Having made the calculation, it’s a run unlikely to ever be repeated. Sean Kelly, the Irish ‘King of the Classics’, reigned supreme on the French Riviera between 1982 and 1988, sweeping aside Jacques Anquetil's old record of five Paris-Nice wins en route to adding two more, all while denying the big-hitters at Renault, Peugeot and La Vie Claire.
"After I won the first one, I never thought the streak would go on for another six years," Kelly says. “At the time, I don't think anyone would have thought it possible to win seven in a row.”
Arguably a far bigger deal in the 1980s than it is today, Paris-Nice was the first important stage race of the season – and a key rendez-vous in the cycling calendar.
Paris - Nice
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"Nowadays there are lots of early season stage races like the Tour Down Under, but that wasn't the case back then," says Kelly. "It's still important, but back then it was more so than it is today."
Before Kelly was able to make his mark in Nice, however, the rider fast emerging as one of the best all-round talents in the peloton was trumped by countryman Stephen Roche. A relative unknown quantity, Roche burst onto the pro scene with a bang in 1981 a year after winning the Paris-Roubaix Espoirs.
Setting the scene: Roche lights the way for Ireland
Kelly had made his Paris-Nice debut in 1977 as a fresh-faced, water-carrying domestique for Belgium's Freddy Maertens in the Flandria Velda team run by his mentor Jean de Gribaldy. Coming 40th overall, more than half an hour down on his teammate, had been a baptism of fire for the rider from Carrick-on-Suir. From Nice, it seemed a long way to Tipperary.
Speaking to his biographer David Walsh, Kelly recalls: "Paris-Nice had been a race I wanted to ride, but my outlook changed pretty quickly. It was so bloody hard. For three-quarters of the stage you worked for Maertens, then you got dropped and ended up finishing five or six minutes down.
“By the time you finished, Maertens had already received his bouquet of flowers for winning. Paris-Nice opened my eyes. I didn't want to ride too often for Freddy."
He wouldn’t have to. Maertens opted for Tirreno-Adriatico the next year, paving the way for Kelly to ride to 12th place in Paris-Nice, just over three minutes behind the Dutch winner Gerrie Knetemann. De Gribaldy had seen enough to be convinced that he had a rider who could, one day, win the one-week stage race.
Things were put on hold, however, with Kelly moving to the Belgian Splendor team for three years, where he rode the ‘Race of the Two Seas’ across the Italian border, rather than the ‘Race to the Sun’. By the time he reunited with De Gri – or ‘Le Vicomte’, as De Gribaldy was known – at the Sem-France team, Kelly's status as the biggest talent from Ireland had been eclipsed by the sudden rise of Roche.
Three years younger than Kelly, the cherubic Roche had rocked up at Paris-Nice as a supposed makeweight in the Peugeot team in 1981, only to take a surprise overall victory – bettering Dutchman Adri van der Poel by more than a minute. By now, Kelly had more than 20 pro wins to his name – including stages in both the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana. But did seeing his compatriot win Paris-Nice give him the extra motivation he needed to step up and start fulfilling his potential as a stage racer?
"I think it would have, because I had been on the professional circuit for much longer than him," Kelly says. "Roche only appeared in 1981, and of course he won Paris-Nice. That probably gave me more motivation, gave me a kick, and I had to push myself a little bit more."
De Gribaldy was convinced that Kelly had what it took, and the pair worked hard during the winter and in pre-season training ahead of the 1982 edition to make sure Ireland had another winner on the Côte d'Azur.
1982: Kelly’s maiden win
Speaking almost 40 years on, the victories now often merge into one another for Kelly. But his first Paris-Nice crown – over Frenchman Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle – is one that he can still remember quite clearly. Victory on Stage 3 had put Kelly in the leader's White Jersey before he strengthened his grip with a second win on Stage 5. Then came Stage 6, where the wheels came off the Irishman’s wagon after he crashed on the descent into Mandelieu.
