Sean Kelly: A Chapter from Greg LeMond: Yellow Jersey Racer

Greg LeMond: Yellow Jersey Racer by Guy Andrews GLM 400x495 pxA new book Greg LeMond: Yellow Jersey Racer celebrates LeMond’s entire legendary career through huge photographs and revealing interviews with LeMond, his teammates, and his rivals.

Please enjoy this sample chapter from the new book, available from and in your local bookstore or bike shop.

New Kids on the Block, 1983

When Sean Kelly turned professional in 1977, cycling was a very different sport from the one we know today. With its impenetrable language and customs, it required an apprenticeship that, even for a French national, was tough. Such talented “foreigners” as Kelly had to be that much better and that much more motivated than their French counterparts even to make it onto a professional team. Kelly wasn’t the first Irishman—or the first English-speaker, for that matter—to ride as a continental pro, but he was certainly one of the first to do rather well at it.

In the 1980s, with victories in nine Monument classics and countless stages and jerseys to his name, Kelly was often ranked as the world’s number one road racer. When it came to one-day races, very few riders have been as good as Kelly. He owed his success not only to his ability, which was undoubted, but also to his phlegmatic, no-nonsense approach to bike racing, which won him many friends in the peloton. He wasn’t the bossy, aggressive, patron-like figure played by Bernard Hinault, but neither was he the charismatic and likable joker, a role taken by Greg. Rather, Kelly was a much more elusive and laid-back character, seemingly unruffled by anything. Indeed, he was so nonchalant during press conferences and interviews that it was often nigh-on impossible to get him to say anything quote-worthy at all. But his rivals, adversaries, and peers respected him all the more for it.

As a rider, Kelly was far more than just a talented sprinter. He also had a knack for knowing exactly when a race was about to fragment, or exactly when to bridge across to a dangerous breakaway before the finale. What’s more, he always made it look effortless. Robert Millar said of Kelly that, “Sure, there were riders who were as hard as he was, there were riders as fast as he was, and there were riders as talented as he was, but for me there was no one who had all those characteristics and did the job of a professional bike rider so well. Start of season to end of season, barely a dip in form and never a decline in how tough he was.” In the peloton, the riders called him “King Kelly,” perhaps rightly so.

Whenever Kelly and Greg went head to head, they’d invariably end up on the podium, or thereabouts. Throughout the 1980s, the two men dominated the racing, especially when the going was hard, long, and hilly, in which case you could always expect to see them in the finale. In fact, there were very few pure road racers as good or as well matched. In the 1983 Tour of Lombardy, for example, Kelly came in first with Greg in second place; in the Liège-Bastogne- Liège of 1984, Kelly was first again with Greg third; and in the 1985 Paris–Roubaix, a long, hard, and brutally tough race, Kelly finished third and Greg fourth. Longer stage races were out of Kelly’s reach, so he chased other objectives, winning the green jersey (points classification) at the Tour de France four times, in 1982, 1983, 1985, and 1989; he also won the intermediate sprints classification three times, as well as five individual stages. Despite not being regarded as a Grand Tour contender, Kelly still managed to win the Vuelta a España in 1988, the points classification four times, and sixteen individual stages—proof, if any was needed, that he wasn’t “just” a sprinter.

At the shorter stage races, Kelly was unstoppable, winning the Tour of Switzerland and the Volta a Catalunya twice, the Tour of the Basque Country and the Critérium International three times, and his home-country tour, the Nissan Classic (also known as the Tour of Ireland), four times. Kelly’s record of seven wins at the first big stage race of the season, Paris–Nice, ran consecutively, from 1982 to 1988. These tough season-openers cemented his early season form, setting him up for the spring classics. It was at the one-day Monuments, however, that Kelly truly shined. His palmares for these races speak for themselves: winner of the Tour of Lombardy three times; Milan–San Remo, Paris–Roubaix and Liège–Bastogne–Liège twice; and Gent–Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders once.

In 1983, Kelly was the odds-on favorite to win the World Championships in Altenrhein, Switzerland. Earlier that summer, while Greg sat it out, Kelly had a great Tour de France, winning the green jersey in Paris and coming into the form of his life. So, when they met at Altenrhein, perhaps he underestimated Greg’s talent as a rider, or maybe he thought he’d tire and relent. Whatever his reasons for losing to Greg that year, Kelly (who finished eighth) rarely let the American out of his sight in the single-day races that followed. After Greg’s victory, they would clash time and time again for the next decade.

