RETRO: IL LOM­BAR­DIA 1991

Sean Kelly was all out of luck in 1991. He broke his col­lar­bone be­fore the Clas­sics and aban­doned the Tour with a mys­tery ill­ness. Worst of all, in Au­gust, his brother was killed while rid­ing near the fam­ily home. What could Kelly sal­vage at the Giro di L

Procycling - - CONTENTS - Writer: Wil­liam Fother­ing­ham Pho­tog­ra­phy: Offside/ L’Equipe

This month’s Retro re­lives the last of Sean Kelly’s three vic­to­ries in the mon­u­ment

The Giro di Lom­bar­dia has al­ways been a race with a poignant touch to it: the au­tumn leaves on the hills above the Ital­ian Lakes; in some years, early snow on the moun­tains. It was al­ways the race where ev­ery­one in the pro­fes­sional cy­cling car­a­van would say good­bye to each other for the win­ter. There were other more per­ma­nent good­byes: teams that were clos­ing down, spon­sors that were dis­ap­pear­ing, fa­mous jer­seys on the start line for the fi­nal time, and rid­ers head­ing for re­tire­ment, will­ingly or with a sense of frus­tra­tion. It is nick­named the ‘Race of the Fall­ing Leaves’, and the leaves are sym­bolic of change as well as flut­ter­ing on the tar­mac.

The 1991 race be­longed to Sean Kelly, but be­fore I get to him, let’s briefly cel­e­brate a piece of ephemera which was small, ar­cane and un­recog­nised, cer­tainly valu­able to me on oc­ca­sion and which sym­bol­ises a long­gone era in pro­fes­sional cy­cling. The se­guito plaque was a piece of card­board about four inches by eight, which RCS Sport, or­gan­is­ers of the ma­jor Ital­ian races, used to dole out be­fore their events to se­lected in­di­vid­u­als. Se­guito means, roughly, ‘fol­low­ing’ – you were an ac­cred­ited fol­lower of the race, al­beit one they couldn’t quite cat­e­gorise.

Ask the right per­son, re­ceive your se­guito plaque, put an ap­pro­pri­ate short­wave ra­dio in your car, and you could fol­low the race of your choice, from any­where within the con­voy that was deemed to be safe. It was the so­lu­tion RCS ar­rived at when I turned up to col­lect my race ac­cred­i­ta­tion for the 1991 Giro di Lom­bar­dia,

Mi­lan-Turin, and Giro del Piemonte at their HQ in Mi­lan, yet with­out a car to drive in. A call was made to some­one who they thought might want to con­vey a jour­nal­ist on the race; the plaque was is­sued. Job done.

It now seems as­ton­ish­ing, in the mod­ern, health-and-safety con­scious world, that this could hap­pen, and that it could hap­pen in a race as im­por­tant as the Giro di Lom­bar­dia. The whole no­tion was a throw­back to the 1950s, when jour­nal­ists rode on mo­tor­bikes with­out hel­mets – or when un­cat­e­gorised in­di­vid­u­als like Fausto Coppi’s White Lady turned up and de­manded a place in the con­voy - but I am not that old a jour­nal­ist. This was as re­cently as the late 1980s and early 90s. In one of the six big­gest one-day races in the year.

At that 1991 Giro di Lom­bar­dia, I found my­self in a bat­tered Ford sa­loon with three griz­zled old Ital­ian guys. The driver was a baker from Berg­amo called Renzo and he was the un­cle of the one-day racer Franco Bal­lerini. Bal­lerini died trag­i­cally young in 2010, aged 45, in a ral­ly­ing ac­ci­dent, hav­ing risen to the post of Ital­ian na­tional team coach. In 1991 he was not quite at his peak. He had won Paris-Brus­sels and the GP des Amériques the year be­fore. His first ParisRoubaix win would come in 1995.

That’s why, when the win­ning seven-rider move formed in that Giro di Lom­bar­dia over the Colle Bri­anza with around 45 kilo­me­tres to go, and ‘our boy’ was in it, there was con­sid­er­able, and un­der­stand­able, ex­cite­ment in the Ford. As far as I was con­cerned, though, Bal­lerini was only part of the story when the race num­bers from the break were read out over the ra­dio. With the Tus­can were three French rid­ers: Mar­tial Gayant, Dante Rezze and Bruno Cornil­let, the Ital­ian Al­berto Volpi and the Dane Rolf Sørensen. Plus, in­cred­i­bly or so it seemed, the Ir­ish­man Sean Kelly.

