Paris-Roubaix Reminiscences: Six Weeks That Made A Legend

Sean Kelly

"The form which I enjoyed in 1984, over the six-week period from Paris-Nice to Liège-Bastogne-Liège, was the best of my career. I won Paris-Nice, the Critérium International, the Tour of the Basque Country, Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège."
Sean Kelly

After seven seasons in the pro peloton, and already with some handy victories to his palmarès, 1984 proved to be Sean Kelly's breakthrough year. In the six weeks between Paris-Nice and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the man from Carrick-on-Suir became an overnight success. And his victory at the 1984 Paris-Roubaix played a crucial role in his summiting the heights of fame and glory.

Kelly's climb to the top had been long and steady. Stage victories in tours major and minor throughout his first five seasons with Flandria and Splendor. Paris-Nice and his first maillot vert in the Tour de France the next year, after he'd reunited with Jean de Gribaldy at Sem. Another Paris-Nice and another maillot vert (along with one day in yellow) came the following year, coupled with the Critérium International and the Tour de Suisse and - sweetest of them all so far - the Giro di Lombardia, his first Classic.

Kelly entered the 1984 season - with De Gri's team now sponsored by Skil - as one to watch. Having missed most of the 1983 Classics season after breaking his thumb and collarbone in a crash in the Midi Pyrénées people wanted to see what this Kelly, with his new found confidence, could really do. With one Classic under his wheels, could he conquer the rest?

[Editor's note] Read not just Kelly's story but the history of Paris-Roubaix... on the flip!

Kelly's third victory in Paris-Nice - equalling Eddy Merck's record at la course au soleil - saw him fight off challenges from Stephen Roche and Bernard Hinault. Le blaireau might have bettered his third place if he hadn't waded into a group of striking dockers on the road to La Seyne sur Mer. The delay caused by the dockers probably stopped Hinault stealing the white jersey from Robert Millar and romping away with the race. Who knows what the broken rib he ended the day with did to his chances of overall victory.

With two stage wins in Paris-Nice and the overall victory to his credit, Kelly went into the first classic of the season, Milano-Sanremo, feeling justifiably confident. La primavera fell on St Patrick's Day in 1984. Unfortunately the tricolour that was flying at the day's end was the Italian one, not the Irish, as Francesco Moser - two months on from becoming the first man to set a new Hour record in a dozen years (with a little help from his medical advisers Francesco Conconi, Michele Ferrari and Aldo Sassi) - took his new found form on the track onto the road and rode away to victory on the Poggio.

Kelly was the marked man that day and, when Moser attacked, others waited for him to chase the Italian before they would react themselves. Kelly chose not to chase. Twenty seconds after Moser took the salute on the Via Roma, Kelly beat Eric Vanderaerden in the sprint for second. There would have been only one thing worse than losing Sanremo: being beaten in the sprint for second by Vanderaerden.

Many times in his career Kelly would be caught in this position, be the one everyone else was watching and waiting for a reaction from. Often he was willing to risk everything and do nothing when others thought he would want victory the most and so do the most work. Often he took their brinkmanship to the edge of mutual destruction. And, often, they all went over that edge and perished together. Kelly lost a lot of races that way. He'd have probably lost a lot more if he'd allowed himself to be bullied by others into doing all the hard graft.

Having closed the old season with a Classic the hopes were high that Kelly would open the new one with a repeat performance. When he failed to deliver, The Men Who Know delivered their verdict: Kelly was a choker; Kelly was too conservative; Kelly didn't have the courage to conquer the Classics. Lombardia, The Men Who Know would have told you, was a fluke. Sanremo proved that.

Kelly bounced back at the Critérium International, winning all three stages and the overall victory. Perversely, this was all the proof The Men Who Know needed for their argument that Kelly was a choker. If he could win minor races so convincingly and yet lose the major ones so spectacularly, it had to be down to a lack of courage. Kelly would never make it.

The Ronde Van Vlaanderen ran on April Fools' Day. And, at the end of it, Kelly was made to look a complete clown. After having launched the race-winning attack he again had to settle for second. Five riders went with him. Two from Panasonic (Johan Lammerts and Rudy de Keulenair), two from Splendor (Jean-Luc Vandenbroucke one of them) and one from La Redoute. Jumped up domestiques, David Walsh declared them, in his biography of Kelly. After Kelly had grown weary of being the man who had to counter every attack, Lammerts made his break.

