, he held on to win by half a wheel.

Another victory a week later in Paris-Reims - which came with another story of victory over adversity - and Roche told Premier Dairies that he'd be making his leave of absence permanent. After the Olympics, Peugeot made him an offer he couldn't refuse - a pro contract, for the princely sum of £450 a month (Roche talked them up to £500 - from the get-go he was a negotiator).

And then it was 1981. The twenty-one year old Roche started his pro career with victory in the Tour of Corsica - beating Bernard Hinault to the top step of the podium - and got selected to ride Paris-Nice, where he was expected to break wind a pass water for Duclos-Lassale, Simon and Laurent. He was expected to earn every penny of his £500 a month. Learn his trade.

Roche's Paris-Nice got off to a pretty lousy start. He shipped his chain in the prologue. Paris-Nice is a race won by seconds. They all count and can't be squandered. When Peugeot won the team time trial on the third day of the race, it was Laurent who got to don the white jersey of race leader. But the next day he had the misfortune to puncture on a climb. Roche was detailed to pace him back to the bunch. That's what domestiques are paid to do. No sooner had Roche brought Laurent back to the front of the race than Fons de Wolf launched an attack. Roche covered it. All part of the job of being a domestique.

The break began to open a sizeable lead. Peugeot's directeur sportif, Maurice de Muer, had to decide between ordering the chase of a break in which he had one of his own riders or to give Roche a chance. There were no big name riders in the break and the other teams wanted to see Peugeot waste their energy chasing it down. De Muer decided to leave it to them to do the work for a change. If the worst happened, he at least had Roche up the road.

By the time the other teams organised a chase it was too late. The break gained twelve minutes on them. Roche had ridden into the white jersey. By such good fortune would Roche achieve some of the most impressive victories of his career. But good fortune doesn't just fall into your lap. You have to give it a little help. And Roche was always wily enough to know how to help make things fall his way.

In his autobiography, The Agony And The Ecstasy, Roche described his tactics after he joined the Carrera squad in 1986. There he was expected to ride for the team's then stars, Guido Bontempi, Urs Zimmermann and Roberto Visentini: "In a sense," he wrote, "I was going to use them to get back to the front line, just as I used Michel Laurent and [Gilbert] Duclos-Lassalle in my first year at Peugeot. Perhaps use is the wrong word. I would ride for them, defend a leader's jersey, and if by some good team riding I got the opportunity to do something myself, I would take it."

Through having taken the opportunity to do something for himself, Roche had the white jersey in the 1981 Paris-Nice. Now De Muer put a choice to his Peugeot riders: whether to defend Roche's lead - remember, this is just a few months into Roche's first season in the pro ranks - or, over the Ventoux the next day, as the race made it's way from Bollène to Miramas, Peugeot could throw everything at the race and see who came out on top. Silence. Then one voice: "We defend Roche." Michel Laurent, the man Roche had taken the white jersey from. That was enough for the others.

As they raced up the Ventoux the next day, Roche couldn't respond when Adri Van der Poel - who had been in the break the previous day and started the stage a handful of seconds behind the Irishman - launched an attack, putting a minute into Roche. Making the stage that bit more interesting were bonifications for the first three over the Ventoux. Van der Poel took forty of them and was the race's virtual leader.

The Peugeots didn't panic. On the descent, risking everything, they clawed back time and rejoined the leading group. His team-mates protecting him, Roche finished with the Van der Poel group. But the Ventoux bonifications did their damage and Roche lost the white jersey to the Dutchman. You'll never win anything with kids, Du Muer must have been thinking to himself.

Roche was still the best placed Peugeot rider and, that night, Du Muer told him what must be done: the next day he would be paced by his team-mates to the top of the last climb. From there it was a hairy descent and then a bumpy road into Le Castellet. Roche was to go for it from the top and give it everything he had.

Roche recalled the conversation years later: "He reminded me that I had lost the jersey but I must get it back. Something had to be done. [...] I was to go mad on the descent into [Le Castellet]. He told me I could kill myself if I wished but I was to get the jersey back." As motivational speeches go, it's not quite up there with Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday. But it did its job. Roche rode into Le Castellet twenty-five seconds ahead of Van der Poel. He was back in white.

Nothing changed the next day. And then it was the last day of the race. A split stage. In the morning a ride over the Col du Tanneron; in the afternoon, the Col d'Èze time trial. On the Tanneron Roche got away in a break and put another minute into Van der Poel. Job done. In the afternoon, he sealed the win with a victory in the Col d'Èze time trial. Almost immediately he was being declared the new Hinault. The old Hinault can't have appreciated that all that much. Nor could the man who was still a few years away from being declared le nouveau cannibale.

