A most as­ton­ish­ing ac­ci­dent of his­tory

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT - 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.”

He was charm and charisma per­son­i­fied

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.

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