It wasn't in De Keulenair's interests to counter the attack. The other three watched and waited for Kelly to bring Lammerts back. Kelly, like a terrier tired of chasing tossed sticks, decided enough was enough and called their bluff. If they wanted Lammerts bringing back they'd have to do it themselves. Kelly's companions weren't bluffing. Lammerts stayed clear. Kelly easily beat the other four in the sprint for second. Lammerts didn't win again until the Tour of Holland in August.

L'Equipe was kind to Kelly, its headline: "Kelly Beaten By Five Cheating Wolves." Kelly's own analysis of what happened was quite simple: "I was beaten because in the group of six there were two riders from Panasonic and two Splendor riders - not one of them would work with me. When they started counterattacking I thought if I kept riding I would be dead at the finish and when Johan Lammerts of Panasonic went, I didn't chase. He won, I was second and I regretted that I hadn't chased."

Others though were less kind and said that Kelly should have bought aid, paid one of his breakaway companions to chase down the attacks and so stopped Lammerts getting away so easily. Kelly certainly knew how to cut deals, to play the karma bank. But on that day, in that Ronde, there was no deal. Maybe with the Splendor riders there was some ill will toward Kelly, who had ridden in Splendor's colours for three seasons. Panasonic ... well Panasonic were Panasonic. As for the lone La Redoute rider - who knows what happened there. Sometimes the dynamics simply aren't there for you to be able to make a deal.

From Flanders, Kelly immediately went south. Jean de Gribaldy - the man who had bet the bank on building a team around the Irishman, gambling all on a one team, one leader philosophy - wanted him away from the Classics season. Kelly wanted to ride Ghent-Wevelgem, build up to Paris-Roubaix the traditional way. But De Gri wanted him away from the journalists and away from the pressure surrounding the Queen of the Classics. De Gri insisted that Kelly ride the five-day Vuelta al País Vasco.

"While he is here," De Gri told the press, justifying his choice of preparation for l'enfer du nord, "he can prepare for Paris-Roubaix without newspaper men breaking down his door. He can race every day, eat at the normal times and get to bed each night at nine." Three stage wins - a fourth he gifted to Reynolds' Julián Gorospe - and overall victory made it a profitable week, both for Kelly and De Gri.

Will an ordinary champion become a super champion? That was the question L'Equipe posed about Kelly in the build-up to Paris-Roubaix. Their answer was yes. But only if he could conquer the cobbles of l'enfer du nord. With stories like that, you can see why De Gri wanted to take Kelly as far away from the media pressure as he could.

* * * * *

April 8. Not just another Sunday in April. The second Sunday. A Sunday in Hell. In Compiègene, eighty kilometres north of Paris, it's a misty morning, cold with it. Cold enough for arm-warmers. It's going to be a muddy and bloody Paris-Roubaix. Today, many will fall victim to the cobbles of northern France. A hundred fourteen of the riders taking the start won't make it to the end. Of the forty-two who will survive, none will tell you now with any certainty that they will be there at the finish. No one knows what fate the Queen of the Classics has in store of them.

Even before the off, some of the favourites have fallen by the wayside. Francesco Moser, Bernard Hinault and Jan Raas - winners of five of the last six editions of La Pascale - are absent. Hennie Kuiper is the only previous winner to take the line. Can he make it two in a row? Or will victory favour Marc Madiot or Laurent Fignon? What of the chances of Greg LeMond? Or what of the old man of the peloton, Joop Zoetemelk? He's often enough shown that his threat should not be discounted too casually. And they do say that the Queen of the Classics likes a mature man.

Vitus

Or what of Sean Kelly - he certainly has the legs, but does he have the head and the heart to win a race as big as this? Or will he allow another Moser or Lammerts steal it from under his nose? Will he prove The Men Who Know right or wrong?

As he prepares for what lies ahead of him, Sean Kelly looks relaxed. Those who ask how he thinks he'll do are told that he'll need luck - the good luck to avoid bad luck. The good luck that his aluminium Vitus frame will survive without breaking. The good luck that his Mavic groupset won't fail him. The good luck that his tyres can survive the road beneath them. And, perhaps most important, the good luck that no fall will be bad enough to end his day.

Luck though is something you make yourself, it isn't just something bestowed upon you. Particularly in a race like this, where the opportunity for bad luck is all around you. Kelly himself will later acknowledge this: "When you are in good shape you are more alert and seem to get through without problems. But when you are tired and suffering you tend not to notice that cobble sitting a bit above the others."

