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Sean Kelly and the Meaning of the Tour

by Owen Mulholland

Sean Kelly in the 1982 Tour de France

Sean Kelly time trialing in the 1982 Tour de France

The Tour is a world apart where much of our common sense has no place. Take "pain", for example. Normally we try to avoid things painful. Yet Tour riders talk about pain all the time, often in an almost reverential manner. After a while it becomes obvious that the Tour is special because it is so much more difficult, so much more painful than any other cycling event.

Sean Kelly has been a Tour regular since 1977. He is a man of few words. Sean is even said to have nodded in response to a radio interview! Kelly is most comfortable letting his legs do the talking and his Tour record shows it: eight participations, five stage wins, twenty-two second places, three green jerseys for the most consistently placed rider, three finishes in the top ten and a yellow jersey in 1983.

Until 1987 he'd never quit the Tour. Certainly he never expected to on the flat twelfth stage to Bordeaux. For once the pace was slow, and suddenly too slow. Bunched riders screeched to a stop at a narrow section of the road. Sean was on the bottom of the pileup. Instinctively, he hopped back on his bike, but it was soon obvious he was in trouble. The pain in his shoulder was excruciating. For fifteen kilometers he rode along one-handed.

Word got around the peloton and one by one the big names came back for a chat. No one dreamed of attacking at this time. Kelly tried to joke about his difficulties. He talked about what a great vacation the Tour is, a complete tour of France and free room and board too.

His bravery was respected, but no one was fooled. At last, when he couldn't crawl over a little hill without a push from his teammates, he climbed off. His director sportif hugged him and Sean burst into tears—heaving uncontrollable sobs that probably shocked him as much as the TV viewers. So much for the man with the soul of ice. Sean Kelly was revealed as never before, and we are all the richer for it. The Tour de France is one form of man's ultimate measures. For Sean Kelly, it was more painful to be without the pain.

Kelly retired in 1994 having won, among many other races, nine major classics, the 1988 Vuelta a España, Paris–Nice seven years running and four green Tour de France jerseys.