Seán James Kelly (born 21 May 1956) is an Irish former professional road bicycle racer. Kelly was one of the most successful road cyclists of the 1980s, and one of the finest Classics riders of all time. His victories include a Grand Tour win, nine “Monument” Classics victories and a record seven successive wins in the Paris-Nice stage race.
He has a Grand Tour victory to his credit in the 1988 Vuelta a España, and multiple wins in the Giro di Lombardia, Milan-Sanremo, Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Other victories include the Critérium International, Grand Prix des Nations and many smaller tours, including the Tour de Suisse, Vuelta al País Vasco and Volta a Catalunya.
Notably missing from his list of victories is the World Cycling Championship rainbow jersey, which he almost won in a close battle against Greg LeMond in 1989. When the FICP Road World Rankings were first introduced in March 1984, Kelly was the first rider to be ranked world No.1, a position he held for over six years, which is the competition record. Kelly was known to be one of the hard men of professional cycling, achieving 33 victories in one season (1984).
While some sprinters prefer to remain sheltered in the peloton until the final few hundred metres of a race, Kelly was capable of instigating breaks and could climb well, proving this by winning the Vuelta a España in 1988. His victories in Paris-Roubaix (1984, 1986) showed his ability to battle against poor weather and terrible road conditions, while in the Tour de France he could stay with the climbing specialists in the mountains. He finished fourth in the Tour in 1985 and won the Maillot vert (Green Jersey) in 1982, 1983, 1985, and 1989, becoming the first rider to win the Tour's points classification four times, a feat he repeated in the Vuelta a España. Kelly won 21 stages in Grand Tours, five in the Tour de France and 16 in the Vuelta a España.
In the autumn of 1983 that Kelly finally broke through with a win in one of cycling’s monuments to confirm the potential he had. After a tough battle over the Intelvi and Schignano passes, a leading group of 18 riders entered the streets of Como to battle for victory in the Giro di Lombardia. Against some of the greatest cyclists of the 1980s, including Francesco Moser, Adri Van Der Poel, Hennie Kuiper and reigning world champion Greg LeMond, Kelly won the sprint by the narrowest of margins, with less than half a wheel separating the first four.
Kelly dominated the sport the following spring earning the nickname ‘the new cannibal.’ He won Paris-Nice for the third successive time beating fellow Irishman Stephen Roche as well as the then four time Tour de France winner Frenchman Bernard Hinault who was returning to form after a knee injury. Kelly finished second in Milan-Sanremo and the Ronde van Vlaanderen, but was unbeatable in Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. On the paper following his Paris-Roubaix triumph, the French daily sports newspaper l’Equipe had a picture of Kelly cycling over the cobbles with mud on his face and the heading Insatiable Kelly! referring to his appetite for winning that spring In the Critérium International, he won all three stages: after winning the bunch sprint on stage 1, he took a solo victory in the mountain stage, and beat compatriot Stephen Roche in the final individual time trial. In total Kelly achieved 33 victories in 1984. He was becoming an emerging contender in the Grand Tours as could be seen by him finishing fifth overall in the Tour de France. This may have caused him to lose his grip on the Maillot vert in that year’s Tour. Kelly was wearing the maillot vert as the Tour was finishing on the Champs-Élysées but lost it in the final bunch finish to Belgian Frank Hoste who finished ahead of Kelly on the stage gaining valuable points to take the jersey off Kelly’s shoulders.
In 1985, he won Paris-Nice again beating Stephen Roche. In the 1985 Tour de France he won the Maillot vert for the third time and finished fourth in the General Classification. Kelly won the first edition of the Nissan International Classic tour of Ireland beating Adri Van Der Poel. At the end of the season, he won the Giro di Lombardia. In 1986 he won Milan-Sanremo after winning Paris-Nice, he finished second in the Ronde van Vlaanderen and won Paris-Roubaix again. He finished for the first time on a podium in a Grand Tour when he finished third overall in the 1986 Vuelta a España. He returned to Ireland and won the Nissan Classic again. His second win in the Nissan Classic came after a duel with Canadian Steve Bauer who took the yellow jersey after Kelly crashed numerous times. Kelly went into the final stage 3 seconds behind Bauer on the general classification and took the jersey when he finished third on the stage and won bonus seconds.
In 1987 Kelly won Paris-Nice on the very last day after Roche who was wearing the Leader’s jersey got a puncture in the finale of the stage and fell many places down the general classification. Later while leading the Vuelta a España with three days to go, he was forced to retire due to an infection. It was a bitter disappointment for him, and his bad luck continued in the Tour de France, having to retire after a crash tore ligaments in his shoulder. After the UCI Road World Championships in which in finished fifth behind Roche, Kelly returned to win his home tour, the Nissan Classic, for the third consecutive time with Roche finishing second.
