clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Tales from Lombardia: King of the Classics

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

A photograph. Black and white. Little things about it catch your attention. The toe-traps. The cables snaking up out of the brake levers. It doesn't look like the eighties - the era of tri-bars, clipless pedals, speedometers and heart-rate monitors. But look at the big picture.

Four riders contesting a sprint finish. Spread across the road, left to right, filling the frame. On the left of the frame, Aernoudt's Adri Van der Poel. His front wheel is just crossing the line. His head is up, looking ahead of him. Far right, the other side of the road, another Dutchman, another Aernoudt rider, Hennie Kuiper. His front wheel maybe six inches back from the line, his body language almost accepting defeat. To his left, head down, arms locked, thrusting his bike forward, Greg LeMond, clad not in his Renault-Elf jersey but in the the rainbow jersey of World Champion. His front wheel is maybe five inches over the line. To his left, elbows out, head down, his wheel barely an inch ahead of LeMond's, the man who has just won the 1983 Giro di Lombardia. Sean Kelly. The King of the Classics.

It's hard to believe it now but there was a time when The Men Who Know knew that Sean Kelly would never win a classic. Seven years after winning the amateur edition of Lombardia, six years into his pro career, Kelly seemed to fill many with despair. For sure, he had seven stages of the Vuelta a España to his name. Sure, he had five stages of the Tour de France he could brag about. True, he'd won Paris-Nice twice, along the way bagging a brace of stages. Yes, there were many other victories in many lesser races. But even his friend and mentor, Jean de Gribaldy, le vicomte, seemed to wonder if his protégé would ever amount to much: "He can win when there is no pressure. But in the big races, there is a problem."

Kelly had proved De Gri's point a week earlier, in the sprinters' classic, Blois-Chaville (Paris-Tours). When the winning break went away, Kelly had been at the back of the peloton, chatting away amiably to his former Splendor team-mate Claude Criquielion: "About ten kilometres before the break I sensed something was about to happen and I said to Criquielion that we should be getting to the front. He agreed but we didn't bother moving. Suddenly the break was gone and we were left to organise a pursuit. We got the leaders back to one hundred metres but we never joined them."

So it was that, on that October Saturday morning as a hundred and forty-four riders sheltered from the Autumnal drizzle and prepared to set out from Brescia's Loggia Square for the last hurrah of the season, few would have bet on Kelly winning the race of the falling leaves. Cycling, The Men Who Know will tell you, is about la tete et les jambes. Kelly had the legs, this no one would deny. But he just didn't seem to have the head. Given the right opportunity, he'd find a way to fuck it up.

The 1983 Giro di Lombardia began about a hundred and eighty five kilometres in, with about sixty-five kilometres of the course left to ride. As the peloton soared up the Passo Intelvi's pink cobbles, they caught the early break. At the front of the bunch Kelly was driving the pace, with maybe thirty or so riders in his wake. By the time the race crested Schignano, more than eighty riders had drawn a discreet veil over the 1983 cycling season and climbed off. Up front, the break was down to a couple of dozen riders, with a group of another dozen riders making the chase, and only stragglers behind them.

Kelly's Sem team-mate, Jean-Marie Grezet, was driving the tempo at the front. Keep it high and Kelly was in with a shout for the sprint. Let it falter and someone would slip off the front and steal the victory. Maybe fifteen kilometres out of Como and Kelly's Swiss domestique was blown. The break was down to a dozen and a half riders but now Kelly had no one to control things at the front. Pedro Munoz took advantage of the situation and went away on his own. As they climbed San Fermo della Battaglia, Munoz was ten seconds up the road. But Kelly was keeping him in his sights, powering the chase. Everything was under control. Until three riders launched an attack. Adri Van der Poel. Huber Seiz. Dag Eric Pedersen. Another classic was slipping away from Kelly.

Then a Peugeot rider came to the front and powered the chase of the four riders ahead. When he was quizzed about it afterwards by his directeur sportif, Roland Berland, he would say he was trying to help his Peugeot team-mate, Phil Anderson. Not that even Berland would buy that excuse. Everyone could see what Stephen Roche was up to.

"I rode hard at the front to keep it together. Kelly hadn't asked me to help, he just glanced in my direction and it was up to me. I wanted to do it for him because we were good friends and I knew he needed to win a classic."

The race poured into Como, Roche powering away at the front. The tifosi cheered for Francesco Moser. Maybe three hundred metres from the line, coming into the final bend before the finishing straight, Kuiper launched his attack. Seiz went after him. Moser went next. Then Van der Poel, the man who had beaten Roche to silver at the World Championships only two months earlier.