Duclos-Lassalle, given the leadership of the Peugeot team ahead of the defending champion Roche, took a four-second lead over the battling Kelly ahead of the final day's split stage. Kelly won the sprint in Nice on Sunday morning, but still trailed his rival going into the decisive 11km time trial, which finished on the Col d'Èze.
"I wasn't sure I could beat Duclos-Lassalle in a time trial because I hadn't been in a similar position in a week-long race," Kelly says with trademark modesty. “It was all new to me and Duclos-Lassalle was probably a better all-round rider than I was, certainly a better time triallist. But it all worked out well on the final stage on the Col d'Èze, where I beat him and won the overall."
What really happened wasn't quite as prosaic. Duclos-Lassalle had boasted about his impending victory ahead of the time trial – and looked to be as good as his word as he came onto the climb with a one-second lead over his rival.
Kelly was not a climber by trade – as exemplified by his third sprint win that very morning – but it was with misplaced optimism that Duclos-Lassalle, the 1980 Paris-Nice winner, entered the final race of truth. On the tough 8km climb overlooking the glistening Mediterranean Sea, the so-called Irish ‘sprinter’ not only took 44 seconds out of the man in white, and 1'22" from his compatriot Roche, he also did enough to win the time trial itself. It would be the first of many victories on that particular climb.
De Gri's faith had been rewarded, and Kelly had opened up his Paris-Nice account in style.
1983: Sem-France 1-2-3
Kelly came back a year later to lead a clean sweep on the podium for his Sem-France team, winning his second Paris-Nice crown ahead of Switzerland's Jean-Marie Grezet and Dutchman Steven Rooks. But were there ever any concerns about too many cooks in De Gri's kitchen?
"There were definitely no divisions in the team," Kelly says. "With Jean de Gribaldi, one of our first objectives of the year was to go back and win Paris-Nice again. It just turned out that, as the race went along, my teammates were riding really strong as well. As a team, we were quite dominant. But when that happens, sometimes your teammates can become your biggest rivals.
"Tactically it's sometimes a bit complicated because when a teammate goes in a break, you can't chase that breakaway. So, I remember it being a little bit difficult at times, tactically, on days with lots of attacking, with groups and breakaways going away. I had to be careful that I didn't find myself in a position where I had to ride for a teammate behind, rather than ride for myself."
But three stage wins – including another final day time trial triumph on the Col d'Èze ahead of Grezet and Rooks – ensured that Kelly ended up with more than a minute's gap on both his teammates, and a second title in his jersey pocket.
1984 and 1985: outshining Roche
A pattern was forming, with Kelly picking up sprint wins and the accompanying bonus seconds before sealing the deal on the Col d'Èze. And so it proved in the first of his two wins over countryman Roche.
After playing second fiddle to teammate Duclos-Lassalle in 1982, the 1981 winner had crashed out in 1983 but looked to be back to his best in 1984. Kelly had won the first part of the Stage 2 split stage, and survived Mont Ventoux the day his teammate Éric Caritoux took the spoils. But Roche's victory in Mandelieu on Stage 6 meant it was all perfectly poised going into the decisive TT, with Kelly only 11 seconds clear of his compatriot.
"I had a number of wins that came down to the final time trial on the Col d'Èze and they all merge into one," Kelly says. “And I was up against Roche many times. Of course, a time trial against Roche up the Col d'Èze is always a concerning time.
"There were those years when I was very concerned about the time trial, that I wouldn't be able to hold enough of an advantage or try to beat Roche if possible. But I managed to do it quite a number of times, which was a big achievement for me because Roche was such a good time triallist."
In 1984, Kelly's victory over Roche by one slender second on the Col d'Èze not only rewarded him with a third Paris-Nice trophy – and his narrowest ever win in the race, with the margin of victory just 12 seconds – it also gave him the confidence to keep on performing at his highest level. After all, this was the first time he had really gone head-to-head with Roche in the Race to the Sun.
