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At 16 he won the national junior championship at Banbridge, County Down.
The Irish were suspended from racing for six months. They were racing again when the International Olympic Committee banned them from the Olympics for life.
Kelly confirmed his potential in autumn 1983. A leading group of 18 entered Como in the Giro di Lombardia after a battle over the Intelvi and Schignano passes. Kelly won the sprint by the narrowest margin, less than half a wheel separating the first four, against cycling greats including Francesco Moser, Adri Van Der Poel, Hennie Kuiper and world champion Greg LeMond.
Kelly dominated the following spring. He won Paris-Nice for the third successive time beating Roche as well as the Tour de France winner, Bernard Hinault who was returning after a knee injury. Kelly finished second in Milan - San Remo and the Ronde van Vlaanderen, but was unbeatable in Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The day after Paris-Roubaix, the French daily sports paper, L'Équipe, pictured Kelly cycling the cobbles with mud on his face and had the heading Insatiable Kelly! Referring to his appetite for winning that spring. He won all three stages in the Critérium International: the bunch sprint on stage 1, a solo victory in the mountain stage and beating Roche in the final time trial.
Kelly achieved 33 victories in 1984. He was becoming a contender in the grands tours, as seen by finishing fifth 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 it as the Tour was finishing on the Champs-Élysées but lost it in the bunch finish to the Belgian, Frank Hoste, who finished ahead of Kelly gaining points to take the jersey off Kelly's shoulders.
He won Paris-Nice in 1985, again beating Roche. He won the maillot vert for the third time and finished fourth in the 1985 Tour de France. Kelly won the first Nissan International Classic beating Van Der Poel. At the end of the season, he won the Giro di Lombardia.
He won Milan - San Remo in 1986 after winning Paris-Nice. He finished second in the Ronde van Vlaanderen and won Paris-Roubaix again. He finished on a podium in a grand tour for the first time when he finished third in the 1986 Vuelta a España. Kelly missed the 1986 Tour de France due to a serious crash in the last stage of Tour de Suisse. He returned to Ireland and won the Nissan Classic again. His second win in the Nissan came after a duel with Steve Bauer, who took the yellow jersey after Kelly crashed numerous times. Kelly went into the final stage three seconds behind Bauer and took the jersey when he finished third on the stage and won bonus seconds.
Kelly won Paris-Nice in 1987 on the last day after Roche, the leader, punctured. Later, leading the Vuelta a España with three days to go, he retired with an infection. His bad luck continued in the Tour de France, retiring after a crash tore ligaments in his shoulder. After the world championship, in which he finished fifth behind Roche, Kelly returned to Ireland to win the Nissan for the third consecutive time.
Kelly won his seventh Paris-Nice in spring 1988, a record. He won Gent-Wevelgem several weeks later. He returned in April to the 1988 Vuelta a España. He stayed two minutes behind the leader, Laudelino Cubino, during the first two weeks then finished fourth behind Parra and Anselmo Fuerte on stage 13 (won by Fabio Parra), cutting a minute and a half into Cubino's lead. From this stage, Fuerte had moved into second overall and later took the jersey from Cubino on the 16th stage. Kelly maintained the gap between himself and Fuerte and started the time trial on the second last day 21 seconds behind. He won and took the leader's amarillo jersey. The following day Kelly won his only grand tour, over West German Raimund Dietzen. He also won the points competition. After his Vuelta win Kelly returned to Carrick-on-Suir where a parade was held in his honour.
Kelly finished 46th in the Tour de France, just over an hour behind Pedro Delgado. He was no longer a contender for overall victory after this and said he'd never win the Tour de France. Kelly finished third behind the German, Rolf Gölz, in the Nissan Classic ; that year Kelly finished third in the sprint at the rainy world road championship of 1989 at Chambéry, France, behind Dimitri Konyshev and Greg Lemond. Lemond won his second rainbow jersey as world champion.
Kelly switched to the Dutch PDM team and stayed there three years until the end of 1991. The following year he won Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the maillot vert in the Tour de France, and the inaugural UCI Road World Cup championship. Kelly won the Tour de Suisse in 1990. In March 1991, he broke a collarbone, then pulled out of the 1991 Tour de France and then while Kelly was competing the Tour of Galicia in August, his brother Joe was killed in a race near Carrick-on-Suir. He came back to win his fourth Nissan Classic by four seconds over Sean Yates and then went to and won the classic at the end of the season, the Giro di Lombardia.
