Irish Eyes


It’s absolutely amazing that Cadel Evans has finally become the first Australian rider to win the Tour de France. For 30 years’ now we’ve had riders knocking at the Tour door in a very threatening way, and who knows; had times and attitudes been different maybe Phil Anderson would have been the first Aussie Tour winner all those years ago.

But, as is so often the case in life, things just didn’t work out that way, and slowly but surely Australia has made its’ presence felt on the once Eurocentric world of pro bike racing. With a mix of sheer class and abundance of talent an Australian has now won both the World Professional Road Race Championship and the Tour de France.

Step back a quarter of a century in time and that’s around about when the distinctly “Francofile” face of cycling was getting a huge slapping, a beating that was changing its’ accent and outlook for-ever. Sure enough there were bands of Americans, Brits, Aussies and other non standardised nations making their presence felt; but outshining most of them were the Irish duo of Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche, riders who were like chalk and cheese as characters, and yet were able to “double-handedly” take on, and beat the world, with a little extra help from Martin Earley and Paul Kimmage that was.

Ireland is a small and rain-soaked place, far away from the hubbub of pro bike racing. Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, when Kelly and Roche came to power, the country was also extremely poor by western standards, and had almost no established mainstream cycling culture to call on; so when Kelly first left the small family farm in the deep south of Ireland to seek his fortune as a bike rider it was a huge step, especially for an small town country lad.

Soon after Kelly stepped out the slightly younger Roche, a comparative city slicker (Being from Dublin), followed suit. The rest as they say is history; pure unadulterated bicycling fairytale stuff, and for the decade or so that followed they dominated a huge slice of the world of pro bike racing, and, for a while, inspired a nation to take to two wheels – not unlike Cadel is doing today.

Kelly was known as a true grit hard man, one of the most intuitive and gnarliest riders the sport has ever seen. It was said that the tougher the weather and the conditions the more he relished the fight; “Some people said I got out of bed and opened the curtains and if it was belting down with rain and howling wind that I’d be shouting the place down with joy. But no, there was never a situation like that. I really don’t like the rain and bad conditions anymore than anyone else. I just supported the conditions better than others, and it didn’t affect my performance. I could go out in the really wet and cold and race for 6-hours in the classics and it didn’t bother me too much. That was the advantage.”

Early in his career Kelly was marked out as a fast finishing sprinter, with an impeccable ability in the classics – all of the classics. He was able to win just about all of them, some many times – apart from one; “The Tour of Flanders, I came close a number of times, but always made mistakes I suppose. I made some of my biggest ever mistakes in the final there, misjudgements and tactical mistakes. One time I went away with 2 riders and did 60% of the riding, then lead out in the biggest gear; it just got bigger and bigger as the line approached, and (Adri) Van der Poel came over me – over confidence. Another time we were away and I made a deal with the other riders (As is often the case in pro bike racing). Straight away one attacked and I didn’t chase, he stayed away, I was a little bit flicked. It’s one of my biggest regrets, not winning that one, it was a race I was more than capable of winning.”

This ability to deal with harshness of conditions earned Kelly 2 victories in the toughest of all classics, the Paris-Roubaix; “The Paris-Roubaix was my favourite race. It’s the most horrible race to ride, but the greatest race to win. Then came the Milan-Sanremo. But once you realise you can win these races you start looking at the other classics, and it just goes on and on. You went for all of them if you had the ability to win them, and I had. But if it was today and I could win Milan-Sanremo I’d probably lie back on the beach for a couple of months; but they were different times. The salaries then were a fraction of what they are now. If you can win a classic now they you’re in a contract for another year; back then you could run a team for a year on that one salary.”

There was one other single day race that shockingly eluded Kelly; “The World Championship was always a bitter one. It’s timing was never great for me – coming out of the Tour and then riding lots of critiriums afterwards. There was never time to prepare well for it (The race used to take place a month earlier than it does now).”

These days’ it’s rare to see a grand tour favourite contending the classics in anger, and almost as rare to see a rider winning races as varied as Milan-Sanremo, Paris-Roubaix and Liege-Bastogne-Liege in the same season, if ever; “Times have changed. In our day riders went to all of the races and tried to win something. Now it’s become very competitive and harder to do. Riders now focus on that 2-week period for certain races and are in 100% peak condition. Now riders’ just use some races for training, and standards of racing are so much higher; there’s no point in saying otherwise. These days they’re racing 100-km from the finish, it’s tough. I think (Philippe) Gilbert is the rider closest to being able to do this. But he’d need to be off form in some races.”