A year later, the one-second swing on the Col d'Èze went in favour of Roche, but Kelly nevertheless took a fourth Paris-Nice crown by 23 seconds. 1985 marked the first time Kelly had failed to win a stage in the race he was fast making his own. But his consistency saw him one overall win away from drawing level with Jacques Anquetil's race record.
"To beat Roche on a hilly time trial like Col d'Èze was always an exceptional performance," says Kelly. "It used to be fairly equal between us on time trials up that climb, but if I beat him, even by a few seconds, it gave me confidence thereon when I came up against him in the other years. The first time I really challenged him, the challenge was to win Paris-Nice, and I was able to equal him or be very close and that gave me confidence going forward."
Hinault's sucker punch
It would be remiss skirting over the 1984 edition without mentioning the day the irascible Badger swung a punch in anger – an iconic moment that Kelly remembers very clearly. It was Stage 5 of the race and the pack had hit the Col de l'Espigoulier with 40km remaining.
"Hinault started riding on the front and setting a real killer of a pace," recalls Kelly. "We were all hanging in there trying to stay with him. At the top we were maybe 15 riders maximum, and he was still riding full-on."
Some motorbikes drew up alongside the leaders and told them about a demonstration going on further up the road, warning them that the race would probably have to stop until the passage was cleared.
"But Hinault was still riding hard, with us behind him,” Kelly continues. “Then, on a straight, we could see that the road was blocked with the strike, but Hinault kept on riding. And as we got closer, he started riding faster, then when we got to within 200m, he started sprinting. I was in his wheel and he just went straight on, full gas, into the crowd."
While Kelly pulled up with metres to spare, Hinault and a few others collided with the demonstrators, who knocked the then four-time Tour de France winner off his bike. Hinault jumped up and started swinging his fists.
He had to be pulled apart from his assailants before the race was neutralised for 15 minutes.
The riders eventually got going again a few kilometres further down the road, with the leading group given the same advantage as they had on the chasers. "Hinault just started riding full-on again," Kelly says. "I remember him leading us all the way to the finish, 25 or 30km on."
The break went the distance, but it was Eddy Planckaert who galloped over the line in La-Seyne-sur-Mer ahead of Kelly and Hinault, who would eventually finish third on GC, the best part of two minutes down on the Irishman.
While Kelly could appreciate Hinault's frustrations with the strikers that day, he doesn't think this justified his heavy-handed reaction to what was, in the eighties, far from an isolated occurrence during bike races.
"I never really understood why he rode into the strikers,” Kelly says. “He was never going to find a way through them – it was a very big group of people and the whole road was blocked. I didn't understand it back then, and I still don't understand why he did that because you could see we were going to have to stop.
"It probably wasn't the first strike that Hinault had come across,” Kelly continues. “During the Tour of Flanders and other races, it was pretty much normal for there to be strikes. They just want to get some airtime on TV and with the journalists, then they let the race go through. And that's exactly what happened that day."
But Hinault, he was just on one of those days when he wanted to kill everybody – the riders and the strikers.
1986: leading from start-to-finish
If you look at the stats, you would be forgiven for thinking that Kelly's record-equalling fifth Paris-Nice win was one of his most comfortable – given he led the whole way following the first of three stage wins in the Paris prologue, his lowest finish in the entire race being fourth place in the opening road stage (the only time he did not finish in the top three).
"Um…," Kelly hesitates. "I don't think it was the most comfortable or the easiest one. It was just that I managed to get the jersey right at the beginning, and I managed to hold on. But there were some days where it was difficult to control the race. And it wasn't being made easy by some of the other riders and the teams."
Kelly's extended run of victories while riding for one of the smaller French teams had put, among others, Bernard Tapie’s and Cyrille Guimard's noses out of joint. The managers of La Vie Claire and Renault-Gitane had seen their big-budget French teams – and star riders Hinault and Laurent Fignon – overshadowed by De Gribaldy's Sem-France, Skil and Kas teams thanks to Kelly's continued excellence in the Race to the Sun.