Of course, I had been a Kelly fan be­fore I be­came a jour­nal­ist. It was in­evitable.

I had been 13 years old when he won his first stage in the Tour de France and had looked on through the 1980s as he spear­headed the march of the English-speak­ers through world cy­cling. On turn­ing jour­nal­ist, I’d be­gun in­ter­view­ing Kelly, and found him cour­te­ous, ar­tic­u­late and ac­ces­si­ble, far from the guy who was known for nod­ding in ra­dio in­ter­views. We’d vis­ited him in Ire­land the pre­vi­ous win­ter, my­self and a pho­tog­ra­pher, the late Mark Wohlwen­der; as al­ways, you get the true flavour of the cham­pion on home turf.

Kelly had told me of his plans for the end of his ca­reer, how the hunger and the sac­ri­fices that went with it were still there, how he had hoped for more vic­to­ries as he went deep into his 30s. But his plans had not in­cluded a bro­ken col­lar­bone at Paris-Nice – which I had cov­ered as well – when a musette went into a front wheel and his hopes of a suc­cess­ful spring Clas­sics cam­paign went west as the road went south. Nor had his plans taken in the mys­tery sick­ness which put him

“You slowly tr y to re­fo­cus... It was a re­ally bad year but you just keep the head down and keep work­ing and tr y to get a re­sult out of it” Sean Kelly

and the rest of the PDM team out of the Tour de France and which was blamed by the team, some­time later, on a stale sup­ple­ment.

Those rac­ing events in them­selves would have made 1991 an an­nus hor­ri­bilis for him, but the worst came in mid-Au­gust with the death of his el­der brother Joe, struck by a car as he rode the fi­nal miles of the Comer­agh 100 leisure ride near the fam­ily home in Car­rick-on-Suir. Joe was 37. More than 1,000 peo­ple at­tended the fu­neral. It was im­pos­si­ble to gauge the im­pact of such a tragedy on Kelly.

Years later, Kelly told the writer Barry Ryan, in an in­ter­view for Ryan’s his­tory of Ir­ish cy­cling, The As­cent, “In the be­gin­ning it was dif­fi­cult to fo­cus but then you just say to your­self, ‘Well I think my brother Joe would pre­fer to see me go­ing on.’ And then you slowly try to re­fo­cus your­self and try to get some­thing out of the year. It was a re­ally bad year but you just keep the head down and keep work­ing and try to get a re­sult out of it.”

Now, Kelly re­flects that he was for­tu­nate to have sup­port from those around him at PDM. “It was a dif­fi­cult time, but it’s im­por­tant to have peo­ple with level heads around you. Jan Gis­bers, the DS at PDM, was help­ful, say­ing the right things, and I was lucky to be shar­ing a room with Martin Ear­ley. He didn’t say much, but when he did say some­thing you would take it in. He wasn’t a guy who would bull­shit too much.”

One re­sult had come in the now de­funct Nis­san Clas­sic, where Kelly had bro­ken away with Sean Yates on the rain-soaked penul­ti­mate stage to win the race for the fourth and fi­nal time of his ca­reer (the Nis­san didn’t sur­vive long af­ter Kelly’s ca­reer ended in mid-1994). There was scant ex­pec­ta­tion that Kelly would con­tend for vic­tory in Lom­bardy, the more so when he had to re­ceive treat­ment for a knee in­jury sus­tained 48 hours be­fore the race.

That in­jury would have tried any­one, but surely it was the ul­ti­mate test given how Kelly had lost his brother. “It was af­ter Mi­lanTurin, we were out rid­ing, on the Thurs­day or Fri­day. The PDM team bus was fol­low­ing us, a car over­took it and crashed into the back of us.” Four or five of the team were knocked off too: Kelly re­calls Raúl Al­calá, Ear­ley and the Ger­man rider Falk Bo­den as the other fall­ers.