Roche must have been feeling like Oliver Hardy to Kelly's Stan Laurel: "I had worked very hard. It was all for Sean. When Kuiper went past me I expected Sean to follow. But all these other fellows came by before Kelly. I wondered what he was playing at. Wondered had I been working for nothing. I counted them as they passed, about eight or nine before Kelly went by."

And as Kelly went by, locked onto his back-wheel was Greg LeMond. If no one else was betting on Kelly that morning in Brescia, LeMond seemed to think Kelly was the man to watch. Throughout the race, if you wanted to see where Kelly was, all you had to do was look for LeMond's rainbow jersey. Just in front of it you'd find Kelly.

They powered down the finishing straight. Ahead of them Seiz was already out of contention. Then Moser's sprint faltered and the tifosi sighed. Kuiper was still powering ahead, his own team-mate, Van der Poel, trying to overhaul him. In the spirit of fair play, one took the left side of the road, the other the right. The finishing line was coming up fast.

But coming up even faster was the Kelly-LeMond tandem. The Irishman was taking the long way to the line, zigging this way and zagging that in his effort to shake the American off his wheel. LeMond was stuck on like a limpet. Finally the World Champion launched himself into clean air, trying to come around Kelly's left. The Irishman and the American powered through the gap left by the two Dutchmen.

And then that photograph. Four riders spread across the road. No more than a foot separating first from fourth. Kelly's comment? "I think that if I had sprinted in a straight line I could have won a little more comfortably."

Giro di Lombardia

Giro di Lombardia, 1983

For De Gri, the past failures were forgotten: "Now that Sean has got over a major psychological barrier, I expect him to win many more classics." And win them he did. Blois-Chaville (Paris-Tours). Ghent-Wevelgem. Milan-San Remo, twice. Paris-Roubaix, twice. Liège-Bastogne-Liège, twice. And two more Giri di Lombardia.

* * * * *

The Agony And The Ecstasy - Stephen RocheThere are many facets to the aid Roche rendered his rival that October Saturday. Yes, it was a Murphia thing, us against the world. But it was more complex than that: "I knew how much the Tour of Lombardy meant to Kelly. He had been a professional for six years and was one of the best around. It was unbelievable that he had not won a classic before this and it was a pleasure for me to be able to help. A good way to end the season and my three years with Peugeot racing team."

Roche was ending his time with Peugeot on a bad note. He felt they'd rail-roaded him signing a new contract and then attempted to screw him over, so was upping sticks and moving to La Redoute for the next two seasons. Helping Kelly was a way of sticking two fingers up to a team he'd lost faith in.

But, perhaps most importantly, it was also a deposit in the karma bank: "After the race, my Peugeot manager, Roland Berland, was angry because I had ridden for Kelly. Berland just didn't understand. Okay, I helped Kelly but I wasn't going well enough to win myself. There would be other days when the roles would be reversed. Sean has always been an honest and straight rider, he would repay the debt. I knew that. Berland didn't."

You can't underestimate how important the karma bank was to Kelly. He didn't surround himself with gregari the way Fausto Coppi did. He didn't have Rik Van Looy's Red Guard. Kelly's domestiques tended to be men of modest abilities. Often journalists criticised Kelly over their failures. Kelly's response to one such critic is classic: "Look my team-mates are not like bad greyhounds; I can't take them, stand them up against a wall and shoot them." For the most part, Kelly survived on his legs and his wits. And his ability to make deals with others. Favours for favours. The karma bank.

The 1985 Giro di Lombardia offers great insight into Kelly's ability to work the karma bank. To understand what happened there, we have to step back a week to Créteil-Chaville (Paris-Tours). Going into that race, Kelly had had what some thought of as a relatively quiet season. He'd won Paris-Nice again, along with three stages in the Vuelta and the green jersey in the Tour. He was still leading the FICP rankings. But having won both Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège the previous year he'd set the bar high, and the failure to bag a classic in 1985 was enough to cast a pall over his whole season. And in the season-long Super Prestige Trophy, Kelly was sixty-nine points adrift of Australia's Phil Anderson, who - The Men Who Know would have told you - had that competition stitched up.

Kelly saw things differently. His losses in the classics had been narrow. His season had been consistent. And there was still a mathematical chance of upsetting Anderson's apple cart. Kelly was coming into form, while the Australian was losing form. All Kelly had to do was score highly in the last two races of the season, and hope that Anderson finished out of the points in both. Okay, so it was only an outside chance. But Kelly was a farmer's son. He knew that sometimes that was the only kind of chance you got.

