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
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