Like Robbie McEwen, our No. 7 pick among the Greatest Road Sprinters of the past four decades, Sean Kelly, our No. 6, was a late bloomer. Although he won a stage of his first Tour de France (1978) at age 22, it wasn’t in a mass sprint, but a five-man breakaway. Kelly’s main job in his opening three seasons was as a lead-out man for Flandria team leader Freddy Maertens. And he didn’t come into his own as a sprinter until he changed squads and was able to use his greyhound-like speed in 1980 to win five stages of the Vuelta a España and two at the Tour.
John Wilcockson/Yuzuru Sunada
As for the classics, Kelly didn’t win his first monument until he was 27, six years after turning pro, when he narrowly out-sprinted Greg LeMond, Adrie Van der Poel and Hennie Kuiper at the 1983 Giro di Lombardia. Before that, the closest he’d come to winning a classic were fourth- and fifth-place finishes at Milan–San Remo.
Born into a farming family in rural Ireland, Kelly would have an unusual path into the European professional peloton, first fighting his way to the head of the Irish amateur ranks before heading to France and proving his potential with a prolific spate of wins. Kelly’s field-sprinting ability was enough to earn him the sprinter’s green jersey four times at the Tour and three times at the Vuelta—he never started the Giro d’Italia.
But in the second half of his 18-year career, he mostly used his speed to take group sprints at the end of classics. After his initial 1993 monument victory, Kelly went on to win eight more classics, including two more editions of Lombardia, two of Paris–Roubaix, two of Liège–Bastogne–Liège and two of Milan–San Remo. The last of his monument victories came at age 35 in the 1992 San Remo, where he escaped on the late descent of the Poggio with Italian favorite Moreno Argentin and then out-sprinted him (this image), three seconds ahead of a 30-man chase group.
Among Kelly’s biggest regrets were never wearing the rainbow jersey (despite five top-fives, including two thirds, at the world championships) or winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen (three second places). But Kelly wasn’t just a sprinter; he developed into a formidable stage racer, netting one Vuelta (1988), two Tours de Suisse, seven Paris–Nice editions, four Tours of Ireland, three Tours of the Basque County and two Voltas a Catalunya…the most complete all-around sprinter of all time!