* * * * *

Barely a month before the 1982 Paris-Nice started, Jean Leulliot died. A journalist, it was Leulliot who had resurrected Paris-Nice back in 1951 and, for the next three decades, guided it to the position it now holds in the hearts and minds of cycling fans. The peloton paid their respects. Leulliot's daughter, Josette, took over her father's role.

The race started not in Paris, but in the Belgian town of Luigne where, appropriately enough, the opening prologue was won by Bert Oosterbosch, with Alain Bondue second. Kelly was third. The next day, De Gri contrived to get one of his Sem riders into the white jersey, when Jean-François Chaurin - after an epic solo break of a hundred and fifty-six kilometres - took the stage victory and the race lead, which he held until the third stage, when it passed to Kelly.

Kelly's inheritance of the white jersey was not without incident. In a tight sprint into Saint-Étienne he narrowly beat Roger de Vlaeminck but also managed to rip ten spokes out of front wheel of Peugeot's Phil Anderson, when the two clashed jockeying for position in the lead-up to the sprint. With riders like Kelly around, sprinting really was like the chariot race in Ben Hur.

Sean Kelly 1979 Splendor It those days, Kelly was a head-strong sprinter. Take another sprint, from the 1980 Tour de France. One of the many declassement pour Kelly stories you could tell about the man from Carrick-on-Suir. The tour was racing into Nantes. Peter Post's Raleigh squad were gunning for their seventh stage win in ten days of racing. Reigning world champion, Jan Raas, was gunning for his hat trick. Raleigh's strategy wasn't just to get Raas to the line first. It was also to disrupt the riders behind.

Six hundred metres before the line, Leo van Vliet was making life difficult for Kelly. He placed himself in front of the Irishman and slowed. Kelly pushed him aside. Three hundred metres out and it was Johan van de Velde who was blocking Kelly's path. Kelly pushed him aside. One hundred metres from the line and it was Kelly, Raas and the reigning Belgian champion and Ijsboerke squad sprinter, Jos Jacobs.

Here's Raas's version of the story: "We were sprinting shoulder to shoulder. Jacobs and I. Then I suddenly I looked across and instead of Jacobs' black, yellow and red jersey, here was a blue jersey. I knew that something abnormal had happened and after the line I saw that it was Kelly and knew he would be disqualified."

The journalist Pierre Chany was also sure that Kelly should have been disqualified: "There is no doubt that Sean Kelly exposed himself to the danger of a catastrophic accident yesterday, but in the same incident he also endangered other riders and it is certain that Jos Jacobs was the principal victim."

Kelly himself told it this way: "When I finally got into a good position I had Raas and Jacobs in front of me. There was room to go between them at first but as I went for it the gap narrowed. When I got there it had vanished and with their pedals touching my front wheel I could only free-wheel. I could have conceded that I wasn't going to win but I caught Jacobs' jersey and pushed him out to the right and so made room to pass."

Kelly was dumped down to last on that stage of the Tour. It wasn't the first time and it wasn't the last. But that's sprinting. And that was Sean Kelly. Le sprinter Irlandais, as l'Equipe liked to refer to him. And here he was, two years later, in the white jersey of Paris-Nice's leader.

As Paris-Nice is a race for the all-rounder, conventional wisdom had it that a rider like Kelly would not still be in the white jersey at the end of the final Col d'Èze mountain time trial. According to conventional wisdom, Kelly couldn't climb. According to conventional wisdom, Kelly couldn't time trial. According to conventional wisdom, Kelly couldn't win stage races. If he ever took the lead in one, he was, L'Equipe declared, there pour un interim.

Kelly's white jersey, L'Equipe decided,  would soon pass to the French favourite, Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, a Peugeot team-mate of Roche's and himself a former winner of Paris-Nice, in 1980. He was also the man who was just one second behind Kelly on GC. Even Kelly didn't seem to rate his own chances against Duclos-Lassalle. After winning into Saint Étienne, he told journalists "my ambitions don't extend to winning Paris-Nice. The mountain time trial on the last day does not suit me."

Was he sand-bagging? Even years later, speaking to Walsh, he repeated the same line: "I did not really believe I that I could win, as he [Duclos-Lassalle] had previously ridden well in the Col d'Èze time trial, which would decide the race. But I knew that if I could get to the Col d'Èze with a winning chance, I would have nothing to lose; Duclos-Lassalle would be the favourite."

