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Kelly, Roche and the 1985 Tour de France: If this Dublin guy can do it, then so can I

(Image credit: Gill Books)

Two Irish riders stood on the podium of the Tour de France at Mont Aigoual on Thursday, as Sam Bennett held the green jersey of points leader and Nicolas Roche was feted as the day’s most combative rider, and the moment bore echoes of the country’s golden age at La Grande Boucle in the 1980s. Bennett is the first Irishman to wear a leader’s jersey at the Tour since his fellow Carrick-on-Suir man Sean Kelly won the points classification for the fourth time in 1989, while Stephen Roche – father of Nicolas – won the race in 1987.

Two years before that highwater mark, Kelly and Roche vied with one another for the third step of the podium on the 1985 Tour. After placing fifth a year previously, Kelly had begun the Tour with vague general classification ambitions, but his focus was jolted towards the green jersey after a series of running battles with his fierce rival Eric Vanderaerden in the opening week. When Roche began to rise up the overall rankings in the second week, however, Kelly was encouraged to explore his own limits in the high mountains.

In this extract from The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling's Golden Generation, Kelly and Roche recall the 1985 Tour, which also saw the debut of neo-professional Martin Earley and served to publicise the inaugural edition of the Pat McQuaid-organised Nissan Classic later that year.

Sean Kelly was ever more firmly enshrined as world number one come the Grand Départ of the 1985 Tour de France in Plumelec, but his season to that point had been a frustrating one. Although he had taken the by now obligatory Paris-Nice victory and a second Tour of the Basque Country, and marked his return to the Vuelta by winning three stages, the spring classics campaign had been wholly exasperating. A 3rd-place finish at Paris-Roubaix and 4th at Liège-Bastogne-Liège indicated that Kelly’s form was not far off that of 1984, but some of his tactical decisions went awry, most notably at Milan-San Remo, where he and Eric Vanderaerden effectively marked one another out of contention.

To Kelly’s annoyance, Vanderaerden then went on to solo to a stirring victory at a rain-soaked Tour of Flanders and added Gent-Wevelgem three days later, prompting observers, at least in Belgium, to wonder whether the mantle of king of the classics had already passed to the man-child from Limburg with the frizzy blonde perm poking out from beneath his leather helmet. Unusually for a rider who won so often, Kelly ruffled few feathers and made precious few enemies over the course of his career, but Vanderaerden was a notable exception. Officially, their mutual antipathy had its genesis in a clash during a sprint at Paris-Nice during Vanderaerden’s first professional season in 1983, but in truth, Kelly and an elite cadre of Belgian riders had viewed the youngster with patrician disdain before he ever entered the professional peloton.

‘The root was of it was that Vanderaerden was untouchable as a junior and as an amateur in Belgium. He was the best thing since sliced pan coming out of Belgium. When he was coming to the professionals, I remember some of the older guys said to me, “We can’t leave him win all the races. We’re going to make it difficult for him,”’ Kelly says.

‘When I was coming up, there was De Vlaeminck, Moser, Jan Raas and a few more guys, and it was hard to break into that group. It’s an elite club and when you’re there on that doorstep, they don’t make it easy for you. So now we weren’t going to make it easy for Vanderaerden. I remember his first races in the south of France, they were trying to make it difficult for him on all the climbs because they knew he wasn’t so good there. From the start, I think I had all that in my head from the older Belgian guys, and then it continued because he was a good sprinter. He got established quite quickly in the sprints. The fighting started there and then it spread over into the classics.’

In Vanderaerden’s early days, Kelly used to deploy Jock Boyer as a sweeper to prevent the Belgian from latching onto his rear wheel in sprints. The Hiberno-Belgian blood feud reached its nadir in the bunch sprint on stage 6 of the 1985 Tour in Rheims. Kelly was glued to Vanderaerden’s rear wheel as the peloton trundled towards the finish, but when he tried to come past, his rival veered to block his path. Kelly’s response was to raise an arm to push Vanderaerden, and the Belgian responded by grabbing at his jersey. Somehow, both men stayed upright, and Vanderaerden even won the stage, while Kelly crossed the line in 4th, his hand waving in protest. Cycling’s governance may have been lax in other areas in the 1980s, but then as now, the race jury took a dim view of bike-borne mixed martial arts. Vanderaerden and Kelly were swiftly relegated to the last places on the stage and the win was awarded to Frenchman Francis Castaing.

Within 24 hours, Kelly’s initial anger dissipated into a typically pragmatic view. ‘Our contracts are based on the publicity we get,’ he said. ‘A finish like that and a disqualification generate more publicity than winning a race.’

Vanderaerden had spent a chunk of the opening week in the green jersey and, perhaps unsurprisingly, that seemed to coincide with Kelly’s renewed interest in the competition. By the time the race reached the mountains, he had wrested the garment from Vanderaerden’s back, but chasing points on a daily basis was hardly conducive to mounting a concerted overall challenge, and he proceeded to cough up more than three minutes on the road to Avoriaz, losing all hopes of Tour victory. Under normal circumstances, that might have precipitated a steady drop down the rankings, but when Kelly looked at the results sheet over dinner that evening, he was still 4th overall, and though he was now six minutes off Hinault’s yellow jersey, he was only nine seconds off a podium place.

