Roubaix Remembered - Sean Kelly

Words: Russell Jones / Images: Cor Vos

I knew the feeling, and it wasn’t far away. I thought if I stuffed myself with food I’d be right. I was wrong. We’d just turned onto the Schelde so I knew it was roughly a flat 20 km back to the hotel, and that was 20 km of 140 km so far of what I thought was a 100 km group ride through the best of Flanders with Sean Kelly. Even 100 km was more than I was prepared for, but since Kelly was here I intended to finish, no matter what. Starting to struggle, and realising I was on the wrong side of the bunch to hide from the sidewind, I searched my pockets for any remnants of food to get me home. Just as I was plotting my way to the back and onto the sheltered side, the bunch rolled through with Kelly now alongside me. “Russell, are you having a good ride?” I smiled at him. “As you said earlier Sean, it’s all in that last 60 km.”

Although it was Kelly’s Paris-Roubaix rides I wanted to hear about (and that’s Paris pronounced with an ‘s’), it was the day before De Ronde and Sean was observing the odds listed by the papers before we left for the ride. “It says Gilbert may not be riding so it’s going to be Jungels for Deceuninck because he has the power, but he hasn’t got the experience of riding the race, of where to be. A guy like Gilbert, he knows where it’s important, when to have the power, when to be in the top 15 and in which section. In the Classics it’s always in the final 60 kilometres, that is where the big power is needed, and the experience means you can ride across those Roubaix cobblestones at 40 km an hour after 220 kilometres.”

It’s like he knew.

CUTTING TEETH: 1977 – 1979

After his amateur Tour of Lombardy win Kelly was famously tracked down by Flandria directeur sportif Jean de Gribaldy while driving a tractor along the country lanes of Carrick-on-Suir. The Frenchman was keen for him to sign for the next season. “He came down from Dublin, I didn’t know, they didn’t make any contact, they just arrived. I was out working on the tractor and they came to the home and my mother said he’s gone out that direction. I said I’d think about it.”

“There were stories out that I was trying to get more money, but I really wasn’t. I wasn’t too sure I was ready as I was only 19 and I hadn’t had a lot of experience, so I was a bit scared to move too quickly. About two or three weeks later I signed.”

Housed above de Gribaldy’s shop in Besançon, Kelly was schooled with the rest of the French-based feeder squad of the Flandria-Velda team. “We started off at the Tour of Med and all of those races down at the Côte d'Azur – Grand Prix this and Grand Prix that. I was doing OK in the Tour of Med and a few other races so I got a call at the last moment that I can do Paris-Nice. That was with Freddy Maertens of course, and all them.”

It was a successful outing for the squad, Maertens taking the win ahead of TI-Raleigh’s Gerrie Knetemann. The youngest rider to finish was Kelly in fortieth place, thirty minutes behind the oldest, Raymond Poulidor, who finished sixth at 1’49”.

“It was pretty scary I suppose when you are in there and you are riding with these guys. Merckx was there in those early races, and Gimondi too, and you had been reading about them in the cycling mags for a number of years just before. In the races you’d try and get on their wheel but you were always worried that you were going to take someone down, so you don’t push it too much because you don’t want to do that. That’s something that’s changed, nowadays the young fellas, they just barge in first race, they’ve no respect.”

Kelly was to get his first taste of the pavé a year later in 1978, the year Moser won his first of three. Kelly was called up to the squad at the last minute. “It was only about three days before, so we rocked up at Roubaix but I’d never seen the fucking cobbles before. I had been in Belgium so I had seen some smaller cobbles in the kermesse races and they wouldn’t be the worst cobbles. In Flanders you have a few cobbles, like the Paddestraat and some of those, but I’d not ridden Flanders, and they are nothing like Paris-Roubaix.”