“We went out for a ride the day be­fore Lom­bardy and it was so painful I turned around af­ter 15 or 20km,” says Kelly. “At the start, I wasn’t even sure I would make it to the feed. I told Martin and he said some­thing like, ‘Do an hour and see what hap­pens.’” Kelly now ac­knowl­edges that he won­dered whether his bad luck would end. “You def­i­nitely would be think­ing that. It had been a bad year and it was just con­tin­u­ing. It does test you. When I did get on the bike, I didn’t think I would be rac­ing on the Satur­day.”

An­other of the men in the break, Mar­tial Gayant, was in the same boat as Kelly: close to the end of his ca­reer, and at the back end of a sea­son where things had gone hor­ri­bly wrong. The French­man had crashed in the Tour de France, dam­aged his achilles ten­don and frac­tured a wrist, and spent a month on crutches. “We were in the same spi­ral of de­cline,” he says now. “Like him, I wanted to win some­thing big at the end of the sea­son.”

As with Kelly, Lom­bardy was a race that suited the French­man. Kelly had won the race for the first time in 1983, the re­sult that launched his Clas­sics ca­reer, then added a re­peat win in 1985, as well as a con­tro­ver­sial se­cond place to Gian­bat­tista Baronchelli in 1986; Gayant had sup­ported Charly Mot­tet in his vic­tory in the 1988 edi­tion.

Where PDM had started with Kelly their sole leader, Toshiba had ar­rived in Monza

with three pro­tected rid­ers: Gayant was one, along with pre­vi­ous win­ner Tony Rominger, whose long solo vic­tory in 1989 had kick­started his trans­for­ma­tion into one of the stars of the early 1990s. The third rider was Lau­rent Jal­abert, who was at the start of his ca­reer and had his eyes on a pos­si­ble win in the sea­son-long World Cup, in which he was breath­ing down the neck of Pana­sonic’s Mau­r­izio Fon­dri­est.

This was an eas­ier edi­tion Lom­bardy than the two Kelly had won in 1983 and 1985. The Passo In­telvi had gone, so too the Val­ico di Val­cava climb that had caused so much trou­ble in 1989 and 1990. The Esino Lario climb on the east­ern banks of Lake Como came early and did lit­tle more than split up an early break­away formed of an un­likely duo: the sprinter Ján Svo­rada, and the French do­mes­tique Thierry Gou­ve­nou, who is now the route-fin­der gen­eral at Tour de France or­gan­is­ers, ASO. “The race didn’t start too ag­gres­sively which helped the knee. I felt okay when I got to the fi­nal quar­ter of the race where the ac­tion hap­pened,” Kelly says.

Gayant had been in­structed by his di­recteur sportif to make the pace hard to set up a pos­si­ble at­tack from Jal­abert, so he rode flat out over the Ghisallo climb, and on the de­scent the other six rid­ers, in­clud­ing Bal­lerini and Sørensen, joined him. Fon­dri­est had a punc­ture which meant that Pana­sonic’s at­ten­tion was fo­cused firmly on get­ting their man to the fin­ish within reach of his French World Cup ri­val, Jal­abert, so no mean­ing­ful chase came. “When the break caught me there was no sign of Rominger or Jal­abert in it,” says Gayant, “which meant ini­tially I didn’t have to ride.”

Bruno Cornil­let be­gan the fi­nal move on the Lis­solo, around 20km from the fin­ish, and the re­sponse came from Gayant with Kelly stuck firmly on his wheel. “I had the re­serves be­cause I hadn’t been work­ing too hard,” re­calls Gayant. “So I went full bore up the climb, full bore. I was think­ing that per­haps I might get rid of Kelly, be­cause I was in such pain, but maybe I burned some of my matches there.”

“It’s a short climb, maybe 2.5km, steep and nar­row at the top. He put in a fierce at­tack,” says Kelly. “I re­acted im­me­di­ately, I was on the limit try­ing to hold his wheel over the top. Be­fore the climb, the guys had been back­ing off a bit, there had been a bit of talk, a bit of bad lan­guage, they were try­ing to have an easy ride. I knew we had a good chance if we worked to­gether.”

In Renzo Bal­lerini’s bat­tered Ford, we sped past Kelly and Gayant in the fi­nal 10km when it was ob­vi­ous that their two clos­est chasers, Bruno Cornil­let and ‘our boy’ Franco, weren’t go­ing to catch up. It was a priv­i­lege to see the great­est Clas­sics racer of the 1980s un­leashed for one of the last times in his ca­reer “Af­ter the climb, he put me in the red quite a bit,” re­calls Kelly. “Rid­ing full on he

“I played cat and mouse. In a shor t sprint I’d be more ex­plo­sive, but in a longer one he’d be on my wheel, get a lead- out and maybe come past,” Sean Kelly

was, rid­ing strong. I started to feel tired, but that’s nor­mal at the back of a race like this.”