That seemed to be enough for Peugeot's directeur sportif, De Muer, who was happy for Duclos-Lassalle to simply follow Kelly's wheel until the concluding time trial on the Sunday afternoon, rather than trying to push one of the other Peugeot riders still in contention ahead of Kelly (Anderson, Roche and Laurent were all in with a shout). It had worked the year before when he gambled all on Roche, and at least with Duclos-Lassalle he knew the kind of rider he was dealing with. And after all, there was just one second separating Duclos-Lassalle from the white jersey. What could go wrong?

One man didn't buy into the conventional wisdom. De Gri. What le vicomte realised about Kelly was that he was a man who didn't always believe in himself, and that had been holding him back during his years at Splendor. De Gri realised - as others had before him - that you had to coax and cajole the best out of the man from Carrick-on-Suir.

Take a story from the 1976 Tour of Britain. Jim McQuaid - current UCI supremo Pat's father - was in charge of the Irish team and getting frustrated at their lack of success on the roads of Britain. On the night before the stage into Stoke on Trent he gathered his charges around him, told them they'd been "arsing around in this race for too long" and put up a bounty of £20 for an Irish stage win. Kelly was the first across the line the next day.

Or take a story from the 1981 Tour de France. A team-mate, Johan de Muynck, decided that Kelly needed a little bit of motivating. Not only was Eddy Planckaert getting the preferred sprinter status in Splendor but Kelly's old boss, Freddy Maertens, was having something of an Indian summer in a declining career and had beaten his former domestique early in the race. So De Muynck offered a bottle of champagne and a thousand Belgian francs if Kelly won a stage. Which Kelly did, on stage fifteen into Thonon les Bains.

Now before you go thinking that this suggests nothing more than a mercenary mindset, you'd better know that a thousand Belgian francs was worth less than the £20 McQuaid had dangled in front of Kelly five years earlier. And Kelly was earning in the region of £30,000 a year riding for Splendor. Sometimes, even the smallest of carrots can be enough. They show that the person dangling them believes in you. And that helps you believe in yourself.

De Gri wasn't using a carrot though. He believed in the stick. De Gri's stick was to build a team around Kelly in which there was no place for the Irishman to hide. A team in which there would be one, and only one, team leader: Sean Kelly. It was a tactic that proved successful, but also handicapped Kelly somewhat, particularly in the classics, where he didn't always have the team support he needed.

De Gri's belief in Kelly was total. Was from the beginning, which his why he made that trip to Carrick-on-Suir in December 1976 to sign the Irishman. De Gri believed that those who wrote Kelly off as a specialist sprinter were missing the big picture. They were missing that Kelly had been the Irish national time trial champion over fifty miles in 1975. They were missing the evidence that Kelly could climb adequately. De Gri believed that Kelly had what it took to be more than just a specialist sprinter.

De Gri's belief in Kelly wasn't just blind romanticism. He could see that Kelly was being held back, partly by his teams, but also partly by himself. Take the 1980 Vuelta, when Kelly was riding for Splendor. Kelly finished fourth overall, bagging five stage wins. That fourth place was achieved without even pushing for it. As Kelly explained years later to Walsh: "I had gone there to win stages; [Claude] Criquielion was our man for the overall. If somebody had said I was to try for the yellow jersey I suppose I could have won it, but I was then a sprinter and sprinters weren't meant to win races like the Tour of Spain." In those days, as he told Walsh, he rode "from day to day and never had the confidence to aim for anything."

By taking Paris-Nice's white jersey on the stage into Saint Étienne, Kelly was repaying De Gri's belief in him. He comfortably maintained his lead the next day, a sprint into Miramas won easily by Van der Poel. The next day, the race was into its fifth stage and on the road from Miramas to La Seyne sur Mer. Kelly broke away from the peloton in the company of Duclos-Lassalle and Rene Bittinger, a Sem team-mate of Kelly's. Kelly was trying to put time into Duclos-Lassalle, but the Frenchman was too canny to let him get away that easy. The trio stayed away, finishing nineteen seconds up on the peloton. Kelly took the stage. There were no bonifications, so Kelly still only had a one second advantage over Duclos-Lassalle.

To the assembled journalists, Kelly repeated what he'd said before: "What I said in Saint Étienne about not being able to win Paris-Nice remains true. Duclos-Lassalle and Roche will be my superiors on the Col d'Èze." But, by now, L'Equipe wasn't so sure about conventional wisdom and wondered whether Kelly wasn't just playing mind games. They offered a punning headline: "This Kelly Who Intrigues."

The sixth stage - the penultimate day's racing - fell on St Patrick's Day, March 17th. The only thing soft about it was the weather. Rain and fog. Not a day for tear-assing down tortuous descents. Which is what the race threw up twenty kilometres out from the stage finish in Mandelieu, with the descent of the Col du Tanneron to be negotiated. Coming off the top of the mountain, Kelly crashed. A few metres later, Duclos-Lassalle decked it. Kelly was the slower in remounting and Duclos-Lassalle arrived into Mandelieu five seconds ahead of him. Kelly hadn't waited until the summit of the Col d'Èze to surrender the white jersey to Duclos-Lassalle.

