Kelly twice won bronze medals (1982, 1989) in the World Road Race Championships and finished 5th in 1987, the year compatriot Stephen Roche won gold. Kelly was first to be ranked No.1 when the FICP rankings were introduced in March 1984, a position he held for a record five years. In the 1984 season, Kelly achieved 33 victories.
Kelly is the second son of Jack (John) and Nellie Kelly, a farming family in Curraghduff in County Waterford. He was born at Belleville Maternity Home in Waterford city on 21 May 1956. He was named John James Kelly after his father and then, to avoid confusion at home, referred to as Sean. Seán is the Irish form of John.
For eight years he attended Crehana National School, County Waterford to which he travelled with his older brother, Joe. Fellow pupils recall a boy who retreated into silence because, they thought, he felt intellectually outclassed. His education ended at 13 when he left school to help on the farm after his father went to hospital in Waterford with an ulcer. At 16 he began work as a bricklayer.
Kelly began cycling after his brother had started riding to school in September 1969. Joe rode and won local races and on 4 August 1970 Sean rode his own first race, at Kennedy Terrace in Carrickbeg, County Waterford, part of Carrick-on-Suir. The race was an eight-mile (13 km) handicap, which meant the weaker riders started first and the best last. Kelly set off three minutes before the backmarkers. He was still three minutes ahead when the course turned for home after four miles (6 km) and more than three minutes in the lead when he crossed the line. At 16 he won the national junior championship at Banbridge, County Down.
Kelly won the national championship again in 1973, then took a senior licence before the normal qualifying age of 18 and won the Shay Elliot Memorial race in 1974 and again in 1975 and stages in the Tour of Ireland of 1975. Kelly and two other Irish riders, Pat and Kieron McQuaid, went to South Africa to ride the Rapport Tour stage-race in preparation for the 1976 Olympic Games. They and others rode under false names because of an international ban on athletes competing in South Africa, as a protest against apartheid.
The Irish were suspended from racing for six months. They were racing again when the International Olympic Committee banned them from the Olympics for life.
Unable to ride in Canada, Kelly rode the 1976 Tour of Britain and then went to Metz, in France, after a London enthusiast, Johnny Morris, had arranged an invitation. The club offered him £25 a week, free accommodation and four francs a kilometre for every race he won. Kelly won 18 of the 25 races he started in France and won the amateur Giro di Lombardia in Italy. That impressed two French team managers, Jean de Gribaldy and Cyrille Guimard. De Gribaldy went to Ireland unannounced to discuss a contract with the Flandria professional team. He didn't know where Kelly lived and wasn't sure he would recognise him. He took with him another cyclist, to point out Kelly and translate the conversation. Kelly was out driving a tractor and de Gribaldy set out again in the taxi that had brought him from Dublin, hoping to find Kelly as he drove home. They found him and went to Kelly's stepbrother's house. De Gribaldy offered £4,000 a year plus bonuses. A week later Kelly asked for £6,000 and got it. He signed for de Gribaldy with misgivings about going back on his promise to return to Metz, where the club had offered him better terms than before.
Kelly left for France in January 1977 and lived for two years at 18 place de la Révolution in Besançon, de Gribaldy's home town. He shared with four teammates.
Kelly's first professional race was the Étoile de Bessèges. It started on 7 February 1977 and lasted six days. Kelly came 10th on the first day. The Flandria team was in two parts: the strongest riders, such as the world champion Freddy Maertens, were in the main section, based in Belgium. Kelly rode with the second section, based more in France because Flandria wanted to sell more of its mopeds, scooters and bicycles there. The strongest riders in both camps came together for big races. Kelly was recruited as a domestique for Maertens in the main team for year's Paris–Nice – shortly afterwards he won his first race, the opening stage of the Tour of Romandy – and stayed in it for the Tour de France, in which he also won a stage.