The competitiveness between the two riders was matched by a mutual respect, especially after the 1989 World Championships, when Greg was credited with saying, “I felt bad for Sean. I mean, it was like, ‘Oh man! If I can’t win I want Kelly to win.’ But it was also very satisfying to actually have beaten him. In 1983, I was so close to getting him at Lombardy. And then in 1986 at Milan–San Remo and Paris–Roubaix, I was with him, but I was no contest for him in the sprint. I just didn’t have anything in my legs. He just blew by me.” Kelly came so close to victory at the World Championships on so many occasions—as Greg always came close to winning at the Monuments—that the American famously once said to the Irishman, “I’ll trade you a Worlds title for a Paris–Roubaix.”

Greg LeMond Yellow Jersey Racer Sean Kelly 1983 GLM

In the words of Sean Kelly:

“We’d already heard a lot about Greg after he’d won the Tour de l’Avenir—word had gotten back to us in the peloton that Cyrille Guimard had found this amazing young American rider and signed him for Renault. I liked Greg a lot, despite the fact that we were always opponents in races and always billed as big rivals by the press. We’d always been good friends.

“In the races, especially when the chips were down, it was always very aggressive between us, but after the race I got on very well with Greg. We never had any big fights either during or outside the race. And I suppose the English-speaking [factor] was a big part of that. When I joined Flandria-Velda, the manager, Jean de Gribaldy, couldn’t speak a word of English, and the personnel in the team spoke no English either. There were a few riders like Marcel Tinazzi who spoke pretty good English . . . Those guys would help out when I was in trouble, when we were talking about the race, which, to be fair, wasn’t a lot in those days. We didn’t have these big team briefings where the DS [directeur sportif] would be looking through the route manual and going through every kilometer—that wasn’t the case back then. You would only talk about the race a little bit. I was there with my mouth open at times; they would make a comment in English to make me aware of what they were talking about.

“In my situation—and it happened so many times—the guys don’t want to ride with you, especially if you are good in the sprint. With Greg, it was the same situation.”

“Although, when you’re in a race situation in a move with five people [such as a small breakaway], there isn’t a huge amount of conversation between the riders, except if you have two riders from the same team or country. But in general, you wouldn’t have a lot of discussion or conversation with your fellow breakaway riders. The tactics in bike racing are pretty straightforward in the end, especially in the sprint. The biggest problem would be if you’re in the final in a big peloton, getting ready for the sprint. The language barrier there can be a bit of a problem, because when they shout something to you, it’s more difficult [to understand them].

“At Milan–San Remo in 1986, I realized the danger when Greg attacked late on. The Italian Mario Beccia had attacked, and Greg went with him, or went after him, and then I was in a group with a lot of the other favorites, such as [Eric] Vanderaerden, who had been following me throughout the day before we got to the Poggio [Vanderaerden was one of Kelly’s career-long nemeses]. Just before the top, I started messing about and pretending that my gears were slipping, so Vanderaerden and the rest of the group came past me. Then I went on the attack, from behind them, in the last 700 or 800 meters . . . I got across to Greg and made the descent with Beccia. Beccia was the one who started riding a bit at the bottom of the Poggio descent, because he realized it was the chance of a lifetime for him to get a result, to get on the podium at a Milan–San Remo. I was always hesitant about riding, because Greg can be very strong in the sprint. The three of us made it to the finish and, in the end, I just had a bit more than Greg left in the tank.

“Of course, whenever I was with Greg in the final [the last few hundred meters before the finishing line], it was always at the end of a difficult race. In Milan–San Remo, you had the Cipressa and Poggio climbs at the end, after almost 300 kilometers. The World Championships would also be on a very difficult circuit, and always over 250 kilometers and around seven hours, so when you get into the final with a small number of riders, the race always keeps going full gas.