The first hundred kilometres of Paris-Roubaix are, traditionally, the phoney war. No cobbles, the peloton just ambles north, letting a harmless break get away. The break this year has twelve minutes by the time they hit the first pavé at Neuvilly. Kelly's sitting comfortable toward the front of the peloton, chatting away to Stephen Roche.

Among those watching the race is the French novelist Alphonse Boudard. Two years shy of sixty and a long time cycling fan he's for the first time experiencing Paris-Roubaix from the race convoy. Driving ahead of the race, here's how he later describes some of what he sees:

"After Neuvilly, it's a quagmire, with potholes everywhere. You can barely see the cobblestones, so submerged are they in crap. There are holes and ponds galore. And the stench makes me squirm in my car seat. We await the poor cyclists. A mass of people thirst for live entertainment, as if they're in a Roman arena. They want to rejoice over the racers' crashes, blowouts and abandons. They want to see those athletes suffer. There's no other way to explain why all these people came from who knows where to watch this carnage."

The race rolls on, the early break staying clear as sector after sector of pavé is negotiated by the peloton, each counting down toward the day's destination, the vélodrome at Roubaix. Now the race is about to enter a decisive phase. Ahead lies the Wallers-Arenberg sector of pavé, the road through the forest of Arenberg that Pierre Chany famously likened to a trench from the great war, the war which had pockmarked the local landscape with shell holes and gave La Pascale another of its alternative names: l'enfer du nord.

Wallers-Arenberg has come to play a crucial role in deciding victory at Paris-Roubaix. As importantly, it has played a crucial role in La Pascale's reinvention. There is something apt in a race which can reinvent its winners' careers itself having needed to be reinvented. And in a sector of pavé key to that reinvention being key to deciding the outcome of the race. Rebirth, resurrection, hasn't that always been part of the Paschal mystery?

To say that the modern Paris-Roubaix is harder than its original counterpart would be wrong. But that it is become probably the hardest single-day race of the calendar would surprise the men who created it. That the original Paris-Roubaix ran on cobbles was simply an accident of geography, they were what the roads from Paris to Roubaix were paved with. The original organisers actually sought out asphalted sections of road to lessen their severity and ease the riders' passage.

Paris-Roubaix, in its original incarnation, was to be an easy race. Shorter than the norm. Pacers mounted on tandems, triplettes, quads - later cars and motorised trikes - would lead the way. For sure Paris-Roubaix was never quite an easy day for a Lady (as, say, the climb of Mt Blanc was famously described) but nor was it the K2 it has become.

As the years progressed, Paris-Roubaix's innate severity diminished. The cobbles began to disappear as the roads between Paris and Roubaix were covered in tarmacadam. The race became a victim of itself as local Mayors became embarrassed by the poor conditions of their roads whenever the race passed over them and so set about modernising them. They didn't know what they'd got til it was gone. When, in 1965, the race had only twenty-two kilometres of cobbles, the organisers realised that their race was in danger of becoming just another race. And a pretty boring one at that. From then, the quest for cobbles was on. The reinvention of Paris-Roubaix began.

The nip and tick undergone by the Queen of the Classics has necessitated starting further north of Paris and flicking the course to the east - instead of a straight run north to Roubaix the race now meanders this way and that, particularly in the area of Valenciennes, as it searches out surviving sectors of pavé. In 1968, the brutal scar on its landscape that is Wallers-Arenberg arrived.

Arenberg cobblesIt was Jean Stablinski - team-mate of Shay Elliott, both of them working in the service of Jacques Anquetil back in the sixties - who had first suggested the Paris-Roubaix organisers look at the Wallers-Arenberg stretch of pavé. Before becoming a cyclist Stab had worked the mines beneath the surrounding forest - one of five thousand miners a day who toiled beneath the forest mining coal - and so knew the area well.

Stab believed that this sector of pavé helped decide the outcome of the race: "Paris-Roubaix is not won in Arenberg, but from there the group with the winners is selected." He'd almost not suggested the drève, the forest track, to the race organisers:

"At first I didn't dare show [the race's then technical director, Albert Bouvet] Arenberg. But then I relented. He was in awe, and brought along a photographer. When [the then race director] Jacques Goddet saw the shots, he said to Bouvet, 'But I asked you to find cobblestones, not ruts and potholes!' Having ridden over that section of pavé every day, I would never have dreamt that Paris-Roubaix would use it one day. I was extraordinarily emotional when I reached 'the trench' as a racer in my last Paris-Roubaix. Lots of fans were there waiting for me, dressed as miners."