Kelly stayed with de Gribaldy for 1977 and 1978. Then in 1978 Michel Pollentier was disqualified from the Tour de France after cheating a drugs test on the afternoon that he took the race lead. He left the team at the end of the season and started his own, with a new backer, Splendor. Both Maertens and Pollentier wanted Kelly. Pollentier and Splendor offered Kelly more and made him a team leader. But Splendor was new and logistic problems became obvious. The bikes were in poor state – enough that Splendor decided not to ride Paris–Roubaix – and the manager, Robert Lauwers, was replaced. Kelly rose above it and rode for himself. The writer Robin Magowan said:
Some people can do business on the committee system; others find that life is only fun when you are running the show. In Kelly's case it was to mean working for the collection of underpaid has-beens that de Gribaldy habitually assembled. But a smaller, less pretentious team can have its advantages for a rider of Kelly's sort. When you don't have to compete for a team's loyalty you can concentrate on winning races, and that's exactly what Kelly proceeded to do.
In time the team improved. Kelly received few offers from elsewhere and Splendor matched those he did get. He was paid about £30,000 plus bonuses in his last season. But strengthening the team had included bringing in another sprinter, Eddy Planckaert, and Kelly's role as a foreigner in the team was unclear. He heard that de Gribaldy was starting a new team and the two were reunited in 1982 at Sem-France Loire.
By now Kelly had a reputation as a sprinter who could not win stage races, although he did finish fourth in the 1980 Vuelta a España. De Gribaldy employed him as unambiguous team leader, someone he believed could win stage races and not just stages. Kelly won Paris–Nice and four of its stages. On the last of those, a time-trial to the col d'Eze, he beat Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle and pushed him out of the lead. That year he also won the maillot vert (the green jersey of best sprinter) of the Tour de France. He finished third in the world championship in England and at the end of the year married his girlfriend, Linda Grant, the daughter of a local cycling club official. Carrick-on-Suir named the town square "the Sean Kelly Square" in tribute to his achievements in the 1982 Tour de France and his bronze medal at the championship The following year Kelly again won Paris–Nice and then the Critérium International and the Tour de Suisse as well as the maillot vert of the Tour de France the second time in a row.
Kelly confirmed his potential in autumn 1983. A leading group of 18 entered Como in the Giro di Lombardia after a battle over the Intelvi and Schignano passes. Kelly won the sprint by the narrowest margin, less than half a wheel separating the first four, against cycling greats including Francesco Moser, Adri van der Poel, Hennie Kuiper and world champion Greg LeMond.
Kelly dominated the following spring. He won Paris–Nice for the third successive time beating Roche as well as the Tour de France winner, Bernard Hinault who was returning after a knee injury. Kelly finished second in Milan–San Remo and the Tour of Flanders, but was unbeatable in Paris–Roubaix and Liège–Bastogne–Liège. The day after Paris–Roubaix, the French daily sports paper, L'Équipe, pictured Kelly cycling the cobbles with mud on his face and had the heading Insatiable Kelly! referring to his appetite for winning that spring He won all three stages in the Critérium International: the bunch sprint on stage 1, a solo victory in the mountain stage and beating Roche in the final time trial. Kelly achieved 33 victories in 1984. He was becoming a contender in the grand tours, as seen by finishing fifth in the Tour de France. This may have caused him to lose his grip on the maillot vert in that year's Tour. Kelly was wearing it as the Tour was finishing on the Champs-Élysées but lost it in the bunch finish to the Belgian, Frank Hoste, who finished ahead of Kelly gaining points to take the jersey off Kelly's shoulders.
He won Paris–Nice in 1985, again beating Roche. He won the maillot vert for the third time and finished fourth in the 1985 Tour de France. Kelly won the first Nissan International Classic beating Van Der Poel. At the end of the season, he won the Giro di Lombardia.
He won Milan–San Remo in 1986 after winning Paris–Nice. He finished second in the Tour of Flanders and won Paris–Roubaix again. He finished on a podium in a grand tour for the first time when he finished third in the 1986 Vuelta a España. Kelly missed the 1986 Tour de France due to a serious crash in the last stage of Tour de Suisse. He returned to Ireland and won the Nissan Classic again. His second win in the Nissan came after a duel with Steve Bauer, who took the yellow jersey after Kelly crashed numerous times. Kelly went into the final stage three seconds behind Bauer and took the jersey when he finished third on the stage and won bonus seconds.
Kelly won Paris–Nice in 1987 on the last day after Roche, the leader, punctured. Later, leading the Vuelta a España with three days to go, he retired with an extremely painful saddle sore. His bad luck continued in the Tour de France, retiring after a crash tore ligaments in his shoulder. After the World Championship, in which he finished fifth behind Roche, Kelly returned to Ireland to win the Nissan for the third consecutive time.
