Tour de France 2020

Legends of the Tour de France: Pedro Delgado and Sean Kelly

Graham Watson remembers two of the most serene champions ever to throw a leg over a bicycle.

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Pedro Delgado

If I live to be 100 years old—or, at the bare minimum, remain a Tour photographer until my sixties—I do not believe I will encounter a Tour de France winner as serene as Pedro Delgado. The Spanish climber was a runaway winner of the 1988 Tour, taking the race lead with over ten days to go and defending his position with ease. Yet he had to race the last week against an uproar of accusations that he’d taken banned substances. In fact he had taken some medications, but they weren’t on the IOC banned list, so he’d broken no rules.

Delgado had almost won the Tour the year before, in 1987, and I remember feeling desperately sorry for the man who had come up against such an in-form and super-intelligent champion as Stephen Roche. I’d seen Delgado win the 1985 Tour of Spain, and knew what he was capable of if things went his way.

Things really did go his way in 1988, and by the time the Tour reached Alpe d’Huez, Delgado was in yellow, having attacked all day long to distance as many of his climbing rivals as he could. When he then buried his time-trialing ghosts by winning the following day’s TT to Villard-de-Lans, Delgado seemed to have the Tour in the bag, with the Pyrenees and Massif Central still to come. At this point, Delgado was rarely out of my camera’s sights, his mousy brown hair and matching eyes so appealing to this northern European, who was more accustomed to the cold-eyed stares and glazed features of my near neighbors in France, Belgium, and Holland.

Delgado looked absolutely radiant in his maillot jaune, and clearly wore it with pride, allowing a fellow Spaniard, Laudelino Cubino, to race away to a great stage win at Luz Ardiden, the challenging climb in the Pyrenees. Delgado bided his time before attacking close challenger Steven Rooks on the climb, a performance he repeated on the Puy-de-Dôme a few days later—except it was Danish rider Johnny Weltz with the Spanish team Fagor who won, and the Dutch rider Gert-Jan Theunisse whom Delgado then attacked and demolished.

Both Rooks and Theunisse were from PDM, the team Delgado had left in 1987 to join Reynolds. The three had been teammates in that ’87 Tour, and the two Dutchmen were now failing to fulfill their team manager’s desire to ensure Delgado lost the 1988 Tour. As Delgado’s race continued, the accusations against him grew in force, yet the Spaniard coolly pedaled his way toward Paris. A few days before the finish, the officials announced no rules had been broken, and, as a final flourish, Delgado clocked an amazing time trial on the penultimate day to secure his overall win.

Another Spaniard, Juan Martínez Oliver, took the stage that day, adding to my understanding of the unique patriotism of Spanish cyclists. Regardless of the teams they are on, Spanish cyclists often ride together as a unit, knowing the importance a Spanish victory will have for their fans and the media back home. Delgado’s brush with the authorities had angered his Spanish colleagues, who felt that the allegations were a slur on their entire nation. Collectively, they left an indelible mark on that 1988 Tour.

Delgado should have built on that first win, for no Tour winner wants to settle for a single success, especially one that, in his case, was also slightly tainted. Tragically, in 1989, some sloppy team management had Delgado still warming up on his bike when the time came to begin his prologue ride in Luxembourg. He lost almost three minutes right away! Further trouble came the next day when a stressed Delgado dropped off the back in the team time trial, forcing his mates to wait for him; four more minutes were lost!

It all seemed over after just two days, yet Delgado launched into the rest of the Tour with a vengeful streak, almost beating Greg LeMond in the long, 73-kilometer TT on stage 5 before gaining a token thirty seconds at Cauterets as his teammate Miguel Induráin took the stage. Delgado then went ballistic the next day, gaining over three minutes against Fignon and LeMond at Superbagnères while Millar pinched the stage. Having started the Tour in such a disastrous way, Delgado was now less than three minutes off the race lead, and planning to do more in the Alps. In the uphill test at Orcières-Merlette, Delgado gained ten seconds on LeMond and almost a full minute on Fignon. He then raced into third place overall at L’Alpe d’Huez, after putting almost one minute into LeMond.

