Paris-Nice, episode 80: Sean Kelly

February 25 th 2022 - 11:48

All hail King Kelly (VI/X)

Since 1933, Paris–Nice has been the first major event of the season for the stars gunning for glory in stage races. The balance of power on the Promenade des Anglais or the Col d'Èze, depending on the season, gives us our first glimpse of where each Tour de France favourite stands. To mark the 80th edition, is looking back on how the Race to the Sun shaped the careers of ten riders who shared a special bond with the event.

In the middle years of the 1980s, Sean Kelly proved able to win the most prestigious classics on the calendar and the Vuelta, but in no other race was his dominance as visible as in Paris–Nice, which he won a record seven times in a row between 1982 and 1988.

A classics specialist and an all-rounder

Jean de Gribaldy always had an eye for talent, but when he headed out to Ireland in 1976 to meet a young Sean Kelly, who was working on his family farm, and get him to sign for Flandria, he could have been forgiven for not suspecting that the man standing before him would go on to assemble one of the most impressive collections of trophies in the history of cycling. A few weeks later, the Irishman was learning the ropes in Paris–Nice as a domestique for Freddy Maertens. The Belgian leader won the race while sharing valuable nuggets of wisdom such as how to prevail in the fight for bonus seconds and how to control the race until the finish in the heart of the Baie des Anges. The learner continued to make progress in the following season, when he came in second in Saint-Étienne and Draguignan, but it was only after a three-year hiatus that he became the master.

In 1982, he shone like the Emerald Isle and seized the leader's jersey in Saint-Étienne, whose top-flight football team is nicknamed "the Greens". A few days later, he capped an astounding weekend in Nice with a triumph in the Col d'Èze time trial. It was the first of many victories. As soon as the next year, he gave the lie to those who had pigeonholed him as a classics specialist and nothing else. He laid the foundation for his second success with an explosive move on the beautiful climb preceding the finish in Tournon, claimed a second win in the stage to Miramas —featuring the Mont Ventoux—, made it three in Mandelieu after attacking on the descent from the Tanneron, and delivered the finishing blow in his duel with Zoetemelk by taking the final time trial on the Col d'Èze.

  Seeing Kelly or Roche win makes the Irish grin!

Kelly had no intention of loosening his iron grip on Paris–Nice. Riding first for Skil and later for Kas, he got the Race to the Sun down to a science. If the two men ever struck an alliance, no-one found out, but the event turned into an Irish festival. Stephen Roche, the winner of the 1981 edition, was one of Kelly's most dogged rivals from 1984 to 1988, twice coming within seconds of dislodging his countryman from the throne.

In the same period, the organisers went as far as to make the race harder through the addition of finishes on climbs such as the Chalet-Reynard and the Mont Faron, but Sean Kelly made short work of climbers such as Laurent Fignon, Jean-François Bernard, Ronan Pensec and Robert Millar. In 1986, he even led the race from A to Z. He earned the nickname "Monsieur Paris–Nice" and blazed a new trail for those who see themselves as all-rounders. No-one has since matched his exploit.

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