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Cobbled Rivalries: Kelly versus Belgium

Sean Kelly Paris Nice 1988

Today, we have Peter Sagan to win classics in the spring and the green jersey in the summer, but in the 1980s, an even bigger talent (don't argue with me here) was doing an even better job of it. With a couple of victories in Milano-Sanremo, two wins in the Volta a Catalunya, one Gent-Wevelgem, three in the Vuelta al País Vasco and a pair of cobblestone trophies, plus two wins in Liège, not to mention his Vuelta victory, Lombardia successes, or all his Grand Tour stage wins, he was the last person to be capable of dominating throughout the spring over a career stretching almost twenty years. He made the transition from sprinter to hardman-come-GT winner in a pretty recent generation. There was just one Monument that evaded him, however.

That Monument was the Tour of Flanders, and despite three second places in addition to a couple of top tens, Kelly could never quite crack the Ronde. Interestingly, it seems to be essentially the only Belgian cobbled race he cared about — he never won Omloop, E3, Dwars or Kuurne, and rarely rode Wevelgem, preferring stage racing to these smaller classics, and referring to De Ronde in his autobiography as "the first of the Belgian Classics."

That aside, however, Kelly had two great chances at the Tour of Flanders. The first came in 1984, when, on an extremely good day, he stimulated the peloton, attacking on the Muur and dragged a group clear. This group comprised Splendor team mates Jean-Philippe Vandenbrande and Rudy Mathijs, Jean-Philippe Vandenbroucke - Uncle of Frank -, Ludo De Keulenaer (all Belgians) and Johan Lammerts, the group's sole Dutchman, and team mate of De Keulenaer on Panasonic. In a tactical situation such as this, one might expect the work to be split amongst the trade teams, perhaps with Panasonic and Splendor nominating a leader and a worker, but that was not so. The Belgians teamed up against Kelly, the race favourite and aggressor, forcing him to do the lion's share of the work and by the end, working together to tire him out. The Belgians would take turns going on the attack, forcing Kelly to follow with their compatriots - and indeed Lammerts - offering no help. Kelly jumped on each move, and was riding hard on the front when the winning attack came. It was the Dutchman (which Kelly describes as "more or less the same as being Belgian in the Tour of Flanders," something I think must surely be erroneous) Lammerts who attacked.

You can see Kelly, pulling the line of men from the Low Countries at quite a pace when Lammerts shoots by him, and for the first time the man from Carrick had no reaction. He calls it "the mistake of [his] life." The Belgians weren't chasing, and Kelly was too tired to win a one-on-one time-trial with Lammerts so he was resigned to sprinting for second, which he achieved. It was by far the biggest win of Lammerts' career, only coming close to it with a Tour stage win in Limoges the following year. Of the others, only Mathijs' four stage wins in Le Grande Boucle comes close to him. De Keulenaer's sixth place in the race was his career's highlight, while Vandenbroucke's career had reached its peak, including podiums in Paris-Nice and Lombardia, before his third place in the 1984 Ronde, when he was twenty-eight. A Vuelta stage in 1987 was his biggest success following this race. Vandenbrande had already gotten his only pro win, but went on to have a fairly distinguished cobbles career, scoring the podium in the Ronde that he narrowly missed in 1984 two years later, in addition to fourth in Roubaix.

What this shows is that this group that worked Kelly over was by no means one of absolute elites — consider the big group that finished forty-nine seconds behind Lammaerts. It contained 1990 world champion Rudy Dhaenens, rainbow jersey holder Greg LeMond, Tour podium finisher Johan Van der Velde, Flanders and Roubaix winner Eddy Planckaert and Kelly's nemesis Eric Vanderaerden. Indeed, one might think that if the Belgians had not aligned purely to stop the Paddy from winning it, Kelly might have been able to deal with all of them.

In 1986, Kelly could have no such complaints. Steve Bauer of Canada and La Vie Claire was the race's main aggressor, attacking with Eddy Planckaert and going solo on the Muur. Kelly, Adrie van der Poel and (hey, him again!) Jean-Philippe Vandenbrande caught up with him seven kilometres from the line, and it came down to a sprint in Meerbeke. Kelly apparently got conned into leading out from at least five hundred metres out from the finish, opened up his sprint more than two hundred out and got beaten on the line by Van der Poel who was, let's be honest, a worse sprinter pretty much all of the time.

The party line Kelly's website for that race is this: "I was probably a little over confident. I led out the sprint and Van der Poel came around me to take it on the line. Why did he win? Because on the day I wanted to win, but he really really wanted it more." That, of course, is not the whole, or even part of the story. In his autobiography, Kelly admits that he handed the race to Van der Poel in exchange for some help in the following week's Paris-Roubaix by pulling on the front by pulling hard on the front to prevent Bauer (which is weird, because he'd be unlikely to attack having been out on the front alone for more than twenty kilometres and was clearly the most tired out of the group) and Vandenbrande (which is fair enough I suppose, though I'd question why Van der Poel didn't think he could be pulled back by his and Kelly's combined efforts) from getting away. Then the sprint occurred, and all I have to say about it is that Kelly and Van der Poel came to the finish of numerous classics together. To say the least, this result is an outlier.

The next year brought Kelly's third and final second place in De Ronde. This was less of a chance for Kelly than the previous two — this was a year where Kelly had an eye on the Vuelta and Tour and he admits "I was not on the top of my game at the Classics that April," so when Claude Criquielion attacked Kelly had no response. The Walloon won by a minute, with Kelly winning the sprint behind.

So that's Kelly in De Ronde, and my first question is: "Who gives up a chance at the fifth Monument for any reason?" Kelly says his KAS team valued Paris-Roubaix more because the French market was more likely to buy their soft drinks and he thought that he'd get another chance at Flanders. I question the likelihood of any rider thinking about the viewing audience for the words on their jersey in the middle of the Tour of Flanders and I further question any rider, especially one who has experienced heartbreak in the very same race, not attempting to win it and place down the final piece in a would-be Monument grand slam jigsaw because he thought he could bank it for a later year. Reminder: only three men have ever won all five monuments and Kelly must have known that he'd be banking a bigger place in history by taking his fifth. Oh well. It's just speculation now, who am I to question his reasoning? What's certainly true is that the Tour of Flanders was not Kelly's race, and fate just couldn't align for him to win it.