Delgado, wearing yellow, holds up his flowers for winning
Pedro Delgado won the 1988 Tour de France. Photo: NUTAN / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

There was something of a party atmosphere when the top four riders overall raced away from the Alps to Aix-les-Bains, so superior to the rest of the peloton that they could literally amuse themselves on the climbs and descents before the final time trial. Delgado knew he was assured of third place overall, and knew too that he could have been the winner but for that stupid beginning. Still, he’d made a comeback on a scale not seen in a modern Tour, and had that ’89 race not seen an equally tense battle for the yellow jersey, I do believe Delgado would have won. Yes, he was almost a three-time winner of the Tour.

I still see a lot of Delgado. He’s a highly popular TV presenter whose unique input draws thousands of noncycling fans to the TV each day, especially the women! He also carries out reconnaissance on some of the mountain climbs for television previews of the key stages, giving the Spanish world a chance to enjoy his poetic riding style again. I love to hear him talk of that 1988 Tour, as well as his battles with Roche in 1987 and with Fignon and LeMond in 1989.

Delgado doesn’t like to talk about his start in that ’89 Tour. He is more forthcoming in his affection for Miguel Induráin, the Spaniard who helped Delgado so much in ’88, ’89, and ’90, and whom Delgado then helped win the Tours of ’91, ’92, and ’93. You sometimes see Delgado and Induráin sharing time on Spanish TV these days, their harmony proof of a genuine friendship that will last for the rest of their lives.

These two vastly different characters captivated a nation of sports enthusiasts for over a decade, making cycling the second most popular sport in Spain, after soccer. One such enthusiast may well have been Alberto Contador, winner of the Tour in 2007, who would have been less than 6 years old when Delgado won his Tour de France, and just 9 years old when Induráin won his first Tour.

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly was racing the Tour de France many years before the influx of Anglo-Saxons who threatened the chain of command in continental Europe. But because the Irish fellow was initially perceived as just an out-and-out sprinter, it took many years for him to share in the acclaim being enjoyed by all-rounders such as Robert Millar and Phil Anderson. Kelly won a stage of the 1978 Tour, two stages in 1980, and one in 1981. But it was only when he took another stage in 1982, and with it the famed green points jersey, that people started to view him as a different and developing talent.

In 1983, having already won his second Paris-Nice a few months earlier, Kelly used his sprinting skills to take the race lead, but he was a highly disappointed man when he lost it to Pascal Simon in the Pyrenees just one day later. Kelly wanted more out of the Tour than mere stages or the green jersey, and he set about developing his skills across the whole range of disciplines. He’d use his new time-trialing and climbing skills to win the next five editions of Paris-Nice—still a record today—but a similar placing in the Tour proved to be beyond him. He got close to overall victory by taking seventh, fifth, and fourth overall in the Tours of 1983 to 1985, but Sean Kelly’s place in Tour history is cemented as a four-time winner of the green jersey.

It took me a few years as well to see Kelly as anything more than a pure sprinter, but certainly his attempt to become a Tour contender meant I got more images of the man than if he’d stayed hidden in the group each day. It is quite impossible to capture close-up shots of a sprinter in a sprint, and Kelly was too serious an athlete to let his hair down and fool around with the other sprinters in the mountain stages as they rode their leisurely way to the finish in their own group.

Under normal circumstances, shooting decent action images of the green jersey wearer is a chore, for it entails letting the business end of the race disappear over the cols for half an hour or more while you wait for the Tour’s top sprinter to arrive. The knowledge that you are missing the all-important battles up front is hard to cope with, which is why Kelly was such a dream for photographers: Here was a sprinter trying to climb with the climbers! Today I might wait thirty minutes or more to get a descending shot of sprinter extraordinaire Tom Boonen in the mountains, but with Kelly it would never have been more than a few short minutes. On some occasions, he’d be one of the first over a climb, on his way to a stage win at Saint-Étienne or Thonon-les-Bains, or seeking bonus points in some upcoming sprint in the valley below.