“It’s a different situation if you get into a final with a group of ten or fifteen riders. Take a stage in the Tour de France, for example: it would always be a difficult final as a lot of guys are not going to ride. In my situation—and it happened so many times—the guys don’t want to ride with you, especially if you are good in the sprint. With Greg, it was the same situation: in a small group, he was really good in the sprint—even in the bunch sprints he was really good—but he never really tried his best in the big sprints. He knew he wasn’t going to win, but he would have been capable of being in the top five. He probably realized that to win the bunch sprints, on the flat with the big sprinters there . . . he probably realized that he was just a little bit off that pace to win. He would say, what’s the point of getting into all that risk just to finish second, or third, or fifth? He had other fish to fry. In a stage race, he was always capable of winning. And certainly, in the Tour de France or the bigger races, he had much more important things [to do] than get into that mix-up of danger for little gain.

“Back then, [the Tour] was probably a bit easier than it is now, because today the race is much more competitive in the different disciplines. In the sprint, you have these big lead-out trains, and that’s something that has been going on for a long time. The sprints have become more specialized. In the mountains and the time trials, it’s probably just that bit faster overall. So it’s difficult for guys to do everything and as well. But they don’t have to do it all: are you concentrating on sprints? Or are you concentrating on stage victories?

“I probably didn’t say it [at the time], but I had a bit of doubt that I could make the podium or win the Tour de France outright. It was always going to be difficult for me.”

“In Greg’s case, he was a big favorite, so when he got to that level to win the Tour de France, he’d always be marked. Whereas for me, I was one of the favorites too but would have been a second-tier favorite to win the race. I was winning the Tour of Switzerland and Paris–Nice and a lot of other stage races, and I proved I could do well on the Tour de France, coming fourth [in 1985], but my objectives would have been different from Greg’s: I was going for stages and sprinting in the stages. The green jersey was certainly my biggest target, and in the general classification I was up there as well. And I probably didn’t say it [at the time], but I had a bit of doubt that I could make the podium or win the Tour de France outright. It was always going to be difficult for me.

“Greg and I were always competitors. Later, when I moved to PDM and Greg was challenging to win the Tour, we had guys like [Steven] Rooks and [Gert-Jan] Theunisse and other guys who were challenging. I remember there was an occasion on that Tour when he won with team Z [in 1990]—he had a problem on one of the stages. There was a mountain not so far from the finish, maybe thirty or forty kilometers, and he had a flat on the descent. And I remember he was a little bit behind because it was very, very fast racing, I found myself in a group with Greg, but he was chasing, and out front there was [Claudio] Chiappucci and Theunisse and a lot of the other favorites. Greg said to me, he asked me could I ride with him? But I had Theunisse, my teammate, out in front, so it wasn’t possible at all.

“[Hinault] really did push Greg in the Tour; he didn’t make it easy for him. I think that Greg was expecting, as promised, that he would have to work for it, and then it would be his turn. But it didn’t turn out to be as easy for him. In the peloton at the time, we had no idea what was actually happening . . . I don’t think Greg realized it was happening until it happened out there on the road. And that was the same for all of us, because the spat [within the La Vie Claire team] went on behind the scenes. We learned about it a long time later.

“That’s bike racing: you wouldn’t expect a team leader at the Tour de France to just roll over for you. Not when they’re a Frenchman at the Tour de France—not even if they’re not a Frenchman. But you understand that in the professional circuit, when you’re in teams . . . I remember in some of the classics, like the Ardennes classics, there were rivals who were all hoping to do well, and then sometimes your teammates can become your biggest rivals. I didn’t have to wait until out on the road and physically see it; I knew in the early part of the season [it was happening]. You don’t expect that in the early part of a season, but things unfold . . . your tactics might have to change. In a Tour, however, it gets more complicated: the pressures work on you over the three weeks, maybe not in the early days but certainly in the final week or ten days of racing. You know that, if there’s an opportunity, he will push you and test you, and that’s what Greg had to go through with Hinault.

“It was just a situation where Greg was in a French team with French management: all of that was going to work against him. In those days, it was more difficult being a foreigner in a foreign team because you were always looked at as the foreigner. And I think they were definitely going to work against you if the situation suited and benefited the team . . . That was the scenario Greg was in. But that’s changed: nationalities are put to one side nowadays. If you’re capable of performing well, teams are behind you 100 percent.

“Back then, the problem was my program of races. In terms of the Tour de France, I probably raced too many other races before the Tour; if I’d been in another team, then it would have changed. First of all, though, it comes down to constitution—the way you are. Other riders would not have been able to support the amount of racing I was doing; my program was totally crazy. Compared to now, we were doing a huge number of races. Also, the DS was always telling me, ‘You can’t be tired from too much racing. Don’t listen to the journalists as they will make you tired mentally. But physically, you can’t get tired.’