His four second advantage over the Irishman added fuel to the fire of Duclos-Lassalle's confidence. Speaking after his victory into Mandelieu he told journalists: "I am obviously very happy with the way things have turned out because Sean Kelly rode very well today. Even if I was already fairly confident I believe that starting behind him in the Col d'Èze test gives me an extra advantage. Provided that I am not the victim of an accident I don't envisage any problems."

The final day's racing saw la course au soleil live up to its name and find sunshine. In the morning stage, Duclos-Lassalle retained his race lead, but Kelly won the sprint into Nice, bringing his tally for the race to three stage wins. Add in his three days in the white jersey, Chaurin's two days in white and the team's lead in the points and team classifications and De Gri had reason enough to be happy with his new team's performance in the first real test of the 1982 season. And maybe another directeur sportif would have settled for that. But not De Gri. He believed in Kelly. By building a team around him he was betting the bank on it. Now it was up to the Irishman to prove him right.

Kelly 1982 Col d'Eze As a climb, the Col d'Èze is not particularly challenging. Five hundred and fifty metres or so of ascent over ten or eleven kilometres. But, as a time trial, it's pretty testing. Particularly for a sprinter who can't climb. Or time trial.

Duclos-Lassalle had predicted victory, barring disaster. One kilometre into his ride, that prediction was looking good, with the Frenchman one second faster than Kelly on the climb, his lead over the Irishman now five seconds. The disaster, when it came, wasn't a fall, wasn't a mechanical. It was a sprinter who could climb and time trial.

At the third kilometre, it was Kelly who had the five seconds' advantage overall, with the Irishman nine seconds faster than Duclos-Lassalle on the climb. Over the next eight kilometres, Kelly only opened his lead further and further. The Irish sprinter won the mountain time trial by fourteen seconds. Duclos-Lassalle was only fifth fastest, a further thirty seconds back. L'Equipe would have to stop calling Sean Kelly le sprinter Irlandais and come up with a new tag line for him.

At the finish line, the Sem squad celebrated. The riders. The soigneurs (Pierre Ducrot and Willy Voet). The mechanics. Even the stately directeur sportif: De Gri carried Kelly on his shoulders in triumph. Kelly paid due credit to his mentor, telling reporters that le vicomte was responsible for making him aware of his real potential. And winning Paris-Nice was just the beginning of showing what he was really capable of.

* * * * *

Sean Kelly Paris-Nice 1985 - Photo copyright Patrick MasWhat followed were the glory years of Irish cycling. The Kelly-Roche era. Kelly added the Tour's green jersey to his palmarés in the Summer, along with another stage win. He again won Paris-Nice the next year, 1983, as well as the Critérium International and Tour de Suisse, along with another green jersey in the Tour, rounding out the season by becoming a man of the classics, with victory in the Giro di Lombardia.

In 1984, Kelly made it three on the trot at Paris-Nice, equalling Eddy Merck's record for back-to-back victories. Then the world realised Kelly was a man for all seasons. He dominated the Critérium International, taking all three stages. Then came wins over the cols of Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the cobbles of Paris Roubaix. The season ended with success in the Autumn at the sprinters' classic, Creteil-Chaville (Paris-Tours). He ended the season topping the newly created FICP rankings.

1985 saw the man from Carrick-on-Suir take his fourth Paris-Nice victory, add another Tour green jersey and another Giro di Lombardia. In 1986 he doubled Paris-Nice with Milan-San Remo, and added another Paris-Roubaix, closing out the season with success at the GP des Nations. Kelly's record at la couse au soleil now equalled that of Jacques Anquetil.

The man who had almost eclipsed him had a more torrid time of it. His début season had got off to a stunning start, and he followed up Paris-Nice with victory at the Circuit de l'Indre et Loire. He took at second place at the GP des Nations behind Hinault - le blaireau wouldn't have stood for a repeat of his Corsican defeat earlier in the season by Roche, not in a race as important as the Nations.

When you shine so bright so young, it's almost inevitable that disappointment follows. And Roche delivered disappointment aplenty. In the 1982 Paris-Nice his Peugeot directeur sportif, Maurice de Muer, had gambled on Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle having the beating of Kelly in him and Roche had to ride in a support role. The rest of the season was a wash-out.

In 1983 Roche was anonymous at Paris-Nice but picked up victories in a handful of minor races over the course of the season, including the Tour de Romandie and the Etoile des Espoirs.