Kelly won the Giro di Lombardia for a third time in 1991 but started 1992 regarded as past his prime. He moved to Festina and prepared for Milan - San Remo. Race favourite Moreno Argentin attacked from the leading group on the final climb, the Poggio. He broke clear after several attempts and reached the top eight seconds before the rest. It seemed he was on his way to a solo victory as the peloton descended the Poggio, where Maurizio Fondriest led, marked by Argentin's team-mate Rolf Sorensen. Kelly was behind these two in third position . Kelly attacked with three kilometres of descending left. Sorensen could not hold his acceleration and Kelly got away. He caught Argentin with a kilometre to go. Both stalled, the chasers closing fast, Argentin gesturing to Kelly to take the front. Kelly stayed on Argentin's wheel. The two moved again, preparing for a sprint; Kelly launched himself and in the final 200m came past Argentin to win his final classic.
In 1992, Kelly travelled to Colombia for the Clasico RCN, where he won the second stage. His PDM team-mate, Martin Earley, pushed him into second place at the 1993 Irish road championship.
Kelly's last year as a professional was 1994, when he rode for Catavana. He returned to Carrick-on-Suir at the end of the season to ride the annual Hamper race. That 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 and Paul Kimmage were among 1,200 cyclists present. The President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, attended a civic presentation to Kelly the day before the race. Kelly won in a sprint against Roche. Kelly won this race again six years later.
While some sprinters remain sheltered in the peloton until the final few hundred metres, Kelly could instigate breaks and climb well, proving this by winning the Vuelta a España in 1988. His victories in Paris-Roubaix (1984, 1986) showed his ability in poor weather and on pavé sections, while he could stay with the climbing specialists in the mountains in the Tour de France. He was also a formidable descender, clocking a career top race speed of 124 km/h, while descending from Col de Joux Plane to Morzine on stage 19 of the Tour in 1984. He finished fourth in the Tour in 1985 and won the maillot vert in 1982, 1983, 1985, and 1989, the first to win four times, a feat he repeated in the Vuelta a España. Kelly won five stages in the Tour de France and 16 in the Vuelta a España.
Kelly is a commentator for the English-language services of Eurosport and has established and is involved in the Sean Kelly Cycling Academy in Belgium. In 2006 he launched Ireland's first professional team, the Sean Kelly Team, composed of young Irish and Belgian riders based at the Sean Kelly Cycling Academy in Merchtem, Belgium. He rides long-distance charity cycling tours with Blazing Saddles, a charity raising money for the blind and partially sighted. Such tours have included a journey across America by bike in 2000. He also participates in charity cycling endurance events in Scotland (notably with the Braveheart Cycling Fund), England, France and Ireland.
The inaugural Sean Kelly Tour of Waterford was held on 19 August 2007. Kelly was one of the 600 participants. The second was on the 24 August 2008. Kelly was one of the 2,048. The 2009 tour went ahead on the 30th August 2009. It attracted over 3,400 participants. On 29 August 2010, 3708 cyclists took part in the Tour and about 5,000 on 28 August 2011.
Asked about his first Tour, Kelly recalls his overriding emotion was fear. "It was frightening being on the start line with the big names," he says. "Nowadays riders come up through the elites and get to ride with the pros. By the time they reach the Tour they'll have raced against these guys for a number of years. Back then [when amateurs and professionals were segregated we didn't have the experience."
But when comparing life then and now, Kelly admits that the current generation has problems of its own. "I think that there is more pressure to succeed than there was in my day," he says. "It's so difficult to get into the Tour that you have to put up a performance. Managers have to be pushing for results all the time.
"It's no longer a case of taking it easy, sitting back and waiting for a couple of days and then perhaps getting away in a break a bit later on in the Tour; now it's full-on from the start.
"The Tour has grown into a worldwide event and during the three weeks teams gain a big proportion of their publicity and exposure for the year."
It's not only the Tour that has grown more intense. Because of the UCI points system the pressure is on right from the start of the season.
"The whole thing has changed," Kelly says. "Early in my career you could come to the Etoile de BessÀges at the start of the season with 500 or 600 miles in your legs. But now, with 600 miles training you wouldn't be able to follow. Maybe you'd survive the first day, but by the second or third day you'd be gone, because the average speed of the racing is so much higher.
"In my last seasons people would be turning up at the Ruta del Sol saying they'd got 6,000 miles in their legs. This is because teams and riders realise they can pick up points at a time when perhaps the big boys aren't going full-on. And their salaries depend on those points."
Sean Kelly was taking part in the first edition of the SportActive Challenge in which a well known athlete attempts to do something out of his range. So, instead of donning a cycling kit, he was being custom fitted into RAF flying gear that had to sit perfectly.
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