In 1988 Kelly returned in the spring to win his seventh Paris-Nice (a record). Several weeks later he won Gent-Wevelgem. In April he returned to the 1988 Vuelta a España. During the first two weeks of the race, Kelly had stayed two minutes behind race leader Spaniard Laudelino Cubino but on stage 13 which was won by Colombian Fabio Parra, Kelly finished fourth on the stage behind Parra and Anselmo Fuerte. Kelly managed to cut over one minute and a half into Cubino’s lead. From this stage, Anselmo Fuerte had moved himself into second overall and later took the jersey from Cubino on the sixteenth stage. But Kelly maintained the tight gap between himself and Fuerte and started the final Individual time trial of the second last day 21 seconds behind the leaders jersey. Kelly rode himself to the stage win and closed the gap to take the leaders Amarillo jersey from Fuerte. The following day Kelly would win his only grand tour over West German Raimund Dietzen. He also won the Points competition. After his Vuelta win Kelly returned home to Carrick an Suir where there was a parade held in his honour.
In the Tour de France of that year Kelly finished in 46th position just over an hour behind Spaniard Pedro Delgado. After this Kelly was no longer a contender for the overall victory in Grand Tours and even admitted that he’d never win the Tour de France. In the Nissan Classic of that year, Kelly finished third behind German Rolf Gölz.
At the rainy world road championships of 1989 at Chambéry France, Kelly finished third in the final sprint behind Dimitri Konyshev and Greg Lemond. Lemond won his second rainbow jersey as world road race champion that day.
Kelly then switched teams to the Dutch PDM team with whom he stayed with for three years until the end of 1991. The following year he won Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Green Jersey in the Tour de France, and the inaugural UCI Road World Cup championship. In 1990 Kelly won the Tour de Suisse. In 1991, Kelly had a tough year with a broken collarbone in March, then he had to pull out of the 1991 Tour de France and then while Seán was competing the Tour of Galicia in August, his brother Joe was tragically killed in a bicycle race near Carrick-on-Suir. He came back to win his fourth Nissan Classic by only four seconds over Sean Yates and then went to and won the classic at the end of the season, the Giro di Lombardia.
On the final climb of the Milan-Sanremo, the Poggio, race favourite Moreno Argentin attacked from the leading group. After several attacks, he finally broke clear and scaled the climb, reaching the top with some eight seconds advance on the peloton. It seemed that Argentin was well on his way to a solo victory as the peloton descended the Poggio where Maurizio Fondriest led on the descent, marked by Argentin’s teammate Rolf Sorensen. Behind these two in the third position was Kelly. With around three kilometres left of descending Kelly attacked, Sorensen could not hold his acceleration and Kelly got away. Kelly descended very well and caught Argentin under the kilometre kite (one kilometre to go). With the chasing group closing fast, both riders stalled momentarily, Argentin even sat up and gestured to Kelly to take the front but Kelly stayed on Argentin’s wheel. The two moved again, preparing for a sprint; Kelly launched himself and in the final 200 metres came past Argentin to claim his final Classic victory. In 1992, Kelly traveled over to Colombia and competed in the Clasico RCN where he won the second stage. PDM teammate Martin Earley pushed Kelly into 2nd place in the 1993 Irish National Road Race Championship. Kelly’s last year as a professional was 1994 when he rode for the Catavana team. That year, he won a silver medal in the Irish National Cycling Championships behind Martin Earley. Often at the end of the racing season, Kelly would return to Carrick on Suir and would ride the annual Hamper race that used to be held. That year the Hamper race was Kelly’s last race as a professional. Eddy Merckx, Laurent Fignon, Bernard Hinault, Roger De Vlaeminck, Claude Criquielion, Stephen Roche, Martin Earley, Acacio Da Silva, Paul Kimmage and Phil Liggett were among the 1,200 cyclists who turned up for the event. The President of Ireland at the time, Mary Robinson, attended a civic presentation to Seán the day before the race. Kelly won the race in a sprint against Stephen Roche. Kelly would win this race again 6 years later.
Kelly's career is remarkable in that it spanned the eras of several cycling legends of the Tour de France. In his first year as a professional he rode against aging yet still challenging Eddy Merckx. His first Tour was also the first Tour for Bernard Hinault and the two battled in the sprint of Stage 15. Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon emerged in the early eighties and battled with Kelly in classics as well as in the Tour, and Kelly witnessed the rise of Miguel Indurain and the early career of Lance Armstrong. In addition, Kelly's career coincided with that of his fellow Irishman and occasional rival Stephen Roche as well as the many classics specialists of the eighties and early nineties which included Francesco Moser, Claude Criquielion, Moreno Argentin and Eric Vanderaerden. Evidence of Kelly's dominance can be seen from his three victories in the season-long Super Prestige Pernod International competition (the predecessor to the World Cup). Kelly also competed throughout the entire season, from the season-opener Paris-Nice in early March to season-finale Giro di Lombardia in October, starting and finishing the season by winning both of these events in 1983 and 1985.
Kelly is also the subject of several books, including his biography Kelly and A man for all seasons by David Walsh.
He participates in long-distance charity cycling tours with the "Blazing Saddles", a cycling charity dedicated to raising money for the blind and partially sighted. Such tours have included a journey across America by bike in 2001.
He also participates in charity cycling endurance events in Scotland (notably with the Braveheart Cycling Fund), England, France and his native Ireland.
The inaugural Seán Kelly Tour of Waterford was held on the 19 August 2007. Kelly was one of the 600 participants.
The 2nd Seán Kelly Tour of Waterford was held on the 24 August 2008. Kelly was one of the 2048 participants