For 1984 Roche moved to La Redoute, the first of many moves over the course of his career. His Paris-Nice performance was strong, winning one stage and finishing just twelve seconds behind Kelly overall. The minor victories continued apace, Roche bagging his second Tour de Romandie and a few others as the season progressed and he finally seemed to be coming of age.

1985 opened with a another second place at Paris-Nice followed up with a victory at the Critérium International. There was a stage win at the Tour in the Summer, but the year ended with a crash whose consequences cast a long shadow over Roche's career: at the Paris Six Day track races in November he decked it and damaged his knee. That knee injury wiped out most of 1986, when Roche should have been riding in the colours of Carrera.

And then came 1987.

* * * * *

The year started on a low note for Kelly, with the death in a car crash of his friend and mentor, Jean de Gribaldy. Kelly would probably have made it without De Gri but whether he'd have achieved the same level of success is open to debate. Back in 1976, Cyrille Guimard had wanted to sign him but was beaten to the punch by le vicomte. Instead of working for Freddy Maertens, Kelly could have been working for Bernard Hinault, who exploded onto the scene in Kelly's début season, 1977, with wins in Liège–Bastogne–Liège, Ghent-Wegelem and the GP des Nations, as well as that legendary Dauphiné Libéré. Hinault was also there at that first Paris-Nice Kelly rode, finishing fifth.

Would Kelly have blossomed in le blaireau's shadow? Let's not do what-iffery. All we know is that it was De Gri who gave Kelly what he needed most: confidence in himself. If anyone expected that confidence to wither with the death of De Gri, Kelly quickly proved them wrong with a ruthless performance in Paris-Nice.

Jean-Luc Vandenbroucke started the 1987 Paris-Nice with victory in the opening day's prologue time trial. That was followed the next day by the team time trial, which Roche's Carrera squad won, putting the Irishman in white, the first time he'd worn it since 1981. He held it through the next two stages. And then came Mont Faron.

Overlooking the naval dockyards of Toulouse, Mont Faron can be a nasty little climb, only five kilometres or so long but with a couple ramps touching one-in-seven. Toshiba's Jean-François Bernard was imperious, storming up the climb and putting a minute and a half into his nearest rival, Thierry Marie. Roche was far back beyond that and lost the white jersey to the Frenchman who, like Roche himself, was another new Hinault finding it difficult to live up to the legend.

Roche responded the next day by trying for an exploit, going from the gun as the peloton raced toward Saint Tropez. Exploits were one of the good parts of Roche's armoury. In the 1985 Tour, his then directeur sportif, Raphaël Gémiani (former gregario to Fausto Coppi and directeur sportif to Jacques Anquetil), had picked out the short stage - barely sixty kilometres - to the top of the Col d'Aubisque as being the day for Roche to shine. It was the morning part of a split stage that would see the peloton tackle the Aubisque twice in one day, once in the morning and again in the afternoon. For months, Gém told everyone that his boy was going to win on the Aubisque. Sure Gém, sure.

Come the day of the stage and everyone was looking at Roche, wondering if he could walk the walk as well as Gém could talk the talk. Few believed he could. While the Dubliner could climb well, if left to ride at his own rhythm, he had the acceleration of a diesel train. Dropping him on a mountain was no great challenge. All you had to do was open a gap and he'd be hard-pressed to respond. A weakness Pedro Delgado would try to take advantage of on the road to La Plagne during the 1987 Tour de France.

Gém saw things differently. Gém had that way of looking at the world. Roche's weakness, he figured, was actually his strength. All Roche needed was the chance to ride his own race. So, on the road to the summit of the Aubisque, the Irishman would have to go for it before the road started spiking upwards. On the morning of the Aubisque stage in that 1985 Tour, Roche rolled up for the départ in a one-piece skin-suit and astride a light-weight bike. Even his dossard had been stitched into the silk top of the skin-suit. Gém was making Roche turn a road stage into a time trial.

When Roche made his escape well before the foot of the Aubisque, the peloton didn't respond. Maybe they just thought he was a crazy Irishman and wasn't worth wasting energy on. Whatever, Roche rolled away from them, caught and dropped the early leader - the Colombian mountain goat, Lucho Herrera - and soloed his way to victory. It didn't win him the maillot jaune that day but it sure looked good. And it contributed to Roche getting onto the bottom step of the Tour's podium come Paris.

On the road to St Trop in the 1987 Paris-Nice, the peloton again let Roche roll away from them and open up a sizable gap. But this time they were just toying with him. Giving him enough rope to hang himself with. They left him out there on his own for a hundred kilometres before gobbling him up. But they didn't spit him out. Roche's failed exploit still paid dividends: at the end of the stage he was back in white.