Wallers-Arenberg saved Paris-Roubaix. In it's second life La Pascale found itself an attraction to TV executives who, before, only wanted to show its end. Now they were carrying action from the Wallers-Arenberg sector live during the midday news. For fans too it was an amazing find. Thirty-thousand of them annually line the sides of the two-and-a-half kilometre trench, crowding the peloton as tightly as on Alpe d'Huez.

Straight as the Appian Way, the Arenberg's drève dates back to Napoleonic times, and looks like it hasn't been maintained since it was first laid. The gaping holes between sections of cobbles make the road look like a jigsaw puzzle only partly completed. Even when they're there, the cobbles are treacherous. Arenberg's over-hanging trees block sunshine getting through and allow dew to fall down from their leaves. Add to that the day's drizzle and today the Arenberg's cobbles are treacherously slippery.

Today, for the peloton, all of that - bar the condition of the cobbles ahead - is academic. Wallers-Arenberg is just another obstacle to be overcome. By the time they drop down into the forest, the early break has lost ten minutes of its lead, leaving it with two. In the next two kilometres it'll lose even that. Wallers-Arenberg will see a lot of losses. Renault directeur sportif Cyrille Guimard will end the day bemoaning his lot: "At Wallers half of my riders were on their backs and the other half flat on their faces."

At the entrance to the forest, Kelly is where he needs to be, toward the front, along with Renault's American star, Greg LeMond. Somewhat unusually, it is the American leading the Irishman. LeMond isn't having as easy a day of it as Kelly is. "He was riding within himself," the reigning World Champion later tells reporters, "while I was riding flat out." From flat out LeMond goes to out flat, going down in front of Kelly, who has to go off road - into the boggy clutches of Arenberg - to get around the fallen American without himself being brought down.

Two others take advantage of the confusion of the race funnelling into Wallers-Arenberg. Gregor Braun - third two years earlier - goes clear with his La Redoute team-mate, the local birthday boy, Alain Bondue. Twenty-five today. Surely too young to win something as hard as Paris-Roubaix? But only the year before - his first outing in the race - he finished tenth, despite crashes and punctures too numerous to recount. He and Braun - both pursuit champions on the track - wipe out the last of the early break's lead and, exiting Wallers-Arenberg, are themselves almost a minute and a half to the good, the hares being chased by the greyhounds behind.

Two dozen or so riders make up the pursuing chasing group. Kelly is impatient to give chase and bring back the escape. But there is still a hundred kilometres to go and De Gri urges caution, promising that Braun and Bondue have more than enough rope to hang themselves with. Kelly tries to listen to his mentor, to tame his impatience. But he's been wanting to attack since the early cobbled sectors. Time and again throughout the day he's asked De Gri if he can go now. Time and again De Gri has to respond like a parent to a child on a long car journey - soon Sean, soon.

The road rolls on. Looking around him, Kelly decides it's necessary to shed some weight. He powers up the speed at the front and the chasing pack is reduced to eighteen. There's still danger in the riders who survive. Jean-Luc Vandenbroucke, one of the wolf pack from the Ronde. Hennie Kuiper, who last year won this race. Rudy Dhanens and Patrick Versluys, in whose futures lie podium finishes in Paris-Roubaix. Joop Zoetemelk who you can never write off. Even the likes of Johan van der Velde, Jacques Hanegraaff, Rudy Matthijs, none of these can be written off. Not in a race like La Pascale. He'll have to find a way of disposing of them later.

Ahead, Braun and Bondue aren't having the best of luck, with Braun puncturing, twice. Bondue waits for his team-mate. Their lead - just shy of two minutes at its height - is now back down to a minute and a half. And falling. And now there are only fifty kilometres of road to Roubaix left.

Six kilometres on Kelly again acts to make another selection among the chasers. He pushes the pace on a pavé sector. Mons-en-Pévèle. Three kilometres of hell that zig this way, then zag that, their surface washed in mud flowing onto it from the surrounding fields. Dragging uphill in its final kilometre, it's a good place to inflict some punishment. No one can hold Kelly's wheel and he's away on his own.

Hennie Kuiper - like Kelly, a man who knows the magic Willy Voet can perform on a rider's legs - tries to match Kelly's pace but the Irishman is having none of it and rides away from him. Two kilometres on he looks over his shoulder and sees someone else trying to bridge across to him. Splendor's Rudy Rogiers. Kelly lets him get on and the two power on together toward Roubaix.

