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Tommy Conlon: A most astonishing accident of history

Ireland’s four-pro team at the 1987 Road World Championships — Paul Kimmage, Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and Martin Earley — post-race celebrating Roche’s historic victory in Villach, Austria.
Ireland’s four-pro team at the 1987 Road World Championships — Paul Kimmage, Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and Martin Earley — post-race celebrating Roche’s historic victory in Villach, Austria.

Tommy Conlon

Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you want to find a symbol that summarises professional cycling in all its cruelty, heroism and treachery, you need look no further than Seán Kelly's bony backside.

In 1987, this lion of the road was among the favourites to win the tour of Spain, La Vuelta a España. With four days to go, he was leading the race by 43 seconds; the next day he abandoned. Turned out he'd been suffering with a cyst on his perineum, caused by an ingrown hair.

An online medical dictionary tells us that the male perineum is located between the scrotum and the anus. One can only imagine that a bike saddle is the last place where you'd want to be sitting with such an affliction. Kelly sat on it for four days, pounding out mile after punishing mile. The agony must have been exquisite.

The night before a time trial in Valladolid, a tour doctor lanced the boil and stitched the wound. The Carrick-on-Suir man's stoicism was already legendary: he could eat any amount of pain. Kelly soldiered on through the time trial and duly assumed the leader's jersey. But the stitches burst from the pressure. The next day, on Stage 19, he finally surrendered.

And the treachery? Kelly received a three-month suspended ban after a stimulant was found in a sample he provided at Paris-Brussels in 1984, and he tested positive for codeine at the Tour of the Basque Country in 1988.

These and a thousand other stories are gathered together in an outstanding new book that chronicles in unsurpassed detail the golden era of Irish cycling. Comprehensively researched and written with panache, The Ascent by Barry Ryan, a cycling journalist from Cork, will remain the definitive account of this amazing story for at least a generation.

Pro cycling in Europe had been prospering for five decades, unbothered by a single Irishman until the pioneering Shay Elliott emerged in the late 1950s.Then, suddenly, in the 1980s, Irish cycling produced two superstars and two more professionals who would all start and finish the Tour de France: Kelly, Kimmage, Martin Earley and Stephen Roche.

And this at a time when the country, economically and socially, was itself a bit of a cyst on the perineum of Europe. Ryan deploys a few telling statistics to illustrate the point. "Ireland had the worst telephone system in Europe with just 190 phones per 1,000 people (the average was 436), and only Greece had fewer televisions per capita."

But by Jesus, when Kelly and Roche were flying, just about every television set in the country was tuned into their exploits. The people rushed to them, not just as sporting heroes but as life boats that might rescue them as the national ship sank under the weight of its own inferiority complex.

Kelly, born in 1956 and therefore the oldest of the knights, led the way. He started his first Tour in '78 and would ride his last in 1992. The man for all seasons, all hardships, all terrain, earned the undying respect of the continental cycling world. In return, he earned as much money as he could possibly squeeze from the sponge.

If the great man has any regrets now, and we don't know that he has, then it might be that he chased the cash instead of the glory. He was remorselessly unsentimental about the trade. The pathological cynicism of pro cycling didn't seem to knock a feather out of him.

The Dutch rider Jan Raas had observed him up close. "Raas once caustically noted," writes Ryan, "that Kelly was 'always beatable because he always has a price'." His then agent Frank Quinn says that when Kelly began, "he rode the bike to make money and the more he rode the bike, the more money he got. And he wasn't sure when that would stop. He rode everywhere to make money, because he thought it might stop."

As a result, he never gambled on building a season around the Tour, thereby sparing himself earlier in the year to peak for the big one in July. As a result, too, he won the early-season stage race, Paris-Nice, for seven years running between '82 and '88. It is still a record for this prestige event, the so-called 'Race to the Sun'.

Back in Ireland the one-day classics also became part of the popular lexicon as he scored multiple titles at Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. In 1988, he won his one Grand Tour, the Vuelta.

The public loved his pure toughness too, especially his ruthless ferocity in a sprint finish. After one particularly rough episode, Raas declared: "Kelly is a public menace."

But he was The Man. Until Roche came along in '87 and swept the boards. Here were two polar-opposite archetypes: the strong, silent man of deeds and the naive, cocky natural. Like a lot of sporting naturals, Roche's talent in the field was mirrored off it by a gauche immaturity. But in public he was charm and charisma personified. Roche became a national darling in '87, the year that the golden era peaked.

His triumphs at the Giro d'Italia, the Tour and the World Championships are enshrined forever. His monstrous bravery that season has perhaps been overlooked. Ryan reminds us of it in a series of gripping chapters that revive those incandescent memories, and warm the heart anew.

In Italy, Roche defied his own team and its financiers and management by refusing to yield to their favoured son, and appointed heir to the Giro throne, local big gun Roberto Visentini. The latter was leading the race, they were riding on his manor, and he believed he was the unassailable team leader. Roche should therefore bend the knee.

On a mountain stage to the town of Sappada, and in a move that Visentini still deems treasonous, Roche attacked and left him for dust. The next day, still in the Dolomites, he stayed in the middle of the road to avoid getting punched, kicked, or worse. The natives spat mouthfuls of wine at him as he passed.

Six weeks later, an Alpine ski resort became etched in Irish folklore: La Plagne. The Spaniard Pedro Delgado went for broke on this, the final climb of a gruelling day. Roche rode his guts out in the last few kilometres and clawed back the deficit. "When I got there," recalled Delgado, "and they told me it (my lead) was only four seconds, my world fell apart." Roche collapsed after crossing the line. A rapt audience back in Ireland watched live on television as an oxygen mask was placed over his mouth. "For the bones of ten minutes," writes Ryan, "Roche lay on the ground, initially unable to talk or move his legs."

On September 6, the four-pro Irish team lined up in the Austrian town of Villach for the World Championships. The plan was to deliver Kelly for a sprint finish and the individual title after 23 laps of a 12-kilometre circuit. They were facing 12-man squads from Italy, Belgium and France.

The two domestiques put in a monumental effort, covering breaks and sheltering as best they could the two stars. Late in the race both of them retrieved a break that could have been decisive. "It was a break that could have stayed away," recalls Kelly, "so we told Kimmage and Earley to ride. Credit where credit is due, they rode really well for Ireland. They closed that break down."

In the event it was Roche, surfing the form of his life, who pounced for the title and the fabled triple crown. Ryan believes the quartet's feat that day ranks as "one of the greatest performances by an Irish international team in any sport".

Of course, inevitably and unavoidably, hanging over the entire saga of that era is The Shadow; the infernal black cloud of doping and all its works. Kelly tested positive twice; with Roche there is circumstantial evidence, which he reacted to in 2012 by telling The Guardian: "How can I defend myself? I can't give any proof. It's the same with the fact there was other stuff around in 1987. How can I prove now that I was clean? They didn't store urine and blood samples from those days. The most important thing is that I'm at ease with my conscience." The fallout has been bitter and prolonged.

But The Shadow doesn't fully overshadow the magic of that time or the telling of this story. "To have two riders of the calibre of Kelly and Roche emerge independently of one another within the space of four years," writes Ryan, is akin to the town of Tupelo, Mississippi, producing "a second Elvis Presley shortly after the first. (It is) a most astonishing accident of history."

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