Jean-Francois Bernard - 1097 - Photo: Jack Claassen Jean-François Bernard's problem was that he hadn't recovered from his Mont Faron exertions and was shelled out on the road to St Trop. Part of the damage done to him was a consequence of the speed set by stage-winning Laurent Fignon's Système U team - whose directeur sportif, Cyrille Guimard, had a grudge against Toshiba's team principal, Bernard Tapie, having lost two of his best riders (Hinault and LeMond) to the man who brought galactico tactics to winning the Tour. The pace set by Fignon's team-mates was too much for the young pretender who had shone so brightly only the day before. Someone should have warned Jeff that days like this could become habit forming.

Let's slip forward a few months here, to July and the Tour de France, to a story which adds to the Jeff legend, but also adds spice to events later in this edition of Paris-Nice. Jeff had just taken the Tour's maillot jaune by being first to the summit of Mont Ventoux. It was a stunning time trial victory, achieved partly by using two different bikes: a low-profile time trial bike to take him over the fast, flat eighteen kilometres from Carpentras to Bedouin and then an ordinary road bike for the climb up to the weather station itself.

Jeff wiped the floor with everyone - he put nearly four minutes into the old maillot jaune, Charly Mottet and was more than a minute-and-a-half faster than his nearest rival, Lucho Herrera. All he had ahead of him now were four days in the Alps, another time trial and a couple of flat stages and that'd be the end of the 1987 Tour. With a two-and-a-half minute lead over second placed Roche ... well, would you have bet against the new Hinault?

You'd have been a fool not to, because the next day, on the road to Villard de Lans, Jeff was pulped, losing more than four minutes and the maillot jaune. The old Hinault must have smiled quietly in his retirement that day, another pretender to his throne put to the sword. The smile would have only broadened when Jeff began whining that Système U had broken cycling's unwritten code of honour.

Jeff had punctured just before the top of the Col de Tourniol, fluffed the wheel change and shipped his chain and only rejoined the peloton as they rode into the narrow streets of Léoncel, where the first feeding zone was. That's when Système U, who were looking to regain time lost by Fignon and Mottet on the Ventoux, launched an attack. Jeff whined. Wah! They didn't wait when I punctured! Wah! They attacked in the feed zone! Wah! The new Hinault was sounding more like the new LeMond.

Système U were not alone in that attack in the 1987 Tour. They had a little help from Roche - who profited the most by riding into his first ever yellow jersey - and Pedro Delgado. Roche defended the tactics of Guimard's Système U boys: "I think it is foolish to come out of a Tour de France complaining about the ifs and buts of the race. Each rider has his own collection and he considers himself the most unlucky rider in the race. At the time of the attack at Léoncel Bernard was back in the peloton, and it must also be said that the Système U team had decided their attack long before Bernard suffered his puncture."

Back in the 1987 Paris-Nice, still four months before Jeff would accuse his compatriot, Fignon, of breaking cycling's unwritten code of honour, Roche was about to have reason to accuse his own compatriot, Kelly, of doing the exact same to him.

Having won back the white jersey the day after Mont Faron, Roche held onto his lead through the next stage, and then the race was once again into its final day: another split stage, a morning haul from Mandelieu to Nice taking in the Col de Vence, and the afternoon mountain time trial up the Col d'Èze. What happened next is best told by the two main players.

Roche: "I should have won [the 1987] Paris-Nice, having had the leader's jersey, lost it, regained it only to lose it because of a puncture on the last day. There will always be an argument about what happened when I punctured. At the time we were climbing the Col de Vence and Kelly's team [Kas] was making a strong tempo because the Spanish sprinter [Alfonso] Gutierrez was dropped and Kelly wanted to make sure he did not get back on. We were close to the top when I punctured and as soon as it was known that I had to have a wheel change, the pace increased even more. There is a custom in cycling that you do not profit from the bad luck of the race leader and some said that Kelly should not have ridden at the front when I punctured. His team-mates, yes. But not Kelly himself. I never blamed Sean. He was riding at the front when I punctured and was entitled to continue doing so."

Kelly: "We were criticised for attacking when Stephen, the race leader, punctured on the Col de Vence. At the time of the puncture we were at the front, making the race fast, and all that we did was to go a little faster when Stephen punctured. What do you do in a situation like that? I felt we were entitled to act as we did."

Roche: "Without mistakes on my own part, there would not have been a problem. After getting a wheel change I set out after the leaders, convinced that I would catch up before they crossed the summit of the hill. Consequently I took things too easily on the climb. At the top we had not got to them, so I panicked and went down the descent like a madman. Which might have been OK if I had caught them but I didn't. Instead I only succeeded in losing two of my team-mates. After the descent only [Bruno] Leali was still with me and even though we got to within one hundred yards of the leaders, we could not get across to them."