Having won 4 Tour de France green jerseys and finished fourth overall, plus taking a GC win in the 1988 Vuelta a’ Espana, Kelly also held the mantle of a Tour contender for a short while. How did he change his game so drastically? “It was in the mentality of the individual rider, and the way the teams raced back then; you did everything. Look at Fignon and Hinault; they tried to win everything. That was just the way it was done. It’s totally changed now. The way riders prepare now is totally different.”

It was later in the day when Kelly finally had the opportunity to focus more fully on the Tour, perhaps too late; “Later in my career, when I went to PDM, I went to focus more on the Tour. But, I always said then that I should of focussed on it during my greatest years. Then a podium, possibly even a win in the Tour de France could have been possible. But to say win the Tour de France; I was always a bit off in the big mountains and always had a bad day, possibly that was from too much early season racing…”

The trend towards specialisation came around in the late 80’s; “Even Greg Lemond rode everything to start with; you’d see him contesting the classics, go for the Tour and then the World Championships. Then he realised he could just focus on winning the Tour de France, and came back (to Europe) in worse shape every spring, and was really struggling to finish early races, and it went on from there. Indurain did the same after his first couple of Tours. That became good enough within the teams and managers began to structure teams that way; a rider who could win a classic and a Tour rider.”

The incredible drive embedded deep in the veins of Kelly was unmistakable, and ran as strong as ever right through his lengthy career; what kept him so hungry? “In the first years it was the financial gain. If I said I just wanted to win races and wasn’t interested in the financial gain I’d be pulling your leg, and I think that was the same for most riders of that time. We wanted to win and do as well as we could out of it. But then when I was doing better financially, well, I just wanted to win more; as many big events as I could, to get a big palmares to show I had a good career.”

Enter Roche

Stephen Roche, on the other hand, was seen a thoroughbred; a man positively oozing with fragile class. He had a rough schooling with the prestigious ACBB club in France, and duly won a contract with the leading Peugeot team in 1981, when he was just 19-years old. Kelly was already on top of his game by then, with a flourishing list of victories clearly chalked on his scoreboard, and few expected much of the rookie Roche in his first season. But he came out with his saddle on fire and won the Tour of Corsica (Dropping Bernard Hinault in the process), and then took the Paris-Nice in a spectacular time trial finish on the Col d’Eze, becoming the youngest rider ever to win the race; “I’ll always remember that day; riding a 44x17/18 on the climb. I went on to win another couple of times on the Eze, but that was my only overall win.” Remembered Roche. Over the next few years the race was to become very much an Irish occasion, with the GC often being fought out between Roche and Kelly, who won the race 7 times in all.

The young Dubliner glittered like a pot of gold on the bike, and in 1987 he was virtually untouchable, and became only the second rider ever (The other being Eddy Merckx) to win the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France and the World Championship in the same year; “As a rider I was an all-rounder. I was more of a tour rider, but I was also capable in the classics. I had good form at the Giro, which was ideal preparation for the Tour. Then the world’s course and the conditions suited me (He didn’t go to the race win, but an attack designed to take the sting out of the break for team-mate Sean Kelly was never reeled in, and Ireland won their only word professional road race title).” Kelly and Martin Earley finished in the lead group, a great day out for the tiny Irish team.

It was a vintage cycling year for sure (87), and the way in which Roche won all of these races (and many more) was nothing short of dramatic. At the Giro he’d taken the race lead from team-mate Roberto Vissentini; the Italian was seriously ailing, but the act turned his entire team, and most of the Italian riders and fans against him, and they went to horrific lengths to show their distain for the Irishman. Only team mechanic Patrick Valke and team-mate Eddy Schepers stood by him, while Scotland’s Robert Millar coerced to help him in the mountains.