Anderson was unlucky in Créteil-Chaville. Unlucky to have a rival like Kelly. Eighty-five kilometres from the finish, as the race climbed out of the town of Etampes, Kelly went to the front and drove the pace. Anderson was changing a wheel. The peloton split and a group of thirty riders - headed by Kelly - went clear. Anderson's Panasonics gave chase, but couldn't get closer than thirty seconds. Advantage Kelly. But when Kelly assessed the group around him, he saw he was outnumbered. Adri Van der Poel had three of his Kwantum team-mates with him. They alone could easily work Kelly over.

So Kelly made Van Der Poel an offer he couldn't refuse. If a Kwantum rider went clear on his own, Kelly wouldn't chase. And since most of the other riders in the group knew how much Kelly needed the victory, they'd sit and wait for Kelly to lead the chase. Kelly was willing to use their strength against them. Van der Poel liked what was being offered. But what, he wanted to know, was Kelly asking in return. Just this: in Lombardy the next week, no Kwantum rider would work against Kelly in the finish. A nod and a wink and the deal was sealed.

Six kilos out of Chaville, Van der Poel attacked. Kelly sat still. The others reeled him in. But as soon as the Dutchman was caught, his team-mate Ludo Peeters went. Kelly sat still. This time the Kwantum rider stayed away. With one of their own up the road, the other Kwantums had made sure no one else slipped off the front. In the sprint for second place, Moreno Argentin beat Kelly with ease. But in the Super Prestige Trophy, Anderson's supposedly insurmountable lead was now only thirty-nine points. The Australian was panicked enough to try and work some deals of his own for Lombardy.

The 1985 Giro di Lombardy ran from Como to Milan, finishing in the Vigorelli. The Passo Intelvi - which so often split the peloton - came after only twenty-five kilometres of racing. Crossing its pink cobbles, Kelly and Anderson survived the cut. But when they hit the Esino-Lario climb, not even halfway through the race, Anderson began to lose ground. Out of the town of Lecco, eight riders went clear, including Van der Poel. The deal, remember, was only about the finish of the race. On the climb of the Madonna del Ghisallo Kelly was leading a chase group of nine. Over the top of the Ghisallo Kelly had clawed back about thirty seconds. Van der Poel and the others were still nearly two minutes up the road.

But the advantage was swinging back to Kelly. First, there was nearly fifty-five kilometres of mostly flat, fast road ahead. Second, the break was itself breaking up, with two riders out clear on their own and the other six offering a fragmented pursuit. And third, Kelly had Claude Criquelion by his side. Two farmer's sons. Two former Splendor team-mates. Two friends. Fifteen kilometres out from Milan, with Criquielion powering the chase, they'd swept up the break and a group of fifteen riders was now bearing down on Milan and its famed vélodrome.

Anderson was already in the Vigorelli. He'd lost too much time after the Esino-Lario and climbed off, bringing his season to an abrupt end. A team car took him to the vélodrome, where he had time to shower and change before sitting down to wait and see what card faith was about to deal him.

Back in the race, Criquielion was driving the pace, discouraging breakaway attempts. Two of the most dangerous men in the break were Van der Poel and his Kwantum team-mate Joop Zoetemelk. But this was now the finish of the race and Kelly knew Van der Poel could be counted on to keep his side of their deal. Renault were the next biggest threat, with Marc Madiot and Charly Mottet. As they entered the Vigorelli it was Madiot, Criquielion, Mottet, Kelly and Van der Poel. Now all they had was a lap of the track to ride before they'd hit the finishing line.

Madiot ought to have had enough track-craft to have the advantage. But Kelly had a sprinter's brain and knew the right buttosn to press: "I knew that if I moved up to Mottet's chainring I would encourage him to go for a long sprint, something that would suit me." Kelly moved, Mottet jumped and the Irishman tucked himself into the Frenchman's slipstream and they both shot to the front of the group. Around the final bend Kelly went high on the banking and swooped down onto the straight and across the finish line. Van der Poel charged through for second, his sprint timed to perfection. Kelly had won his second Giro di Lombardy. More importantly, he had the Super Prestige Trophy.