Kelly won his seventh Paris–Nice in spring 1988, a record. He won Gent–Wevelgem several weeks later.
Kelly returned in April to the 1988 Vuelta a España which started on the rugged mountainous island of Tenerife where his team struggled in the second stage, losing the influential rider Thomas Wegmuller to dysentery and losing further time in the time-trial around Las Palmas. However, on the Spanish mainland, Kelly concentrated on winning sprint time bonuses, battling with sprinter Jorge Dominguez, the BH teammate of leader, Laudelino Cubino.
After regaining a minute in four days, the race reached the mountains where Kelly relied on help from Robert Millar of team Fagor-MBK to stay within two minutes of Cubino after the mountain trial to Alto Oviedo. He then finished fourth behind stage-winner Fabio Parra and Anselmo Fuerte on stage 13 to the ski-station at Cerler, cutting a minute and a half into Cubino's lead. From this stage, Fuerte had moved into second overall and later took the jersey from Cubino on the 16th stage to Albacete when the leader got caught on the wrong side of a split caused by cross-winds.
Kelly maintained the gap between himself and Fuerte and started the time trial on the second last day 21 seconds behind. Confident that he could overhaul the leader, he "put it in a big gear and gave it everything". He took the leader's amarillo jersey, beating Fuerte by almost two minutes. The following day Kelly won his only grand tour, over West German Raimund Dietzen and also won the points competition. After his Vuelta win Kelly returned to Carrick-on-Suir where a parade was held in his honour.
Kelly finished 46th in the Tour de France just over an hour behind Pedro Delgado. He was no longer a contender for overall victory after this and said he'd never win the Tour de France. Kelly finished third behind the German, Rolf Gölz, in the Nissan Classic that year Kelly finished third in the sprint at the rainy world road championship of 1989 at Chambéry, France, behind Dimitri Konyshev and Greg Lemond. Lemond won his second rainbow jersey as world champion.
Kelly switched to the Dutch PDM team and stayed there three years until the end of 1991. The following year he won Liège–Bastogne–Liège, the maillot vert in the Tour de France, and the inaugural UCI Road World Cup championship. Kelly won the Tour de Suisse in 1990. In March 1991, he broke a collarbone, then pulled out of the 1991 Tour de France and then while Kelly was competing the Tour of Galicia in August, his brother Joe was killed in a race near Carrick-on-Suir. He came back to win his fourth Nissan Classic by four seconds over Sean Yates and then went to and won the classic at the end of the season, the Giro di Lombardia.
Kelly won the Giro di Lombardia for a third time in 1991 but started 1992 regarded as past his prime. He moved to Festina and prepared for Milan–San Remo. Race favourite Moreno Argentin attacked from the leading group on the final climb, the Poggio. He broke clear after several attempts and reached the top eight seconds before the rest. It seemed he was on his way to a solo victory as the peloton descended the Poggio, where Maurizio Fondriest led, marked by Argentin's teammate Rolf Sørensen. Kelly was behind these two in third position. Kelly attacked with three kilometres of descending left. Sorensen could not hold his acceleration and Kelly got away. He caught Argentin with a kilometre to go. Both stalled, the chasers closing fast, Argentin gesturing to Kelly to take the front. Kelly stayed on Argentin's wheel. The two moved again, preparing for a sprint; Kelly launched himself and in the final 200m came past Argentin to win his final classic.
In 1992, Kelly travelled to Colombia for the Clásico RCN, where he won the second stage. His PDM teammate, Martin Earley, pushed him into second place at the 1993 Irish road championship.
Kelly's last year as a professional was 1994, when he rode for Catavana. He returned to Carrick-on-Suir at the end of the season to ride the annual Hamper race. That was Kelly's last race as a professional. Eddy Merckx, Laurent Fignon, Bernard Hinault, Roger De Vlaeminck, Claude Criquielion, Stephen Roche, Martin Earley, Acacio Da Silva and Paul Kimmage were among 1,200 cyclists present. The President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, attended a civic presentation to Kelly the day before the race. Kelly won in a sprint against Roche. Kelly won this race again six years later.