"From the French side, they weren't happy that Jean de Gribaldi was winning it every year with a small team, so they did not make it easy for me on many occasions," Kelly says. "There were times when they were riding to try and make me lose rather than to win it themselves. It happened with Fignon when he was riding, with Charly Mottet, Hinault himself… There was more than one occasion when they tried to make the race really difficult for me and for the team to control it when I was in the jersey."
There were also times when Guimard sunk to petty mind games and below-the-belt antics. One such incident happened in the 1986 race.
"Guimard came to me one day in the early part of the race and said the French tax authorities were investigating me,” says Kelly. “So, yes, not only was the fight on the road, but they fought in other ways to get me worried and upset my focus on the race.
"With De Gribaldy, we knew that they weren't happy that we were continuing to win every year, three, four, five times against the bigger French teams. That was a big problem for them, more so for Guimard. That's the way Guimard worked – he just wanted to get into your head. De Gribaldi just told me “il est fou" – he is crazy – and that he was only saying those things because, on the road, they didn't know how to beat us."
Bookended by victories in the Paris prologue and the final Col d'Èze time trial, Kelly rode out the storm to secure a fifth win by almost two minutes over the Swiss Urs Zimmerman, matching the outright record of Paris-Nice wins.
1987: beating Bernard and Roche
Perhaps the most controversial of Kelly's seven victories came towards the end of the sequence following his well-documented duel with compatriot Roche at the beginning of what would become an annus mirabilis for the Dubliner. But before the nail-biting showdown between the two Irishmen, a momentary obstacle between Kelly and a sixth triumph came in the form of the blowing-hot-and-cold climber Jean-François Bernard, a young prospect from Toshiba-La Vie Claire tipped to become the new Hinault.
Roche was back in white for the first time since 1981. Kelly, nevertheless, pipped him on Mont Ventoux to win Stage 3. Bernard came over the line 1'40" down, and looked to be a mere footnote in the race. But the next day, the 24-year-old – who would go on to finish third in the Tour de France that July after seizing the Yellow Jersey on Ventoux – soloed to glory on Mont Faron to take the lead in Paris-Nice.
Kelly rallied to fourth place, but finished three minutes behind Bernard, who rose above Roche in the GC at the halfway point of the race.
"I wasn't really a climber," says Kelly. "And I struggled on some of the mountain passes. Even when I won on Ventoux, I found myself getting into difficulty and losing ground to the more explosive riders. I had to ride my pace – and the finish was on the flat at Chalet Reynard, which played to my strengths. I wouldn't have won if it continued upwards all the way to the line."
Losing so much time to a mountain specialist like Bernard was a huge concern for Kelly.
"We talked about it that evening and decided to just keep on working and see what happened,” he says. “You can lose a lot of time one day, and then the following day come back on top."
The next day, still paying for his Mont Faron exertions, Bernard blew up on the way to Saint Tropez – just as he would months later, in yellow, the day after he won on Mont Ventoux. Fignon pipped Kelly in the sprint for Stage 5, as Roche moved back into the White Jersey. With no change the next day, the scene was set for an explosive final Sunday: another split stage, and a lumpy ride into Nice via the Col de Vence ahead of the ubiquitous afternoon time trial up the Col d'Èze.
Having taken the White Jersey, lost it, then regained it after some aggressive from-the-gun riding to shed Bernard, Roche just needed to ride conservatively and stay in touch with his countryman to end Kelly's run and take his second Paris-Nice crown. But on the Col de Vence, just as Kelly's Kas team were setting a hard tempo, Roche punctured. While Roche never blamed Kelly for what happened next, he took issue with the injection of pace by his rival's teammates which ensured he never managed to close the gap. It was more nuanced than a simple issue of fair play, according to Kelly, who says there were also tactical considerations at stake.
He explains: "We knew that when it got to the hilly section, we'd have to be really strong and try to get rid of all the sprinters and fast guys. The aim was for me to win the stage in Mandelieu and take the time bonus – something I was always trying to chip away at.
