Kelly, Roche and the de­scent of Ir­ish cy­cling

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Ian o’ri­or­dan

Per­haps lost amid all the sad and glo­ri­ous sport­ing re­flec­tion of re­cent days is the mem­ory of Jimmy Magee and the mas­ter­fully ac­qui­es­cent in­ter­view. This is where the sub­ject sim­ply lis­tened or nod­ded as Magee heaped praise upon their achieve­ment, and no one felt more com­fort­able in that sit­u­a­tion than Sean Kelly.

“What a ride Sean, still the hard­est man in cy­cling?” Magee might have asked af­ter his sev­enth straight Paris-Nice vic­tory in 1988 – Kelly’s only re­sponse be­ing to pull on an­other layer of cloth­ing.

Or, “talk about risk­ing life and limb on that de­scent,” af­ter Kelly’s still-fright­en­ing ride down the Pog­gio to win the 1992 Milan-San Remo, the ninth mon­u­ment clas­sic of his ca­reer – Kelly re­spond­ing this time by knock­ing a bead of per­spi­ra­tion off his nose.

And such in­ter­views, re­mem­ber – deftly or­ches­trated by Magee – would nor­mally go out on the ra­dio.

When Stephen Roche en­tered this same arena the re­sponses were sig­nif­i­cantly more an­i­mated, the praise the same: Magee con­sis­tently cham­pi­oned Kelly and Roche as the two great­est rid­ers of their gen­er­a­tion, which of course they were.

This month 30 years ago their ca­reers and that of Ir­ish pro cy­cling reached a zenith. At the 1987 World Cham­pi­onships in Vil­lach along Aus­tria’s south­ern bor­der, a five-man Ir­ish team – with no man­ager – took on the cy­cling su­per­pow­ers and beat them all. Tac­tics meant noth­ing against the 12-man squads from Italy, Bel­gium and France and their only ad­van­tage was pure strength of will.

Sport­ing his­tory

The only plan was to sup­port Kelly, built for a course like Vil­lach and now more than ever primed to win that elu­sive rain­bow jer­sey. Roche had won the Tour de France to go with his Giro d’Italia and would set aside their pseudo-po­lite ri­valry; so would Ire­land’s two other lead­ing pros, Paul Kim­mage and Martin Ear­ley, while Kelly’s old ju­nior ri­val Alan McCor­mack also made the long trip from the US to lend his wheel.

What un­folded didn’t go ex­actly to plan yet made sport­ing his­tory none­the­less. They all rode their legs off, then, 400m from the fin­ish, re­al­is­ing Kelly was still stranded in the group just be­hind, Roche broke to­wards the left-hand bar­rier and didn’t let up un­til five me­tres be­fore the line, when he flung both arms straight above his head.

Roche held off Italy’s de­fend­ing cham­pion Moreno Ar­gentin by a sin­gle sec­ond; Kelly rolled across the line in fifth, arms also punch­ing the air. For the first time since Eddy Mer­ckx in 1974 – and the only time since – a rider had won the Triple Crown of cy­cling, and Magee was cer­tainly no ex­cep­tion in his in­stant hail­ing of this feat.

Ex­actly why this isn’t hailed so in­stantly 30 years later is a lit­tle prob­lem­atic and many of the rea­sons can be found in The As­cent, a new 385-page tour de force by Cork cy­cling jour­nal­ist Barry Ryan. He was hardly born when Kelly and Roche be­gan their as­cent in the pelo­ton, and Ryan has no vested in ter­est in their story beyond the sheer verac­ity of it, which is ex­actly how he tells it.

Ryan – re­port­ing with cy­ since 2010 – is al­ready known for ques­tion­ing some of the verac­ity of Team Sky prin­ci­pal Dave Brails­ford, who re­sponded by ban­ning him from Sky’s me­dia event on the sec­ond rest day of this year’s Tour, re­port­edly ac­cus­ing Ryan of “writ­ing shit” and to “stick it up your arse”.

There’s sim­i­lar curs­ing through­out The As­cent, mostly com­pli­ments of Kim­mage, who at times sounds more like char­ac­ter from Nil By Mouth but at no point lacks verac­ity ei­ther. Ryan talks with all the cen­tral char­ac­ters in Ir­ish cy­cling – in­clud­ing Kelly, Roche and David Walsh – and while their sto­ries have been told be­fore (Kelly has two au­tho­rised bi­ogra­phies, Roche three) this is the first time they’ve been told in sync.

Dop­ing in the pelo­ton is only briefly men­tioned in the open­ing 100 pages, in­clud­ing Shay El­liott’s self-con­fes­sions, be­cause this is how the story un­folded: to­wards the end it reads more like the de­scent of Ir­ish cy­cling – es­pe­cially the ca­reers of Kelly and Roche.

Di­lated pupils

Even Walsh, the man now hailed for help­ing to bring down Lance Arm­strong, was mostly ac­qui­es­cent in his early pur­suit, ig­nor­ing Kelly’s di­lated pupils, his face “a re­ally strange white”, at the 1984 Paris-Brus­sels, where Kelly later tested pos­i­tive for the am­phet­a­mine-based prod­uct Stimul.

Walsh made no men­tion of it in any of his race re­ports, also mak­ing mostly woolly ar­gu­ments to sup­port Kelly’s in­no­cence.

Like­wise with Kim­mage, also at Paris-Brus­sels, who on ap­proach­ing Kelly with Walsh heard Kelly’s jer­sey pocket rat­tling with pills: “Did you f***ing hear that?” he asks Walsh. “But again,” he says now, “you kind of thought, was it some­thing else?”

Only when The As­cent reaches its fi­nal chap­ter, “The Book of Ev­i­dence” – long af­ter Roche’s 1987 Giro show­down with Roberto Vis­in­tini, or the time he lost and re­gained at La Plange at that year’s Tour – does the less ac­qui­es­cent pic­ture emerge. By now Kim­mage has ad­mit­ted to dop­ing not once but three times (“maybe watch­ing Stephen Roche win the Tour de France and me go­ing out was the last step for me”), and had writ­ten his own self-con­fes­sions in A Rough Ride.

By now there’s a guilty ver­dict against Prof Francesco Con­coni and proof he’d doped for­mer rid­ers at the Car­rera team, in­clud­ing Roche. And an­other con­fes­sional, Break­ing the Chain, by Kelly’s for­mer soigneur Willy Voet, where he talks of sys­tem­atic dop­ing, long be­fore he joined Festina. “Above all, I don’t want to smash the leg­end of Kelly,” Voet later told L’Équipe. “He was a cham­pion.”

And then one of the last words in The As­cent from Walsh, still pon­der­ing the rev­e­la­tions about Kelly to this day: “You’d won­der: does it di­min­ish your re­gard for him? A lit­tle bit, but not com­pletely.”

And you be­gin to won­der how sadly ac­qui­es­cent that must be.

The As­cent by Barry Ryan is pub­lished by Gill Books (¤24.99)

Even David walsh was mostly ac­qui­es­cent in his early pur­suit, ig­nor­ing Kelly’s di­lated pupils, his face ‘a re­ally strange white’, at the 1984 paris-Brus­sels

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