A Man For All Seasons - Sean KellyWhat Criquielion got out of the 1985 Giro di Lombardia is worth noting. Years after, Kelly explained: "Since we rode together at Splendor in 1981, we have been good friends and we tried to help each other whenever we could. He was a big help to me in winning this Tour of Lombardy, as he was in the 1984 Liège-Bastogne-Liège. I paid him back in the 1987 Tour of Flanders by not countering his winning attack." That's eighteen months after Criquielion had helped Kelly. The karma bank offers long credit terms.

There is another way of looking at that comment of Kelly's. Of the five most important classics, the Ronde Van Vlaanderen was the only one Kelly never won. Maybe, armed with hindsight, you're thinking that Kelly made a mistake. That he paid too high a price. But Kelly's repayment of his debt to Criquielion also shows how Kelly worked the karma bank. Here's how he described what happened in the 1987 Ronde:

"Both [Eric] Vandaraerden and I were strong but when the lead group sorted itself out he had two or three team-mates with him. I was on my own. Other teams had two riders in the group and I knew it was going to be very difficult for me. I spoke with Criquielion and told him that if he attacked I would not chase but that he was only to go away on his own. If Criquielion's attack did not work I knew he would then help me. But he did get away and won on his own, and I was left to outsprint Vandaraerden for second place. My third second place in the Tour of Flanders."

Even when repaying a debt, Kelly was clever enough to make sure he'd get something out of it if things went wrong.

* * * * *

Kelly won his third and final Giro di Lombardia in 1991, putting him up there with Henri Pelissier (1911/13/20), Costante Giradengo (1919/21/22) and Gino Bartali (1936/39/40). Ahead of him, only Alfredo Binda (1925/26/27/31) and Fausto Coppi (1946/47/48/49/54).

The race itself was pretty straightforward. Nothing much happened before the Madonna del Ghisallo, two-thirds of the way through the race, where the early break was caught.  On the narrow Pian Rancio climb - the Super Ghisallo - Martial Gayant slipped away on his own. Kelly gave chase and was joined by five others. Soon Gayant was caught and the seven riders were leaving the rest of the race behind them. On the final climb, the Lissolo, Kelly and Gayant went clear, with just twenty kilometres of relatively flat roads ahead of them taking them back to Monza's Viale dell'Industria. Kelly was more concerned about Franco Ballerini catching up to them than he was about Gayant's sprint. But the Italian was stuck a good thirty seconds back and Gayant lead out the sprint.

A race report can only say so much. Try another photograph, this from the finish of the race. This one is in colour. The sky has that long light you get late into an Autumn afternoon. Fitting almost, because we're into the twilight of Kelly's career. So much has changed in the eight years between the two pictures, between the Irishman's first and last win in the race of the falling leaves. Start again with the little details. They tell you something about how the world of cycling has changed. The recessed brake cables. The Avocet speedo on the handlebars. Look at the feet of the two riders. Gayant has clipless pedals. Kelly is still in the era of toe-traps.

The tension and the excitement of the earlier photograph is replaced by calm and relief. This is a comfortable victory. Gayant is a good four or five bike lengths back, almost lost in the blurred background. Sharp in the foreground is Kelly, arms in the air, biceps parallel to the road and fists lightly clenched above his head. This is not a triumphant sky-piercing salute. It's more a salute of relief. Not just the relief of a man who has spent six hours in the saddle and sealed a comfortable victory. This is the relief of a man finally salvaging something from a difficult year.

This was a year that had seen a broken collarbone in Paris-Nice disrupt his attempts to win a Spring classic. Another Tour de France that had ended prematurely, this time in the ignominy of the Intralipid affair. And then there was the death of Kelly's elder brother, Joe. He'd been hit by a car while riding in a race at home in Carrick-on-Suir. He was only thirty-seven, two years older than Kelly. It was partly through Joe that Kelly had discovered bike racing: "If it wasn't for Joe I probably wouldn't be a bicycle racer today." The bouquet of flowers Kelly was presented with for winning this Giro di Lombardia were placed on his brother's grave.

No two victories are the same. No two victories mean the same thing. Kelly's first Giro di Lombardia had opened the floodgates on a classic-winning career. His second had been more about winning the Super Prestige Trophy and silencing his critics than winning the race itself. His third and final victory was the most personal of them all.

* * * * *

Most of the above is culled from Kelly: A Biography of Sean Kelly, by David Walsh, as well as Sean Kelly - A Man For All Seasons, by Sean Kelly and David Walsh. Other bits comes from The Agony And The Ecstasy - Stephen Roche's World Of Cyclng, by Stephen Roche and David Walsh.