“It was horrible, I remember I fell down about five times. My role was just to ride at the beginning and try and keep Freddy in a position and stay with him as long as possible. When you get to the first lot of cobbles there’s always that big fight to get there and I was just riding to keep Freddy near the front and when we got to the first section of cobbles I went back through the peloton quickly. I was scared as I’d never seen anything like that before, it was just full on, so I never saw the front again.”

“I remember we got to Roubaix and I don’t think we even got a finish time. I said to myself ‘How can they even ride these cobblestones at that rate and stay upright?’ I was totally demoralised.”

UNTETHERED: 1980 – 1982

Although Kelly missed Roubaix in ’79 while still establishing himself within his new Splendor team, he was back to test himself in 1980 and work for team leader Michel Pollentier, who was on form after his Flanders win and aiming to break Moser’s stranglehold on the race. “I remember Pollentier had these cane wheels, but his front wheel just disintegrated on one of the sections of cobbles and he came down on his head. I had a bit more experience by then, but I don’t think I finished, I think at the second feed station I got into the car.”

The ’81 edition saw Kelly getting up there. Wickes-Splendor allowed him and his teammate Eddy Planckaert free rein to get in amongst it after Kelly had nabbed a top ten finish in Flanders. “We’d ride and see how it played out, some of the other guys maybe gave us a bit of help but for Planckaert and myself we had a bit more freedom.” Wet cobbles saw world champion Bernard Hinault take the gallop ahead of De Vlaeminck and Moser from the six-man break. Eventually finishing 19th, Kelly was witness to Hinault’s late fall. “I was a little bit behind and there was a bit of a gap. I saw this black dog and the next thing it was people, and when I came to the corner Hinault was trying to get back on his bike. It split again and I remember I was suffering big time, Hinault came by me and as we went onto another section of cobbles I got distanced again. I finished – it wasn’t by much but I wasn’t there in the sprint.”

He may not have been there for the sprint but Kelly was starting to get to grips with the race. “I was starting to get confident. I was learning how to ride those races, especially the cobbles and how to ride over them. Positioning, gaining experience every year, and as you can see from the results I was coming up slowly and getting closer. When Raas won it in ’82 it was that little kick up with about 5 or 6 km to go. It wasn’t on the cobbles when he rode away, so I was in the leading group with the contenders up to that point, so definitely getting closer.” He was indeed, ultimately finishing 12th.

“It’s not easy to break into that circle because you had Moser and you had Raas and De Vlaeminck, that ‘clique’ as we called it, and to break into that, well, they don’t make it easy for you. It was up until you win a Classic, then you are finally accepted into that set. They don’t allow you in easy, they made it as difficult as they can for you because they want to keep it between themselves. So, if it comes down to the end and you are a young guy coming up they can ride against you until you prove yourself. I did serve my apprenticeship as such over a number of years, slowly getting better.

“Getting to know the pavé of course was also very important. When you go out there and do a recce over the final 60 or 80 kilometres it’s easy as you can see and pick your points on each part of the section, where to be and where you are. But on the day of the race there’s cars and there’s people and flags, and you can’t see that little house or something, so you just need to know where to be and always be in that right position – that’s from riding it a number of times. It’s called ‘the experience.’

“It’s also learning how to ride over the cobbles. Getting the confidence and knowing the lines you can take. Roubaix has 50 km of cobbles, some really bad sections, and at the end you have a lot of sections and they come very quick one after the other. The big thing is, Paris-Roubaix, it’s not won in the first 100 kilometres. Yes, you can lose it in the first 100 kilometres, crashes, something like that, but it’s always in the final 60 kilometres, that is where the big power is needed. To have that power you need to build that slowly as well by doing the distance, by doing that 260 km. It comes with age.”

THE RISE OF THE KING: 1983 – 1985

Winning his second Paris-Nice in 1983 meant Kelly might have been an outside contender for Paris-Roubaix that year, but a broken scaphoid and collarbone soon afterwards meant he missed Hennie Kuiper’s win. Nonetheless, the edition remains one he recalls well. “I crashed at the Tour of Med, and it was a bit of a bummer when you’ve put in so much time all through the winter doing all this training, but I remember watching it in my bed on TV in hospital in Leuven. It’s amazing like that, you do Paris-Roubaix so many times and a lot I forget but that one I remember.”