"We were playing out this tactic with guys on the front. I remember on the Col de Vence, we had Iñaki Gastón riding hard, then Jean-Luc Vandenbroucke was on the front. He was really riding strong at the end of that Paris-Nice. We were down to around 30 riders leading the peloton.
"Then we heard the sound of a puncture and Jean-Luc turned around and said to me: 'C'est Roche.' And I said: 'Oh.' And he just upped the pace suddenly. We were almost getting to the summit, and he just started riding harder. Then we got onto the descent and he rode full gas.
"When we got down off the descent, I started to ride a bit and I remember there were a lot of riders who were riding then in that group, including Fignon. A lot of people contributed to the pulling on the front. Roche never managed to get back, of course. I'm not surprised, because we were going at such a fast pace.
"So, to answer the question: yes, we did push the pace. Well, Jean-Luc Vandenbroucke pushed the pace – but we had been riding on the front all day. As I said to Roche afterwards: 'What should I have done? Stopped on the side of the road and wait?' Then everyone would have said that we were riding together and that I was riding for Roche.
"It was a difficult situation. If we hadn't been riding, it would have been different. We wouldn't have pushed up the pace. But we had been doing it all day, so we continued pushing it up a little bit, and unfortunately for Roche, he lost Paris-Nice there because of that puncture."
Kelly finished behind Fignon and, with Roche coming home well over a minute down, the five-time champion was back in the race lead for the first time. With an advantage of 1'27" over Roche ahead of the final time trial, it would take something extraordinary from the latter to salvage his race. And while he beat Kelly by 10 seconds on the Col d'Èze, it wasn't enough for the Carrera Jeans rider.
Kelly had his sixth win – but at what cost?
"Roche was very unhappy after that, and I remember he spoke to me briefly after the stage, then after the time trial,” says Kelly. “But that's understandable. Afterwards, he settled down and we talked about it a number of times. I don't think we ever totally agreed on it. He never agreed that what we did was the right thing, I never agreed that what I did was the wrong thing. That was just circumstances of the race."
Roche didn’t look back in anger. He went on to win both the Giro and Tour that season before the two Irishmen teamed up to perfection in the World Championships at Villach, with Kelly helping his compatriot complete a famous Triple Crown.
Was there ever a sense, after the Col de Vence, that Kelly owed something to Roche in Austria?
"No – it wasn't a payback for what I did at Paris-Nice,” says Kelly. “At the Worlds, we were riding as a national team. There were two of us in the final group, and a lot of movement in the final lap with attacks going everywhere.
"I said to Roche that we had to just try and not ride to control everything, but just go with the moves. When there's an attack with three or four guys, one of us had to go with it. And when the next attack came, the other guy had to go.
"That was the tactic – to take it in turns and try to use the others. And that's what we did. The moves went and Roche managed to get in the one that got away."
1988: seventh heaven
The final win in Kelly's reign came against Frenchman Ronan Pensec – the Irishman's fifth Col d'Èze time trial win on the final day securing a narrow 18-second win over the Z-Peugeot rider.
"I don't remember the last win as well as some of the other ones," Kelly admits. "A lot of the stages were hilly or mountain-top finishes and that was difficult – especially with Pensec, because he was a better climber and much stronger in those stages. There were times when I was in difficulty."
By now, Kelly's focus had changed in Paris-Nice. He had lost his friend and mentor Jean de Gribaldy. The man who convinced him of his ability to win the race had died in a car crash in January 1987. Kelly's early-season focus, meanwhile, had switched to the Classics. He neither felt under pressure to win on the French Riviera, nor felt particularly motivated to do so.
When I had managed to win four, I decided I wasn't as focused on Paris-Nice.
"My early season training wasn't as intense as it was before, because I had the idea of waiting to see how things went at Paris-Nice, and because the Classics was something I was concentrating on more.
"I felt that if I went to Paris-Nice in really great shape, then it wouldn't be so good for my prospects at the Classics. So for the final three wins, I didn't start with the same condition that I had in the previous years. I just got better as the race went on. I also think I was able to read the race better – and I also got a little bit lucky as well.”