Kelly's career is remarkable in that it spanned the eras of several legends of the Tour de France, from Eddy Merckx through to Miguel Indurain. His first Tour was also the first for Bernard Hinault and the two battled in the sprint of stage 15. Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon emerged in the early eighties and challenged Kelly in the classics as well as in the Tour, and Kelly witnessed the rise of Miguel Indurain and the early career of Lance Armstrong. Kelly's career coincided with Stephen Roche as well as classics specialists including Francesco Moser, Claude Criquielion, Moreno Argentin and Eric Vanderaerden. Evidence of Kelly's dominance can be seen from his three victories in the season-long Super Prestige Pernod International competition (predecessor to the World Cup). Kelly competed throughout the season, from Paris–Nice in March to the Giro di Lombardia in October, winning both in 1983 and 1985.
Robin Magowan said:
"It is customary to talk of Kelly as quintessentially an Irish rider. For my part, though, I think it helps to place Kelly better as a cyclist to see him as the last of the Flemish riders. This is usually a title associated with the post-war rider, Briek Schotte who has become appropriately enough the man in day-to-day charge of the de Gribaldy teams. As exemplified by Schotte it stood for a certain type of mentality, willing to suffer, narrowly focussed, and hard, hard, hard. Kelly had all this in him from his Irish small-farm background: the outside loo; the dogs that have to be chained before you can step from your car; the one career possible, as a bricklayer on a construction site, stretching away and away into the grey mists. On the positive side, along with the self-reliance, came a physical strength that even by peasant standards is impressive. In a profession of iron wills, there is no one harder."
Kelly is the subject of several books, including a biography Kelly and A Man For All Seasons by David Walsh.
Sean Kelly published his autobiography Hunger in 2013.
While some sprinters remain sheltered in the peloton until the final few hundred metres, Kelly could instigate breaks and climb well, proving this by winning the Vuelta a España in 1988, as well as winning a stage of Paris-Nice on the climb of Mont Ventoux. His victories in Paris–Roubaix (1984, 1986) showed his ability in poor weather and on pavé sections, while he could stay with the climbing specialists in the mountains in the Tour de France. He was also a formidable descender, clocking a career top race speed of 124 km/h, while descending from Col de Joux Plane to Morzine on stage 19 of the Tour in 1984. He finished fourth in the Tour in 1985 and won the maillot vert in 1982, 1983, 1985, and 1989, the first to win four times, a feat he repeated in the Vuelta a España. Kelly won five stages in the Tour de France and 16 in the Vuelta a España.
Kelly is a commentator for the English-language services of Eurosport and has established and is involved in the Sean Kelly Cycling Academy in Belgium. In 2006 he launched Ireland's first professional team, the Sean Kelly Team, composed of young Irish and Belgian riders based at the Sean Kelly Cycling Academy in Merchtem, Belgium. He rides long-distance charity cycling tours with Blazing Saddles, a charity raising money for the blind and partially sighted. Such tours have included a journey across America by bike in 2000. He also participates in charity cycling endurance events in Scotland (notably with the Braveheart Cycling Fund), England, France and Ireland. Sean Kelly regularly cycles with SportActive cycling holidays in Mallorca.
The inaugural Sean Kelly Tour of Waterford was held on 19 August 2007. Kelly was one of the 910 participants. The second was on 24 August 2008. Kelly was one of the 2,048. The 2009 tour went ahead on 30 August 2009. It attracted over 3,400 participants. On 29 August 2010, 3708 cyclists took part in the Tour. In 2011 the attendance ballooned to over 8,000 over the two days and 10 km, 50 km, 90 km and 160 km events.
In November 2013, at Dublin City University, Sean Kelly was awarded with an Honorary Doctorate in Philosophy in recognition of his contribution to Irish sport.
Fellow pupils at Kelly's school [see above] felt Kelly fell silent because he felt intellectually outclassed. The lack of words continued even after Kelly had proved himself one of the best racing cyclists of his era. The writer Robin Magowan said:
"On the bench, swivelling his body away as you approach, chary of words when not downright hostile, Sean Kelly remains for a journalist the hardest of the great riders to fathom. In an age when most of his brethren rate themselves, and are paid, according to the amount of publicity inches they have gleaned in a season, this farmer's son... remains very much the exception, closed, withdrawn, and extremely suspicious. Yet one has only to look at him joking with Stephen Roche, or know the respect with which he is held by the peloton, to see that he gets along very well without us."