One reason Roche couldn't close the gap to Kelly's group was Christian Rumeau, the Kas directeur sportif. He parked his Kas team car right behind Leali and Roche as they chased, and did everything he could to block other team cars getting through. If they had, Roche might have used them to pace himself up to Kelly.

Because of what happened on the road into Nice, Kelly was in white again, a minute and seventeen seconds to the good. Could Roche do that much damage to him on the Col d'Èze in the afternoon? Not this time out he couldn't. The best he managed was victory on the stage by ten seconds. Kelly had won his sixth Paris-Nice.

The performances of Kelly and Roche in the Col d'Èze time trial during the Irish years is worth looking at. In 1984 L'Equipe dubbed the Col d'Èze stage le championnat d'Irlandais. Over the eight years of the Irish annexation of la course au soleil, the two Irish riders hadn't just locked out everyone else from overall victory in Paris-Nice. They'd somehow also annexed the Col d'Èze, locking out everyone else from victory there too. Over the eight years of their reign over Paris-Nice, it was always an Irish rider who was fastest up the Col d'Èze. Three times they even managed an Irish one-two:

    1st 2nd 3rd

1981

11 km
31.206 kph
Stephen Roche
(Peugeot)
en 21'09"
Knut Knudsen
(Bianchi)
à 2"
Jean-Luc Vandenbroucke
(La Redoute)
à 12"

1982

11 km
31.680 kph
Sean Kelly
(Sem)
en 20'50"
Alberto Fernandez
(Teka)
à 14"
Jean-Luc Vandenbroucke
(La Redoute)
à 28"

1983

11 km
32.486 kph
Sean Kelly
(Sem)
en 20'19"
Jean-Marie Grezet
(Sem)
à 37"
Steven Rooks
(Sem)
à 46"

1984

11 km
31.910 kph
Sean Kelly
(Skil)
en 20'41"
Stephen Roche
(La Redoute)
à 1"
Éric Caritoux
(Skil)
à 2"

1985

11 km
31.629 kph
Stephen Roche
(La Redoute)
en 20'52"
Sean Kelly
(Skil)
à 1"
Jean-François Bernard
(La Ve Claire)
à 59"

1986

10 km
30.380 kph
Sean Kelly
(Kas)
en 19'45"
Jean-François Bernard
(La Vie Claire)
à 14"
Urs Zimmermann
(Carrera)
à 27"

1987

10 km
30.329 kph
Stephen Roche
(Kas)
en 19'47"
Sean Kelly
(Kas)
à 10"
Jean-François Bernard
(Toshiba)
à 19"

1988

10 km
29.727 kph
Sean Kelly
(Kas)
en 20'11"
Ronan Pensec
(Z Peugeot)
à 2"
Julian Gorospe
(Reynolds)
à 11"

* * * * *

Stephen Roche Villach 1987 - Photo: Marcel Segessemann Roche took his defeat in the 1987 Paris-Nice as best he could. He says he didn't hold what happened on the Col de Vence against Kelly, but that's not the full truth of the story. It took him a few days to calm down, only getting over it a few days after the race ended, when he went on a training spin with Kelly and the two talked it out.

In the grand scheme of things though that Paris-Nice defeat didn't matter too much to Roche. Not after he pulled off his Giro d'Italia, Tour de France and World Championship victories over the rest of the season. Kelly was momentarily eclipsed again by the Dubliner.

Sean Kelly Paris Nice 1988 - Photo: Presse Sports Kelly won Paris-Nice again the next year, 1988. Roche was absent, problems at Fagor and with his knee keeping him away. And that was the end of it. In 1989 Kelly simply surrendered his title. He'd moved over to PDM, after the death of Kas team principal Luis Knorr ("Knorr was a cycling enthusiast," Kelly told Walsh, "and the Kas involvement was down to him. When he died the company immediately withdrew from cycling sponsorship.") and 1989 saw him riding Paris-Nice's ugly twin sister, the nouveau riche Tirreno-Adriatico - the race of the two seas - instead of la course au soleil.

Kelly didn't mind, as he explained to Walsh: "People imagined that I felt under pressure to win Paris-Nice each year. I didn't. After winning the first three or four and setting a new record for wins in the race, I never much cared whether I won it or not."

Kelly made an even odder comment to his biographer about Paris-Nice. Walsh asked him about a particular photograph, from early in his Paris-Nice reign, Kelly in white and receiving his bouquet of flowers. "I can't say it stands out in my mind," Kelly told him, "because I was in that position so many times subsequently. In my mind all the Paris-Nice podiums have merged and I cannot really remember one from the other. It is always a problem trying to remember who was the biggest rival in the different years."

