Standing at the edge of the West Gate in Clonmel as an entire Country came to a halt as Sean Kelly strove for a second consecutive victory in the second ever Nissan Classic emotions were running high. Beside me was a local farmer, on the other side was a girl in a Dunnes Stores uniform. All shops and business’ in the town closed for two hours in order to let their employees witness the unfolding of events.
Anthony and Dick O’Gorman led the race into their hometown to a tremendous applause. Then the crescendo heightened as a yellow jersey on the back of the Worlds number one cyclist came in to view. It was all well and good winning races over there in foreign countries. Now Kelly was home, back in Ireland showing an entire nation what was possible. A stage passing his front gate, through his hometown of Carrick on Suir and finishing in Clonmel, a destination on most of his training spins, was the stuff dreams were made of. Now Kelly gave an entire nation a reason to dream, to hope, to pray and to come out and shout and roar as he passed by, inches from their outstretched arms.
On the first passage the farmer beside me in a pair of green wellies and a tweed cap almost blew out my 14 year old ear drum when he spotted Kelly with a bellowed out ‘GOWANN SEANNNNNN , YOUR ONE OF OUR OWN’
I was roaring too, as was the Dunnes Stores girl beside me, but became slightly distracted with the ringing in my ears.
The PA announcer must have felt like the pied piper. All he had to do to get an enormous roar from the crowd of tens of thousands was to mention Kellys’ name in any way, shape or form. Teenage girls may get hysterical about a boy band, teenage boys about a soccer player, but on this day in this town, every man, woman and child was part of the hysteria surrounding ‘Kelly mania’
The excitement and tension was incredible. Throughout the crowd were teenagers in cycling jerseys. The first edition of ‘The Nissan’ the previous year had been the first glimpse of Kelly in the flesh for most and they all wanted more. They were now ‘into the cycling’ and had no qualms about walking about the main street in black wooly tights with upturned peaked cotton caps on their heads. They wanted to be recognised as cyclists, this would give them something, anything in common with their newfound hero, Sean Kelly.
The bell rang out for the final lap and Kelly was looking good. A town, a county and an entire Nation were all willing him to victory, and the man himself wanted it too. He wanted to perform here on his home stage. Winning multitudes of big races abroad was one thing but winning a huge race back home in Ireland was another feeling altogether.
Over the top of Knocklucas for the final time Australian Phil Anderson attacked on the dangerous descent. Ordinarily Kelly would have followed and pushed right up to the limit. But this time, Anderson had a gap that Kelly wanted to close. He wanted that victory in front of his home crowd. He pushed himself and his bike beyond the capabilities of any other cyclist alive. He pushed fear so far to the back of his mind that it no longer existed at all. He pushed beyond all limits and the low wall on a treacherous bend pushed back. A hole in a grass verge upended Kelly and he smashed hard into the low wall with his head.
For almost any other human being on that day it would have meant a call for an ambulance and an overnight stay in hospital. For Kelly, the man of Iron, it meant only one thing. Get up and back on the bike as quickly as possible.
Kelly remounted, battered, bruised, cut and dazed. He put all thoughts of pain out of his mind and concentrated on winning the stage. By now he was just 2k from the finish and the group had all gone past. They were already 500m up ahead as he remounted the bike, with Anderson off out ahead and another 2 chasers in pursuit.
The crowd gasped as the announcer relayed the news of Kellys’ crash. The farmer beside me was almost in tears, I was almost in tears, the dunnes stores girl was actually in tears. Our excitement was ruined, but then came a glimmer of hope. Kelly had remounted and was chasing hard. The roars went up once more and The Farmer deafened me for a second time that day.
From 500m behind in the space of 1500m Kelly had caught the group ahead and was now diving into the final corner passing all and sundry. The entire crowd went crazy. Phil Anderson was waving mad, thinking that all the roars and screams were for him taking victory. The thunderous roars had nothing to do with Anderson, but everything to do with the Yellow jerseyed Kelly travelling at the speed of a Kawasaki ZZR1100 up the main street behind him. Kelly took 4th on a stage where any other cyclist in the World would have been minutes down. He had given the assembled crowd the performance of a lifetime that they had craved.
As Kelly shot past our vantage point with blood streaming down his face, the farmer gave me a belt across the back that almost drove me out through the barriers and shouted in my ear once more ‘ THAT KELLY IS SOME FU**ING MAN’