After winning the late season Tour of Lombardy Kelly went into 1984 with added fight. “You get that confidence. As the saying goes, ‘When you win one big one you can win many more.’” After finishing second in both Milan-Sanremo and the Tour of Flanders Kelly woke to a wet Roubaix, psyched to take to the win.

“I remember I was in really good shape and [Alain] Bondue and [Gregor] Braun were away from very early [both La Redoute] and I remember talking to de Gribaldy after some of the sections and I said ‘I want to attack,’ but he said ‘No, wait, those guys will come back on their own.’ Another 10 kilometres and I said to him ‘On the next section I’m going to try,’ but he stopped me at least two, maybe three times because there was still 60 or 70 kilometres to go, talked me down every time. Which was a good thing because you can feel good with 70 km to go and you can ride off there on your own but then it can hit you in the final 20 km and a minute is nothing if you’ve really run out of gas.”

“I remember Moser was riding very strong on the cobbled sections. He was the guy that was tearing along on the sections and he seemed to be the one on the front. He had the experience and had ridden it so many times so he knew the place to go and he was riding us along for I don’t know how many kilometres of the cobbles, he was really strong. About 40 km to go I decided to go and took off. There was a lot of guys around, but when I came off the section of cobbles and I looked round I could see only one single rider coming, Roger Rogiers, so I slowed up and let him come back and then we started riding.”

“We rode on and we were gaining time as you can always hear the race radio coming through the motorbikes, so we knew we were pulling away and catching the other guys. They could have had maybe two minutes at the time I took off, I’m not sure now, but it took a while to catch them. You just have to keep working at it, you are 40 km out and you just have to keep riding it, you know, 90% or 95% and if you hear the gap is going out just five more seconds then five more, well it gives you the confidence to chip away at it.”

Once they caught the leaders Braun struggled to stay with them once and was dropped, and after Bondue fell on Camphin-en-Pévèle Kelly and Rogiers were left alone for the finale. “I was probably riding a bit more than Rogiers but I was feeling good and Rogiers was probably trying to keep a little back for the sprint, maybe he was hoping he may be able to do something. I was always pretty confident but you can never be sure. First of all, in Roubaix you just never know and you could have a mechanical at the end so you are always tense and worried about it.”

Kelly seemed to just ease away on the final corner but checked behind many times before reaching the line. “People say that to me, that sometimes in a sprint maybe I look around too much, that I should look ahead and just keep going for it full gas, but it’s best to be sure.”

Winner of the season-long Super Prestige Pernod International, and with another Paris-Nice under his belt, Kelly was again the obvious favourite for the ’85 race. Away in the final selection that included the likes of Greg LeMond, Rudy Dhaenens, Marc Madiot, Eddy Planckaert and Jozef Lieckens, Kelly was looking strong on yet another wet Roubaix day. But with Roubaix, you never can tell.

“In the Carrefour [de l‘Arbre] you have two or three sections and we were on the second section where you go right then you go immediately left again. I remember I was second or third behind Planckaert and the TV motorbike was in front of us. Next thing the motorbike fell in the flipping road and we crashed into the back of it. We didn’t really fall – I got my foot out but the bike was sideways. Madiot, he came through and just rode on and it was 15 or 20 seconds before we got moving again with that big gear on those cobbles. It was a nightmare. In the group was no organization, and there was a teammate of Madiot there, [Bruno] Wojtinek, and he was just following and blocking. I remember Plankaert and Lieckens were fighting and not wanting to ride because the two of them were thinking about the sprint, usual Belgian thing, them having a row.”