Few will ever forget his precisely calculated ride to La Plagne in the 87 Tour, where he pegged back Pedro Delgado on the final climb, to effectively put himself back into contention for the race, and in doing so ended up on oxygen and rushed hospital. This kind of tactical astuteness and such guts characterized Stephen Roche as a rider; “I knew I couldn’t match Delgado on the early part of the climb, so I had to ease and let him ride away, otherwise he’d of kept attacking me and I could have been in trouble; so I just stayed calm until the final kilometres and then gave it everything I had to try and limit my losses. Luckily there were no race radios and the crowds were so deep I just couldn’t see him ahead, otherwise I may have eased off some.”

Ever since then he’s stood alongside Merckx in the history books as the only riders to achieve the triple – can we see it done again by a modern day rider? “First you have to get riders who will do both the Tour and the Giro, and then the course for the world championship has to be demanding enough for these tour riders to attempt it. They’re already talking about next year’s world championship course suiting Gilbert, and so on; so it won’t be just yet. But yes I’m sure it can be done. I was just fortunate that it fell my way. This suits me well, as it means there’s less chance of more people doing the triple.”

Having won both the Giro and the Tour, which does he rank as the toughest to race win? “They’re two totally different concepts and challenges. At the Giro you always had a lot of small Italian teams that nobody’s ever heard of and will maybe never hear of again. While at the Tour you have the crème de la crème of cycling, all racing each other on every mountains and going for every sprint, and they’re the best, and everybody is on their best form. But having said that, the itinerary of the Giro was always harder for me; it is more demanding, and the climbs were hard for me.”

Many riders would take a long break after winning just one of these three races, resting on their laurels rather that the saddle, yet Roche just kept on winning – what drove him to do that? “I always put myself on a different plate to anyone else, and didn’t compare myself to them. I always wanted to win; I was never content with second. I wanted to be the best – not one of the best. I focussed on a race, and once the race was over I turned the page and focused on the next objective. That was one of my strong points, I never wound down – I just said to myself “Ok, what’s next?” and got on with it.”

Roche has been based in the South of France since his racing days, but still has a close connection with pro racing, as his son (Nicolas) and nephew (Dan Martin) are very much at the forefront of the pro peloton. What standout changes does he see between the two era’s of the Roche family in the Tour de France? “I think now that riders in the big tours ride not to lose rather than to win. They go for high places, but not for the best places. After the first week of the Tour they aim to hold their places, or go for a top ten. But we’d never have raced for tenth place; we’d have fought tooth and nail to win.”

Both Roche and Kelly were renown for their tactical sense, which seems to be lacking these days, as Roche notes; “I think race radios should be abolished. To me, the reasons from the managers for keeping them are not viable reasons. I don’t think having a radio in every rider’s ear and yelling at them helps in their reasoning (largely safety led). I think looking at cycling long-term that they will kill it off because it makes the racing less spectacular. People outside often-wonder if the riders are men or machines. There’s seemingly no rider thought behind actions; it’s basically the DS in the car behind calling the shots, it makes it look like all the riders have to do is ride their bikes and not think.”

Given Irelands diminutive size and population, plus its isolation from mainland Europe, it seems astonishing that two such greats should appear on the scene at more or less the same time; SK; “I think the timing was just coincidental, but at the time there were a lot of guys giving up their Sunday mornings to get guys like us out riding bikes, which doesn’t happen so much these days.”

The phenomenal success of the Irish duo lead to boom in Irish cycling at the time, but it didn’t last, as Kelly laments with an air of frustration; “We had so many juniors and promising young riders around during that era. We had the Junior Tour of Ireland, and it had 250 starters, and 200 of them would be Irish. Now, it’s hard to find 25 juniors to start a race here.”

Having suffered economically for years before and during the Roche and Kelly dynasty things picked up, and Ireland entered a boom time; SK; “I think the boom in the economy affected things a lot. The Irish riders of the past few years are just not hungry enough, and things have got a lot easier in life. We even get riders at the team (Sean Kelly/An Post Cycling Academy) house who can’t boil an egg, they can’t even use the washing machine, they’ve been too well looked after, and it say’s a lot.”

Roche continues; “I don’t really understand it – I’m away from it (Being in France). But cycling really helped to put Ireland on the map, and yet they don’t seem to want to help (The governing cycling/sports bodies). It’s seen as a doping sport, yet we all know that doping isn’t just a cycling problem, or even just a general sporting problem – it’s a society problem. Take a look at football; at least cycling keeps kids off the streets and helps stop them form drinking, which can’t be said for football.”