A Made Man – by Wiscot
Lead Photo by Sirotti
A Made Man
It had been a long day for the cycling fans in Como. For hours they had waited in the cooling fall air, listening to their radios and the public address system relaying the action of the seventy-seventh edition of the Tour of Lombardy in 1983. It had been a long day for the riders too, one hundred and fifty-one had started the race and by the time forty-six pairs of sore, tired legs made it to the streets of Como they had been riding for almost six and a half hours.
The crowd was getting antsy and excited with anticipation as the remnants of the peloton swept under the ultimo chilometro banner. Clearly, there was not going to be a solo winner, there were too many closely matched riders still in contention. With a couple of hundred meters to go the sprint opened up and it was still anyone’s race. Ireland’s Sean Kelly, Dutchmen Adri van der Poel and Hennie Kuiper, American Greg LeMond, Switzerland’s Gilbert Glaus, Australian Phil Anderson and Italians Silvano Contini and Francesco Moser each slammed their right shifters forward and summoned their last morsels of strength and experience. No-one looked at anyone else. It was eyes down and fixed on the white line rushing towards them. A victory salute was unlikely – it was going to be that close. It was 100% all the way. The first eighteen riders would be given the same time.
Sean Kelly’s season had begun back in March with three stage wins and the overall at Paris-Nice, a race he had won the previous year. He’d go on to win the Criterium National and the Tour of Switzerland. As important and prestigious as these wins were, Kelly had not yet won a bona fide classic or Monument despite being in his fifth professional season. The reasons for this are many: his early years were spent learning his trade at teams such as Flandria where he worked for the likes of Marc Demeyer, Freddy Maertens and Michel Pollentier. He wasn’t a “big name” or “made man” – a rider who had won a big race. “Made Men” liked to make sure that other made men won the big ones; getting beaten by lesser riders wasn’t acceptable; if a made man couldn’t win, he’d help another big name win rather than let a lesser light steal the glory; keep the goodies within a small select club was the way of the peloton.
The tricky thing was how to join the big name club? LeMond was in as a member as the 1983 World Champion. Hennie Kuiper was in as World Champion in 1975 and winner of the Tour of Flanders and the Tour of Lombardy in 1981 as well as Paris-Roubaix in 1983. Moser had been world champion in 1977 and won Paris-Roubaix three times (1978, 79, 80) as well as Lombardy in 1975 and 1978. Phil Anderson had won the 1983 Amstel Gold. Silvano Contini had won the 1982 Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Glaus had won a Tour de France stage and been Swiss Road Champion. Van der Poel had finished second to LeMond in the recent Worlds. The deck was stacked deep and high with prestigious palmares; it was a veritable convention of made men.
The riders fanned out across the wide road. No-one was leading anyone else out. All were in it to win it. As their front wheels broke the plane of the finish line the order was Kelly, LeMond, van der Poel (Mathieu’s father), Kuiper, Moser, Glaus, Ferreti, Anderson, and Contini. Kelly didn’t raise his head until he’d crossed the line, unsure if he’d won, LeMond and Kuiper were so close to his left, with van der Poel on his right. But he had. He’d won a classic against some of the best riders in the world. He was a made man at last.
Whether it was the confidence gleaned from this win, or his maturation as a rider or his new status as a made man, 1984 would see Kelly win an astonishing thirty-three races. He would be victorious in two monuments: Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Paris-Nice would be won for the third time, collecting two stages as well as the general, points and mountains classifications. He’d win Vuelta al Pais Vasco, winning three stages, and the general and points classifications. The Volta a Catalunya podium proved a regular haunt, winning four stages, the general, points and mountains classifications. He dominated the Critérium International, winning three stages and he took second places in the Tour of Flanders and the Grand Prix des Nations. By the end of 1984 Kelly had gone from knocking on the clubhouse door for made men to arguably the made man of the peloton for the rest of the decade. From being a farmer’s son from Carrick, Kelly became a global cycling superstar, always perceived as a favorite no matter what the race. And it all started on a cool, fall day in northern Italy when he kept his head down.