With everyone watching each other, Wojtinek escaped before the velodrome to get a Renault-Elf 1-2, Kelly now eyeing up the last spot on the podium. “Plankaert and Lieckens crashed on the way into the velodrome and I had to go way up the side and come back out again, so I lost 10 or 15 metres on the others but I caught up and then I got the sprint for third.”


Cold, wet and windy, the 1986 Roubaix had Kelly written all over it, especially after his wins in Milan-Sanremo and Paris-Nice. Initiating the race-winning attack, he dragged Dhaenens, Ferdi Van den Haute and Adri van der Poel with him, looking towards the latter as a potential ally.

“I felt good at the end of the Flanders and I was in the group there with Adri van der Poel, Jean-Philippe Vandenbrande and Steve Bauer. Van der Poel was saying, ‘Ah, it would be good if I could win today,’ as he had a Belgian sponsor, Kwantum. So I said ‘Shall we see at the end?’ and that was it.

“I was riding really good at the end and we got to the finish and I said to myself, ‘Yeah, I’ll show these fellas how to make a sprint.’ I put myself at the front and with 150 or 180 metres to go I started leading out the sprint, but then in the final 10 or 15 metres I could see the legs going and could see van der Poel coming and I thought ‘What do I do here? Do I close the door?’ But I knew I’d be thrown out, so yeah, van der Poel got it. Then afterwards van der Poel said, ‘We’ll see what happens in Roubaix.’”

“At the end of Roubaix I remember Van Den Haute went on the attack and it was van der Poel that opened up behind and closed it down.” Kelly launched over them to win by two or three bike lengths ahead of Dhaenens. Van der Poel sat up behind for third.

“When you are really feeling good then you are oozing confidence and you feel so comfortable riding across the cobblestones. Even if somebody attacks and they are really pushing you can follow without having to bite your tongue – that’s the great feeling. When you are feeling that way, that gets the confidence up and then you’ve won a big part of the battle.”

“But it’s only a part, there’s no guarantee. As I say, Roubaix is the greatest race to win but it’s the shittiest race to ride. Mechanical problems and crashes are always there, that’s always a concern.”

HEMMED: 1987 – 1988

After finishing second at Flanders, taking the bunch sprint after Claude Criquielion had soloed away for the win, Kelly once again set his sights on a Roubaix cobble in ’87.

After an early break got away Vanderaerden, the other main favourite, marked Kelly carefully, waiting for him to make his move and bridge across. It was not to be: Kelly fell with 25 km to go, leaving Vanderaerden to attack, catch the lead group and win the sprint.

“Yeah, first I punctured in the front on the final 150 metres of the Arenberg. I was riding it flat at the end because there’s somebody with wheels at the end and I remember the clatter was fucking terrible. So we went on and onto that section where I fell. You know, it was taken out afterwards as it was a very bad section. I remember riding but next thing I knew the handlebars broke and came off and I went into the grass between the spectators. That was when Vanderaerden rode away.”

“We had all been watching each other and it was getting to the point, you know, something was going to happen. The build to that had been coming for a number of sections and if he had seen that I had a mechanical he was going to try and do something anyway. The fall was just the opportunity he was looking for, for him to go.”

Sunshine greeted the riders for the 1988 edition, and with a record 7th Paris-Nice win under his belt, plus a fifth in Milan-Sanremo and a fourth in Flanders, Kelly was ready for victory in Roubaix. Again there was an early break – but this time Kelly had made sure he had a teammate up there.

“Yes, somebody up there for later, which was the tactic for one hundred years already. [Thomas] Wegmüller was up there, but he was such a strong rider and I remember talking to the team car to tell him to take it easy as everyone knew that if he got into a breakaway he would just drive and drive and drive. When they got to the cobbles he was the guy that was riding at the front every time so he was just eliminating them. It was quite a big breakaway, and it just slowly whittled down one by one because Wegmüller was driving it.”