Although the rider in 3rd place was one S. Roche (Irl), Kelly dismisses the idea that his fine showing in the mountains that followed during that 1985 Tour owed anything at all to an internecine rivalry with his fellow countryman. ‘I don’t think it really pushed us that we were two Irish guys. It was that we were in that category where we would be finishing 3rd or 4th,’ Kelly says. ‘We were at that level.’

Kelly won the sprint for 3rd behind Colombian duo Fabio Parra and Luis Herrera on the following day’s mountainous leg to Lans-en-Vercors, and then produced one of the best climbing displays of his career on the demanding stage to Luz-Ardiden in the Pyrenees. In the  intervening period, Roche gained time on the rugged stage to Saint-Étienne, and although the race for final overall victory remained resolutely an internal squabble between Hinault and his La Vie Claire teammate LeMond, the increasing likelihood of an Irishman standing on the third step of the podium in Paris saw Tour coverage gradually expand across all of Ireland’s main newspapers as the race entered the third week.

‘I think there was maybe a bit of undiscussed competition there. Not on my behalf because I was in front anyway, but I think it did spur Sean on. I think I can say that,’ Roche says. ‘It was like, “If this Dublin guy can do it, then so can I.” And it spurred me on as well, he wasn’t the only one benefiting. It helped both of us.’

'I couldn't be seen on the start line in this sort of one-piece skinsuit'

The high point came on the final day in the Pyrenees, which saw the peloton tackle a split stage, with a short 52-kilometre leg to the top of the Col d’Aubisque in the morning. Since the unveiling of the Tour route the previous winter, La Redoute manager Raphael Géminiani had repeatedly told Roche that he was going to win this novel stage, and, as the Dubliner had discovered in the lounge of Cannes’ least glamorous nightspot after the Critérium International, Le Grand Fusil was not for turning. He had commissioned a special one-piece skinsuit to be made for Roche just for this the stage, as if to emphasise that this was not so much a mountain stage as a time trial.

‘It was something he got made up himself, with a silk top and lycra bottoms. I didn’t even want to go to the start with it on, so I put a jersey over it,’ says Roche, for once eager to keep a low profile. ‘I threw the jersey off near the bottom of the climb, but I couldn’t be seen on the start line in this sort of one-piece skinsuit.’

Roche tracked Herrera’s move on the initial ramps of the Col du Soulor and then pressed on alone before the short drop onto the Aubisque itself. The previous day, Roche had showcased his form by attacking on the Col du Tourmalet with LeMond, but the move lost momentum when the American was ordered to relent rather than put Hinault’s yellow jersey in jeopardy.

Now, unencumbered by company or the intramural strife of other teams, Roche had the freedom of the mountainside as he tapped out his own, metronomic rhythm. He was helped, too, by the politics of the group behind. Hinault, stricken by bronchitis, was struggling to hold the wheels and LeMond, now consigned to the role of dutiful teammate, tempered his pace accordingly and Roche’s advantage stretched out beyond 50 seconds. Stage victory was guaranteed.

All the while, Kelly maintained a watching brief in the groupe maillot jaune, and, like Roche, he was enjoying one of his best days in the high mountains and white heat of July. When the chasers splintered in the final two kilometres and Hinault was dislodged, Kelly felt sufficiently emboldened as to make a rare mountaintop acceleration of his own.

Barely a minute after Roche had rolled across the line with his arms aloft, Kelly lifted himself from the saddle to sprint home and complete an Irish one-two. ‘If I hadn’t gone away on the Aubisque, I don’t think Sean would have taken off behind me and left Hinault behind,’ Roche says. ‘If I hadn’t gone when I did, Sean would have waited for the sprint. Sean was gaining time here and there, and he wasn’t chasing me, but I do think it spurred him on and motivated him a bit.’

Four days later, Roche and Kelly rolled onto the Champs- Élysées in 3rd and 4th overall, respectively, while Martin Earley survived his maiden Tour, relieved simply to reach Paris alongside them. ‘The Tour was a big jump, and at the end of the it, you’re just dead,’ he says.

Kelly endured the frustration of another 2nd-place finish beneath the Arc de Triomphe – his fifth of the race – but such consistency saw him capture a record-equalling third green jersey. More important, he had also finished the Tour little more than six minutes off yellow, by some distance his most competitive outing.

At 29 years of age, Kelly still had margin for improvement, and there were other encouraging signs. Over at La Vie Claire, a clearly diminished Hinault was beginning to slouch towards retirement, while LeMond’s failure to impose himself within his own team hardly suggested that the American, for all his gifts, was an unbeatable foe. Roche, four years Kelly’s junior and buoyed by his first clear run at the Tour, reached Paris with a similarly buoyant outlook. ‘I never thought of winning that Tour, really. ‘The podium was the aim,’ Roche says. ‘But it helped seal my ambition that I could win it later.’