The Comic on the 1984 post-Roubaix results"I have never felt stronger that I did during the 1984-Paris-Roubaix," Kelly tells David Walsh years later. "I remember being in a group of about thirty riders and waiting for a moment to attack. Jean de Gribaldy kept telling me to wait, not to make my effort too early. When I eventually attacked I got clear and was on my own for about two kilometres. Then I could see that the Belgium Rudy Rogiers had left the group in pursuit. I decided to wait for him as it was better to have him alongside than to run the risk of him bringing the other riders up. It was a case of getting him out of harm's way. And, as he couldn't sprint that well, he was not going to be a big problem at the finish."

In the next eight kilometres, Braun and Bondue see their lead halved, cut to forty-five seconds. They survive another eighteen kilometres before it's all over. Twenty kilometres remain to Roubaix. Bondue's hometown. Home to his team's sponsor, the mail-order firm La Redoute. But on the cobbles at La Veche Bleue Kelly and Rogiers close the gap. Kelly attacks almost as soon as the escapers are caught. Never give them a chance to recover, they might bite back. Braun is dropped without ceremony.

Bondue clings on. Over the cobbles at Carrefour de l'Arbre the trio speed without incident, the applause all for the local hero, the birthday boy Bondue. Allez Alain! Allez! But on the muddied cobbles at Hem, the penultimate pavé sector ... chute! A lapse in concentration, Bondue's back wheel goes from under him in the mud and he decks it. Fans help him rise and remount but his chase is doomed. No one is catching Kelly and Rogiers today. Even if Bondue were to catch Kelly it would be pointless. He'll discover after the finish that his front forks are cracked.

Into the vélodrome at Roubaix, Kelly, face masked in the muddied ash of Hell's crushed embers, forces Rogiers into the lead. The Belgian has no illusions about who is the better sprinter here, but he's still going to make a show of it, the fans packing the vélodrome deserve no less. He tries to accelerate away from Kelly as they speed around the track. A hundred fifty metres to go Kelly rides past him. Fifty metres later Kelly's thirty metres up. A hundred metres later he's won the Hell of the North. An ordinary champion has become a super champion.

How does it feel Sean, to win the Queen of the Classics? Years later, Kelly answers this question for his biographer, David Walsh: "I was relieved, because all through the final twenty kilometres I kept thinking about winning, how this was going to be my day and at the back of my mind there was the fear of something going wrong; a puncture, a crash, mechanical trouble. One small mishap could have taken the race away so, at the end, I was just relieved."

Later, in Roubaix's concrete shower cubicles - as much a part of La Pascale's character as the cobbles themselves - as Kelly cleans the layer of mud and grime from his body he probably takes the time to count his blessings. He's had the good luck he'd said at the day's start that he would need, making it all the way to the finish without falling off or puncturing. He'd made it.

* * * * *

Another Sunday, another bicycle race. The next Sunday was Palm Sunday, the next race was Liège-Bastogne-Liège. One hundred ninety-three riders started the two hundred forty-six kilometre race. A Dane, Kim Andersen, had just won the Flèche Wallonne. Most eyes here were on Sean Kelly. As Greg LeMond put it: "I think this guy Sean Kelly is the one we have to be afraid of today. He is incredible. Nobody else could sustain the sequence he has achieved this season. He is not just a super rider, he is also a super champion."

On the third last climb of the race, Mont Theux, forty kilometres from Liège, Laurent Fignon launched an attack. Phil Anderson gave chase and caught Fignon on the descent. A group of seventeen behind tried to reel them back in. On La Redoute, the penultimate climb, Claude Criquielion broke free from the chase and set off in pursuit of Fignon and Anderson. Six riders were able to follow his move: Acacio da Silva, Joop Zoetemelk, Marc Madiot, Steven Rooks, Greg LeMond and Sean Kelly.

A big enough group and you might expect them to easily close the gap to the two leaders. But you need to look at the concerns of the individual riders. LeMond and Madiot were both protecting the interests of their team leader, Fignon. Rooks was riding for Anderson. Da Silva was hoping for the best, Zoetemelk made some of the pace, but mostly it was down to Criquielion and Kelly to drive the pursuit of Anderson and Fignon.

Over the final ten kilometres, Fignon and Anderson held on to a slim advantage, bouncing between ten and twenty seconds over the lumpy roads of the Ardennes. Anderson was driving the pace, Fignon holding something in reserve. Behind, Madiot and LeMond tried to disrupt the chase. Madiot in particular infuriated Kelly. Kelly threatened to put him in the gutter if he kept it up. The gap to the front was closing, but only slowly. Then, a kilometre from the line, the gap finally evaporated and the pursuers caught the Frenchman and the Australian. Nine riders were now contesting la doyenne.