“I talked to the car a few times and said, ‘For fuck’s sake, tell him not to ride as much and just wait and see what happens from behind.’ At one time the car said to me, ‘He won’t stop, he wants to ride,’ so I said [laughing] ‘Just push him off the road with the car if he doesn’t obey the orders.’ In the end there was just himself and Dirk Demol, but at the finish he got a plastic bag in his derailleur and that really messed him up for the sprint. I don’t think he would have beaten Demol anyway, Demol was always a bit better in the sprint and Wegmüller had driven it so much.”

FRUSTRATION: 1989 – 1990

1989 saw Kelly move to the PDM team. This brought his Paris-Nice winning streak to an end, as the Dutch squad’s preference was to ride Tirreno-Adriatico. His win at Liège-Bastogne-Liège made up for a frustrating start to the year.

“Before the Classics I got a stomach bug, so I was sick and I wasn’t good in the early Classics. I remember I struggled, already 60 km out I was starting to feel it.”

In 1990 a broken collarbone from a crash in the Tour of Flanders saw Kelly miss his old teammate and rival Eddy Planckaert’s win over Steve Bauer. The same injury, this time caused by a crash at that year’s Paris-Nice, meant he missed Marc Madiot’s second Roubaix victory in ’91.

“When you are lying at home injured and watching it there’s not much you can do. You might be on the turbo trainer for a couple of hours in the morning, but you still watch it. You say, you know, ‘If I was there, now’s the time to hit it’.”

THE LAST ROUNDS: 1992 – 1994

Bouncing back later in the 1991 season, Kelly won the Tour of Lombardy and took his fourth and final win in the Nissan Classic. His descent to victory in Milan-Sanremo the next season is still one of legend, and he was very much considered a contender on the Compiègne startline.

The race was won by Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, who soloed away for the first of his two victories. Kelly came in 1’22” down, within a huge group of 28 sprinting for third place behind Olaf Ludwig in second.

“Duclos was at the front and there was a big group there, totally unorganized, nobody wanted to chase of course. You’d get to the cobbled section and you’d push on but after the cobbled section nobody wanted to continue riding. I wasn’t good enough to try something, to ride away on the cobbles, you have to be really strong to do that. You do talk with some of the guys, and you say, ‘Let’s try and ride,’ and you get two or three guys and they’ll ride once or twice but then they start looking about because you have ten guys sitting on the wheel, so it all falls apart again quickly.”

’93 brought a mechanical and a DNF. “You know, it’s funny, that one, I can’t remember that one.” Kelly’s swansong was with the French Cavatana team in 1994, riding his favourite races for one final time. With three punctures before the Arenberg there was to be no fairytale ending for Kelly, who eventually retired at the second feed.

“I knew it was going to be a struggle to get through as I wasn’t really riding that well before, but when you knew it was going to be your last one you’d try and get out there and do your best. But when you start to get mechanicals, you get three punctures, then your morale gets really . . . well . . .”


There was one last question I wanted to ask. Given the random elements of Roubaix I wondered if there was any edition he felt he should have won but didn’t, a loss that still stung a little (I was thinking in particular of 1987). The answer was one not of bitterness, but of Zen.

“No. In Roubaix I don’t think you can say ‘I’m pretty sure I would have won that one.’ The Tour of Flanders, when you get so close, when you get to the final 200 metres, you say to yourself ‘Yes, I should have won that one.’ But in Roubaix, no. When Vanderaerden won, for example, if I didn’t have the mechanical problem it would have probably been different, but it still had a long way to go, probably 30 kilometres, so anything could have happened.”

Somehow, I made it back to the hotel. I headed straight for the vending machine so I could eat something, anything, and start to see straight again. While I inhaled whatever the euros could buy, Kelly came over, giggling at the state of me. “I told you, it was those last 60 km you were telling me about Sean,” I splutter. “Yes but, 60 km or not Russell, you are nothing without your food. You should have eaten more.”

This feature first appeared in Conquista 24.