“And you had to enjoy the racing. Maybe you didn’t show that for the main part, but you had to be enjoying it. I don’t think anything would keep you in there if you weren’t enjoying it. There were a lot of times when you were tested, because it’s such a bloody hard sport. Even more so back in our day, as you weren’t looked after as well. Whereas now, the athletes are treated much better. From my point of view, some parts—the training, the horrible weather— there were times when you went through difficult patches, but I enjoyed quite a lot of it.

“You had to enjoy the racing. Maybe you didn’t show that for the main part, but you had to be enjoying it. I don’t think anything would keep you in there if you weren’t enjoying it.”

“The 1989 World Championships [in which Kelly finished third]—it all came down to the final two laps on that circuit in Chambèry. It was a difficult climb, and some were just about surviving, whereas others wanted to go on the attack. Rooks was already out in front with a few others when Laurent Fignon went on the attack; he went first and Greg followed. Then there was a lot of changing—guys going forward and coming back. From my point of view, I knew on the second-to-last time on the climb that I was in a bit of difficulty, so the plan was to just get over the climb as best I could, especially on the last lap. I remember when Fignon attacked and Greg went after him, I wasn’t able to follow them; I couldn’t react. Then I got to the top of the climb and [sighs] I made the descent and got back with just a kilometer to go . . .

“People always ask me, would I swap a World Championships for a Monument, and I recall a conversation I had with Greg about it . . . And joking aside, without doubt, we’d both swap! The World Championships was the sort of race I was always very powerful and strong in, but I never managed to pull off a win. I’ve no resentment towards Greg, though; he always rode a very good race. He never had a team around him like the big cycling nations.

“Greg never got an easy World Championships.”

Greg LeMond Yellow Jersey Racer 1983 Results GLM

LeMond’s 1983 Results

Team: Renault-Elf-Gitane

1st: As à Genève (post-World Championships)

1st: Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré
1st: stages 1, 5 and 7b
4th: stage 6
5th: prologue and stage 4

1st: Super Prestige Pernod (season-long points-based award)

1st: UCI Road World Championships (Altenrhein, Switzerland)

2nd: Cluses (post-Tour criterium, France)

2nd: Grand Prix des Nations

2nd: Hoevelaken (post-Tour criterium, Netherlands)

2nd: Tour of Lombardy

3rd: Eindhoven (post-Tour criterium, Netherlands)

3rd: Schijndel (post-Tour criterium, Netherlands)

3rd: Valkenburg (post-Tour criterium, Netherlands)

4th: Blois-Chaville

4th: Tour of Switzerland
2nd: stages 1 and 3
3rd: stages 4 and 7
5th: prologue and stage 2

8th: Baracchi Trophy (team time trial with Pascal Poisson)

10th: La Flèche Wallonne

10th: Tirreno–Adriatico

12th Gent–Wevelgem

12th: Paris–Brussels

30th: Milan–San Remo

31st: Tour of Holland
3rd: stage 1a
5th: stage 2

78th: Liège–Bastogne–Liège

Grand Prix Eddy Merckx
6th: derny-paced race

Tour Méditerranéen
1st: stage 1

Tour of Sardinia
5th: stage 4

Vuelta a España
2nd: stage 15
4th: stage 12
Abandoned stage 17

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A new book, Greg LeMond: Yellow Jersey Racer, celebrates LeMond’s entire legendary career through huge photographs and revealing interviews with LeMond, his teammates, and his rivals. LeMond’s early promise as a young rider of limitless talent, his raw battle to take victory in the 1986 Tour, his unbelievable comeback from near death, the resurgence of his career as he faced a new generation of supercharged EPO athletes—this celebration of LeMond covers it all with incisive writing, intimate interviews with teammates and rivals, and illuminating photographs. Key moments in LeMond’s career are documented with spectacular photography including the iconic pictures you remember and new images not seen outside LeMond’s personal circles.

Includes extensive contributions from LeMond and interviews with Jeff Bradley, Kent Gordis, Phil Anderson, Sean Kelly, Ron Kiefel, Stephen Roche, Robert Millar, Shelley Verses, Andy Hampsten, Johan Lammerts, Ronan Pensec, Otto Jacome, and Chris Boardman.

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