So they raced across the flat roads to Monza, to per­haps the least at­mo­spheric fin­ish ever de­vised for a Clas­sic, the Fiera di Monza: an anony­mous ar­ray of sheds on the town’s ring road. The sprint was a for­mal­ity, although amus­ingly both men had the same race in mind: the GP Plouay in 1986, when Kelly was in his pomp, but in which Gayant had out­ma­noeu­vred him in the up­hill sprint. “Monza was a flat fin­ish, so bet­ter for me, but you never know,” said Kelly.

“I played cat and mouse with him. I knew that in a short sprint I’d be more ex­plo­sive, but in a longer one he’d be on my wheel, get a lead-out and maybe come past,” Kelly adds. “He was more of a diesel than me, but if I went from 250 me­tres I couldn’t be sure. And I knew that with the ad­van­tage we had, I could af­ford to play it out.”

Gayant, on the other hand, wasn’t so sure, although he re­mem­bered Plouay. “He desta­bilised me in the fi­nal kilo­me­tre. He wouldn’t go through, I re­mem­ber ask­ing him to take a turn, be­cause you have to be a bit care­ful. You look at the video now, you can see us turn­ing around to see where Bal­lerini and Cornil­let are. I lost it there. But he was Sean Kelly; I might have had a chance if it was an up­hill fin­ish. As it was, I had no hope of tak­ing the win.” The mar­gin was de­ci­sive, a cou­ple of bike lengths, and Kelly was as de­lighted as you might have ex­pected.

This was a last ma­jor re­sult for Gayant, who would go on to sign a deal with Lotto for the fol­low­ing year, purely so that the team would qual­ify for the Tour de France thanks to the UCI points he’d scored on that Oc­to­ber day. He barely raced for the Bel­gian squad, re­tired mid-sea­son and went on to man­age the Saint Quentin-Ok­tos team where he men­tored Jeremy Hunt and David Mil­lar as they tran­si­tioned rapidly to pro­fes­sional ca­reers at the end of the 1990s. In 2001 Gayant joined Marc Ma­diot at Française des Jeux.

See­ing a rider turn around his en­tire sea­son, and the fi­nal years of his ca­reer, in front of you is quite some­thing, but that was what we wit­nessed from the bat­tered Ford sa­loon with the now-for­got­ten se­guito plaque. This win wasn’t just about Kelly’s brother Joe, about the dis­as­trous Tour and the missed Clas­sics; Kelly was ne­go­ti­at­ing his con­tract for 1992, and up un­til that fi­nal mo­ment in Monza, PDM had been firmly in con­trol.

“The gen­eral man­ager, Man­fred Krikke, had tried to bar­gain with me, say­ing I wasn’t the rider I had been,” says Kelly. There was an of­fer on the ta­ble, but it was a low one, and Kelly was gam­bling on what the end of the sea­son might bring. In the fi­nal pedal strokes of the year, he’d struck gold, paving the way for the fi­nal deal of his ca­reer with Festina for 1992 and 1993. He would take one more ma­jor win, the fol­low­ing March, in Mi­lan-San Remo, but the spe­cial con­text of this Race of the Fall­ing Leaves sets it apart. “It was a very emo­tional win, of all the races I’ve won per­haps the most emo­tional,” says Kelly.

Cornil­let, right, be­gan the inal move and was fol­lowed by Gayant and KellyBoth Kelly and Gayant were age­ing vet­er­ans des­per­ate for a big vic­tory

Kelly leads Bal­lerini and Volpi on a climb be­fore the inal breakup of the group

Le­Mond is !lanked on the dais by Van der Poel, left, and Ire­land’s Stephen RocheLe­Mond won few races in the rain­bow jersey in ‘ 84, but he was third at the TourKelly eas­ily beat Gayant at the ! in­ish, to take his third Lom­bardy ti­tle

Kelly shares a word with Bal­lerini, who took his ! irst ca­reer mon­u­ment podium

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