Sean Kelly riding in a group of cyclists in the mountains
Kelly at the 1990 Tour de Suisse Photo: Boris Nizon/RDB/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Still, Kelly was a complete mystery to me from day one, for his reserved, quite timid character seemed at odds with his physical brilliance. With such a mystique, Kelly was a fantastic subject to capture on film, and I was constantly seeking to photograph some of his quirky habits, such as licking his lips when considering a journalist’s questions, or rubbing his chin between thumb and finger if an answer was not going to be forthcoming. His Irish eyes were suspicious of the outside world, yet twinkling with mischief too. He’d always perch his KAS team racing cap on the very top of his graying head, the peak pointing backward, as he held court while sitting on the hood of his team car each morning, another delightful mannerism my camera lens homed in on.

Kelly’s growing stature caught the attention of the Irish media, and this half-dozen-strong merry band of charismatic journalists sought Kelly’s opinions and reflections on a twice-daily basis, at stage starts and finishes. Surprisingly for such a shy man, Kelly seemed to enjoy his morning chats with the press. He certainly knew how to intimidate his interviewers with long moments of silence, something an expectant journalist absolutely hates! If Kelly was reserved about giving them anything of interest to write about, the reporters at least managed to win status as unforgettable features of those Tours—and it wasn’t just because, to a man, they all seemed to wear gray shorts and woolly black socks in the middle of a French summer! Almost every one of them went on to distinguished careers after Kelly retired, and it is said that “yer man,” as they called him, actually comes along to their annual reunion in a Dublin pub each winter.

Kelly started fourteen Tours de France between 1978 and 1992, and was very much a senior statesman of the peloton by the time fellow Irishman Stephen Roche won in 1987. Kelly had dealt very well with the emergence of Roche as a Tour contender. Indeed, with so much attention on someone else, Kelly was able to concentrate more on his racing, a factor that helped him take those high overall placings in ’83, ’84, and ’85.

Since he missed the 1986 Tour due to illness, 1987 should have been Kelly’s best opportunity to make it to the final podium in Paris. Sure, by stage 11, Kelly was already five minutes down on Roche, who’d stormed to a brilliant time trial victory the previous day. But Kelly was deliberately avoiding the sprint finishes to make sure he was in the best condition when the mountains began; the TT was always going to be a bad day. Sadly, the Irish legend never made it to the Pyrenees; he crashed and broke his collarbone on the way south to Bordeaux.

That was the first year I had motorcycle access in the Tour, and although Kelly’s was not the first Tour crash I saw, it was nevertheless a huge blow to see him suffer so much. Imagine a man who was one of my idols, crying in agony on the ground as he struggled to get up and ride his bike again. Kelly was still crying when he did remount, and cried again when doctors insisted he climb into the race ambulance a few kilometers later.

It took that crash for me to realize Kelly was human after all, which pushed me to take more pictures of him in the coming years, for I knew Kelly would not be around forever. He never won another Tour stage—in fact, he hadn’t won one since 1982, the year he had stopped sprinting and tried to become an overall contender—but his efforts to keep racing with men much younger than he was gave me some memorable imagery.

Two years later, 1989 was a vintage Tour for Kelly, and therefore for me too, as I came away from France with a dozen strong images of him racing in the green jersey. I remember taking a few static shots on one of the final corners of the Col d’Izoard—shots of the overall favorites, such as LeMond, Fignon, and Delgado. I’d barely had time to wind on the medium-format film in my camera before Kelly pedaled by, every sinew in his arms, legs, and neck straining with the effort to keep pace with the leaders and maybe steal a few bonus seconds at the finish. I then recall trying to keep pace with Kelly on the long and very sinuous descent, until my nervous driver decided that Irish cyclists are best left alone at such times!

Until a car thief stole most of my Kelly images in 1990, the Irishman had accounted for the biggest portion of my expanding archive, and I was therefore extremely grateful to Kelly when he continued racing, year after year, allowing me to rebuild that library. Finally, Father Time called a halt in 1994. A decent-sized chunk of me stopped with Kelly that year, for the man had been central to my work enjoyment for almost fifteen years. I knew the world of cycling would never again experience someone as special as Kelly, and I felt honored to have experienced the very best of those years—the Sean Kelly years, I like to call them.


Adapted from Graham Watson’s Tour de France Travel Guide by Graham Watson with permission of VeloPress.

Graham Watson’s Tour de France Travel Guide