Madiot attacked. Criquielion brought him back. Da Silva attacked. He too was brought back. Rooks went for broke two corners out but was swiftly swallowed up. Fignon attacked. Anderson chased him down. Kelly was on his wheel. As they roared for the line, five riders were spread across the road. Fignon, Rooks, LeMond, Anderson and Kelly. In reverse order. Kelly had won the third Classic of his career and his second in eight days.

Criquielion, a few months later, explained his own role in the day's events: "It was up to me to decide whether I wanted Kelly or Anderson to win. I don't mind admitting that Kelly was my choice. We are similar types - both of us came from small farms and when Sean was at Splendor we became close friends." Kelly's karma bank was at work once more. Criq had also played a role in Kelly's victory at Lombardia the previous Autumn. Kelly would eventually pay him back. In 1987, when Criq won the Classic that always eluded Kelly. The Ronde.

* * * * *

Between March 7 and April 15 1984 - forty days - Sean Kelly added thirteen victories to his palmarès. His hunger for victory seemed unappeasable and the headline l'Equipe bestowed upon him was almost inevitable: Insatiable Kelly!

Kelly's Spring Podiums (source: Memoire du Cyclisme)
Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
Mar
5
Mar
6
Mar
7
Mar
8
Mar
9
Mar
10
Mar
11
Mar
12
Mar
13
Mar
14
Mar
15
Mar
16
Mar
17
Mar
18
Mar
19
Mar
20
Mar
21
Mar
22
Mar
23
Mar
24
Mar
25
Mar
26
Mar
27
Mar
28
Mar
29
Mar
30
Mar
31
Apr
1
Apr
2
Apr
3
Apr
4
Apr
5
Apr
6
Apr
7
Apr
8
Apr
9
Apr
10
Apr
11
Apr
12
Apr
13
Apr
14
Apr
15
Mar 7-14: Paris-Nice (1st overall + stages 2a & 7b)
Mar 17: Milano-Sanremo (2nd)
Mar 24-25: Critérium International (1st overall + stages 1, 2a & 2b)
April 1: Ronde van Vlaandaren (2nd)
April 2-6: Vuelta al País Vasco (1st overall + stages 1, 3 & 5b)
April 8: Paris Roubaix (1st)
April 15: Liége-Bastoge-Liége (1st)

Kelly would end the 1984 season with thirty-odd victories for the year, including the season-long Super Pernod Prestige Trophy. For the next five years he would top the monthly FICP-Vélo rankings. The reign of King Kelly, King of the Classics, had begun.

* * * * *

In David Walsh's biography of Kelly, there's a story he tells from the end of that Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the end of Kelly's Spring campaign. As Kelly stood on the podium collecting another bouquet of flowers - Interflora should have been paying him commission that Spring - the last of the day's finishers crossed the line, nearly twenty minutes down. Among them was Kelly's domestique Ronan 'Ronny' Onghena. He smiled as he saw Kelly on the podium and shouted his congratulations. Kelly could neither hear nor see him.

In that moment, you were reminded of Kelly's own roots in the peloton and his view of working for Freddy Maertens in the early days, back in Flandria in 1977: "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."

Onghena, a bespectacled Belgian from the town of St Niklaas in Flanders, was no Sean Kelly, he had no bright shining future ahead of him. Nothing to escape to. He would only ever be one of the peloton's spear carriers. But he was Sean Kelly's spear carrier. And Kelly looked out for him for as long as he could. When Kelly returned to De Gribaldy in 1982, Onghena was part of the deal. Whenever the organisers of the lucrative critérium circuit invited Kelly, he told them they would have to invite Onghena too. From their first meeting at Splendor in 1979 they stayed together until the death of Luis Knorr and the end of Kas in 1988.

Onghena was the rider Kelly roomed with. Onghena was the rider who would accompany Kelly on pre-season holidays. Maybe Onghena was there to remind Kelly where he had come from. Or maybe Kelly just liked the guy.

* * * *

Videos: Milano-Sanrremo; Paris-Roubaix; Milan-Sanremo, Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège

Sources: David Walsh's two Sean Kelly books - Kelly: A Biography of Sean Kelly and Sean Kelly - A Man For All Seasons - are the main source. Other bits draw from Paris-Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell. Online sources are linked as appropriate.

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