What happened next: Kelly quits at the top
There would be no eighth win in a stellar sequence that will probably never be bettered. Rather than be beaten at his own game, King Kelly abdicated at the top. After swapping Kas for PDM at the end of 1988, Kelly did not even take to the start of the 1989 Race to the Sun. Did it feel strange?
"No, not at all,” he says. “I was pretty happy. I moved to PDM and they had been doing Tirreno for a number of years. I remember when I signed for the team, and they told me they normally didn't do Paris-Nice and asked me if that was a problem. I said: ‘Not at all.’
"I think I would have said that I'd prefer to go to Tirreno because there was going to be a time when I was going to lose Paris-Nice, and so this was probably a good way of getting out of that – going to Tirreno and not have to go to the race and lose to somebody else."
That somebody else might have been Miguel Indurain, the emerging Spanish powerhouse who, in Kelly's absence, beat Roche by 13 seconds to the White Jersey – despite the latter coming out on top in the final time trial on the Col d'Èze. Kelly did not hit the same heights over the border, coming seventh in Tirreno, and sixth the following the year.
When he did return to Paris-Nice, in 1991, he crashed out early with a broken collarbone. He made two more appearances in 1993 and 1994, but at this point in his career he was no longer the force that saw him amass 159 professional wins over three decades – before, during and after his seven consecutive Paris-Nice titles.
Looking back at his magical run, Kelly is quick to admit that his first win in 1982 marked something of a turning point in his career.
"Jean de Gribaldy was convinced that if I could lose a couple of kilos and put in a good winter, I could win Paris-Nice,” he says. “He was the guy who was behind me and motivated me all the time. And when I did win the first one, he said: 'You see, that's what I told you'.
"Having won it, then repeating that win, that gave me a lot of confidence for the years going forward. And Paris-Nice was always a big rendez-vous for me because it was an important race for the team."
Those merely going over the stats would be forgiven for thinking Kelly's early-season wins in between the French capital and the French Riviera became something of a formality – a mere box-ticking exercise for the man from Carrick-on-Suir, especially when it came to those time trials up the Col d'Èze. Nothing could be further from the truth.
"Winning seven was an amazing run, but it certainly wasn't easy with the rivalry between the bigger French teams,” Kelly explains. “That was one of the problems – we kept a number of French teams from winning. There were lots of moments over the years where it looked like I could maybe lose control over the race and lose the possibility of winning it."
What made Kelly's run even more impressive was the fact that it coincided with a golden age for French cycling. The leading proponents of the 80s – Hinault, Fignon, Mottet, Bernard, Pensec – were kept in the shade during the Race to the Sun, such was the burning dominance of the Irish duopoly.
"Stephen started it off, then I managed to win my first one, and it just went on from there,” says Kelly. “When you look back at it, it's an amazing run to get that many years winning the race."
Once Kelly's focus moved towards the Classics with his first Paris-Roubaix win in 1984 and Milan-San Remo in 1986, the Irishman inevitability shifted his gaze elsewhere – especially after the death of Le Vicomte, the man upon whom the foundations of his run were laid.
"For my first wins in Paris-Nice, I wasn't that dominant in the Classics – certainly not as I was in the years to come,” says Kelly.
So Paris-Nice wasn't about training for the one-day races. I was in it to win it. Certainly, for the first three or four years, I came back wanting to win it.
"A bit later on, once I had four wins, I was starting to get really strong in the Classics. And I thought if I was in too good shape for Paris-Nice, it was perhaps a bit too early for the Classics. I'd have to hold my form for too long, so it looked a bit difficult. So, I didn't push myself as much in the last few Paris-Nice editions as I had in the earlier ones."
It was the sign of his class, competitiveness and strength as a bike rider that even Kelly at half-mast was able to keep the flag of his formidable run flying. Thanks to King Kelly – and to Prince Roche – there was more green, white and orange than there was red, white and blue fluttering over the French Riviera each spring.
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