By John Wilcockson
If money hadn’t been tight at this year’s Tour of Ireland, Lance Armstrong and the other notables in the field would have been tracing the wheelmarks of Irish legends Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche in a historic time trial. But the world’s economic downtown forced the organizers to shorten their race from five to three days.
“Our biggest regret was cutting the time-trial stage,” race development director Darach McQuaid toldVeloNews. “We were going to repeat the famous time trial from Carrick-on-Suir to Clonmel.”
Instead, Saturday’s stage just started at Clonmel after an overnight transfer from Waterford.
If you weren’t a bike-racing fan two decades ago you probably won’t recall the “famous” time trial in the inaugural 1985 edition of the Nissan Classic — the first pro Tour of Ireland. And even some insiders may have forgotten the significance of that 21km time trial that started in Sean Kelly’s hometown.
At that point in his career, Kelly was Ireland’s greatest sports superstar. He was the winner of Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix and other top European classics; he had won the Tour de France green jersey three times; and he was in the middle of a streak of winning seven consecutive editions of Paris-Nice.
The citizens of Carrick-on-Suir were so proud of their homeboy they named the town’s main gathering place Sean Kelly Square — even though the square is triangular. And that’s where the start house was set up for the Carrick-Clonmel stage of the 1985 Nissan race.
Over the years, Kelly had developed from a pure field sprinter to an all-rounder who was good enough to place fourth at the Tour de France and later win the Vuelta a España. One of his new strengths was time trialing — in the final 55km TT of the 1984 Tour he came within 48 hundredths of a second of defeating that year’s dominant champion Laurent Fignon.
Kelly was already in the yellow jersey at the ’85 Nissan before his hometown time trial where his younger national rival, Stephen Roche, was touted as the likely stage winner. Asked if he thought Kelly would beat him, Roche said, if so, it wouldn’t be “by more than a few seconds.”
The road from Carrick to Clonmel 24 years ago was a rudimentary two-lane highway with some low rolling hills and a less-than-smooth pavement. But it was on this road on a relatively calm morning that Kelly rode faster than anyone had ever raced in a time trial of 20km or longer.
With two stages completed in that first Nissan Classic, race leader Kelly was the last rider to start. The time to beat was set by Roche, who used all the latest technology — a low-profile TT bike with two disc wheels (aero bars didn’t exist back then) — to record 24:58, the fastest by 35 seconds at that point.
The experts were surprised when Kelly showed up for his time trial on a regular road bike with just a rear disc wheel to improve the aerodynamics. With his legs flailing the pedals and with the determined look in his eye he showed on his “big” days, Kelly soon closed in on his minute-man, the Dutch star Adri Van der Poel; he also passed his two-minute man, Teun Van Vliet, to sweep into Clonmel with a phenomenal time of 24:09.
Asked what he thought about losing by 49 seconds over such a short distance, Roche quipped, “Sean knew the course and must have taken a short cut.”
Kelly was quick to respond in his inimitable accent, “There’s no short cut from Carrick to Clonmel unless I took a speedboat up the river!”
Kelly’s average speed that day was 52.173 kph. To put that into perspective, the fastest-ever time trial of more than 20km at that time was the 50.977 kph set by Francesco Moser on the final stage of the 1984 Giro d’Italia — a performance that blew people’s minds. And it would be another four years before Greg LeMond (using a TT bike with aerobars) set his Tour record average of 54.545 kph over the 24.5km between Versailles and Paris to defeat Fignon by 58 seconds and win the Tour by eight seconds.
The setting of Kelly’s famous time trial may not be as grandiose as the Champs-Élysées, but main street Clonmel — at least on that fall morning 24 years ago — remains the venue of one of the most remarkable performances in the history of cycling.
Maybe the Tour of Ireland organizers will find enough sponsorship dollars next year to restore their race to five days and relive the famous time trial stage from Carrick to Clonmel. And perhaps Kelly will make the awards.