Roche was present at Paris-Nice in 1989, trying to recapture old glory. He did extend the Irish annexation of the Col d'Èze into a ninth year, winning the mountain time trial - bringing his tally there to four - by thirty-two seconds, but was still thirteen seconds adrift of the man in white, Miguel Induráin. The nouvelle Éire was over and a new era could begin.

Stephen Roche 1990 Histor - Photo: Jack Claassen Roche was once more to the fore in the 1990 Paris-Nice. His Histor team-mate, Francis Moreau, won the opening prologue time trial, Roche himself was fourth fastest. Histor defended the jersey the next day, on the road to Nevers but it passed to  Induráin the next day as the race went further down the Rhone valley, to Lyon. In the team time trial around Saint Étienne, midway through the race, Roche's Histor squad rode a blinder. The Irishman was in white.

He held the jersey the next day, on the road to Marseille, but once again Mont Faron saw it being whipped from his shoulders. Indy was back in control, but by only fifteen seconds. Nothing much altered on the next day, on the road to Mandelieu, or on the morning of the last day as the peloton raced into Nice. All that was left was the final mountain time trial. Roche had put more than thirty seconds into Indy on the Col d'Èze the previous year, could he do the same again?

At the half-way mark, Roche was riding five seconds faster than the Spaniard. He'd need to find another ten in the final five kilometres. He found only two. Worse, he hadn't won that stage. Finally, the Col d'Èze was no longer an Irish mountain. Appropriately enough, it was a Frenchman who took the Col d'Èze back. Who was it? None other than Jean-François Bernard, making a come back from a knee operation. Roche, whose own knee troubles finally seemed to be behind him, was third.

Indy took his second victory at la course au soleil and Roche was left to rue what might have been as he added a fourth second place at Paris-Nice to his palmarès. He was at least honest in assessing what went wrong, acknowledging he simply hadn't put in enough miles before Paris-Nice: "I didn't go into the time trial expecting to lose; you can't ever do that. I gave it the form I had. But you don't get there on class alone. It has to be in your legs."

Kelly did return to Paris-Nice, in 1991, only to fall and break his collar-bone. Roche was there too but was in an off year of his on-off cycle. His most notable contribution to the race was in the peloton's confrontation with the UCI over the newly imposed helmet rule.

In the years since Kelly and Roche retired, there hasn't been an Irish rider worthy of the race. Until, maybe, the current crop of Irish riders on the continent, the new nouvelle Éire. The Irish have again got a rider who has become a fans' favourite at home, more through his Grand Tour diaries published in one of the Irish newspapers than his performances on the road, and his younger rival who could be set to usurp his place in the hearts and minds of Irish fans. Waiting in the wings is a crop of new Irish talent. Who knows what the future holds for them at Paris-Nice.

Kelly's record of seven back-to-back victories still stands. One day someone will beat it. As one day some nation will surpass the Irish annexation of la course au soleil. Will they craft a better story than that of Paris-Nice's Irish years? Good and all as I think the Irish story is, I hope they do.

* * * * *

Sources: David Walsh is the key source for most of the above. The books are: Kelly: A Biography of Sean Kelly, by David Walsh; Sean Kelly - A Man For All Seasons, by Sean Kelly and David Walsh; The Agony And The Ecstasy - Stephen Roche's World Of Cyclng, by Stephen Roche (ghosted by David Walsh); and My Road To Victory, by Stephen Roche (ghosted by David Walsh). Sadly, they're all out of print. Check for them second hand, or via your local library service.

Photos: Sean Kelly Paris Nice 1985 © Presse Sports; Sean Kelly, Flandria © Pierre Dieterle; Stephen Roche, Peugeot © Guy Dedieu; Stephen Roche 1979 Rás © Edward Dawson; Sean Kelly 1979 Splendor © unknown; Sean Kelly Col d'Eze 1982, © unknown; Sean Kelly, Paris-Nice 1985 © Patrick Mas; Jean-Francois Bernard 1987 © Jack Claassen; Stephen Roche, Villach 1987 © Marcel Segessemann; Sean Kelly, Paris Nice 1988 © Presse Sports; Stephen Roche, 1990 Histor © Jack Claassen.

X
Log In Sign Up

forgot?
Log In Sign Up

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

Join Podium Cafe

You must be a member of Podium Cafe to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at Podium Cafe. You should read them.

Join Podium Cafe

You must be a member of Podium Cafe to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at Podium Cafe. You should read them.

Spinner.vc97ec6e

Authenticating

Great!

Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.