Re-Cycle: 'That was my chance' – when Adrie Van der Poel denied Sean Kelly at the Tour of Flanders
Thirty-four years before Mathieu van der Poel won the Tour of Flanders, his father pipped Sean Kelly to the line. Felix Lowe turns back the clock to 1986, and the race in which the Irishman would come closest to glory in the only Monument that would forever elude him. The Tour of Flanders 2021 is live on Eurosport, the Eurosport app and Eurosport.co.uk
Re-Cycle: 'That was my best chance' – when Adrie Van der Poel denied Sean Kelly in his pomp
Adrie van der Poel found the 2020 Tour of Flanders more stressful than the edition he actually won. Not only was the outcome out of his hands, but the 61-year-old was also working for his son’s Alpecin-Fenix team, giving out spare wheels and musettes along the route – all while trying to keep track of Mathieu’s performance.
“He was in front with two other really good riders,” Van der Poel says, recalling the winning move that also featured Wout van Aert and world champion Julian Alaphilippe, who crashed out dramatically with 35km remaining after colliding with a motorbike.
“Okay, one fell down, then it was a battle between the two of them. And it was the battle everyone wanted to see. Van Aert had won his first Monument at San Remo. So for Mathieu, after the hard work he did, it was very nice to win his first big Monument. And for me it was extra special because I won that race too.”
Watch the stunning Tour of Flanders finish as Van der Poel and Van Aert duke it out
It was 6th April 1986 when Van der Poel senior won the Ronde, the Dutchman pulling off a surprise to dart past Ireland’s Sean Kelly and triumph from a four-man break in Meerbeke. It was the second of three occasions in the space of four years that Kelly would finish runner-up in Flanders – the only one of cycling’s five Monuments missing from his otherwise impeccable palmarès.
If Kelly was ever going to win the Ronde, 1986 was the year. The then-29-year-old was at the peak of his powers and firing on all cylinders, having already won a fifth consecutive Paris-Nice crown and a maiden Milan-San Remo title. But form is not the only factor in a bike race. If anything, Kelly can now readily admit that he was overconfident that day.
Setting the scene: Kelly on fire
Adrie van der Poel, on the other hand, had the form but no wins to back it up. He had hit double figures in his win tally the year before, but the Dutchman had yet to get off the mark as the Belgian cobbles campaign got under way. Top 10 finishes in eight races – including Milan-San Remo and the Three Days of De Panne – confirmed his good condition. But as April came, there was something missing.
“That year in 1986 all the races I did I was in great shape, but I didn’t get any victories,” he recalls. “So it was a case of ‘fingers crossed’ and wait for the first victory to come.”
Riding for the Dutch Kwantum Hallen team, Van der Poel was no Sean Kelly – heck, he wasn’t even an Eddy Planckaert – but he was a solid all-rounder who’d made his name finishing runner-up behind Stephen Roche in Paris-Nice in 1981, the year before Kelly started his seven-year run in the Race to the Sun.
Top 10s in Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and two podium finishes in the Giro di Lombardia, underlined Van der Poel’s versality in the big one-day races. If Kelly was Champions League pedigree, then his Dutch counterpart was definitely a Europa League regular.
Kelly, by contrast, entered the 70th edition of the Ronde with five career Monuments to his name, having won Lombardia twice, Roubaix, Liège and most recently, just weeks earlier, San Remo – outfoxing Greg LeMond and Mario Beccia on the via Roma as Van der Poel came home in the chasing group 23 seconds down to take seventh.
Since winning on the Italian riviera, Kelly’s packed schedule had seen him come runner-up in both the Critérium International and Three Days of De Panne before keeping Kas, his Spanish sponsor, content with a victory in the Tour of the Basque Country.
Kelly was a dying breed of cyclist who, in the mould of Merckx, pretty much rode every race to win. The Irishman would top 30 wins that season despite spreading himself thin over the course of the year in what he would later describe as a “totally crazy” schedule. It was a programme dictated in large part by his faithful manager, the aviator-sporting Jean de Gribaldy, with his celebrated mantra: “If you’re not racing you have got to train, so you might as well be racing.”
This punishing philosophy helped Kelly become one of the defining riders of the 80s, the Irish all-rounder capable of winning both Monuments and Grand Tours – all while securing seven successive Paris-Nice triumphs on the Côte d’Azur.
De Gribaldy wasn’t the only person to blame for Kelly’s hectic race schedule. For three of his most successful years, Kelly rode for Kas, the Spanish fizzy drink producer that stepped in to replace Skil as the team’s main sponsor. Kelly’s heart might have been in the cobbled Classics, but the company paying his wages were more motivated by plastering their name across the Spanish season – as Kelly explains in his autobiography, Hunger:
“I remember the big boss, Luis Knorr, saying to me: ‘Tour of Spain, Tour of the Basque Country, Catalonia – if you can win those races, I’m happy. The Classics are always in cold weather and the Belgians only drink beer, not soft drinks.’“
But having finished second in the 1984 edition of the Ronde – Kelly winning the sprint in the chasing group 25 seconds behind solo winner Johan Lammerts of the Netherlands – the man of the moment was dead-set on performing well over the bergs before jetting out to Antzuola in northern Spain for the first stage of the Basque Tour the very next day. If reputation and form together combined to make Kelly the clear favourite as 175 riders rolled out of Sint-Niklaas for the Ronde, his build-up had also been near flawless, too. Then again, Van der Poel wasn’t exactly in bad nick either.
In stark contrast to the previous edition, won with a solo attack by the Belgian national champion Eric Vanderaerden in abysmal conditions, the weather was dry and mild for the 1986 race. Thirteen cobbled climbs featured in the 274km route, and an early move saw the Belgian Marc van Geel building up a lead of 10 minutes. Once he tired, Van Geel was joined by Dirk Demol, with the duo’s lead down to three minutes after the first test, the Molenberg. Both riders were reeled in one after the other once another Belgian, Panasonic’s Eddy Planckaert, upped the tempo on the long grind of the Oude Kwaremont.
A select group of around 20 riders formed in pursuit of Planckaert, with Kelly in his loud yellow Kas jersey very much the driving force. Soon, Planckaert was back in the leading group alongside three Panasonic teammates – including the defending champion Vanderaerden – as scores of reinforcements managed to bridge across to swell the numbers.
It was Panasonic’s Jos Lammertink who drove the pace ahead of an attack by Vanderaerden on the Paterberg – which stretched out the peloton once again. Then came the infamous Koppenberg, onto which Vanderaerden rode with a few seconds advantage over the main field. It was here that a first proper selection was made – and here, on the narrow, steep farm track, where the winner-elect suffered a not-insignificant setback.
“I had to run up the Koppenberg because someone crashed in front of me,” Van der Poel recalls. “I couldn’t get back up on the bike, so I had to finish the climb by running.”
The incident occurred as Planckaert and Kelly led the chase on Vanderaerden, forcing a response from the likes of Marc Sergeant, Steve Bauer, Johan Van de Velde and Greg LeMond, the young American who had made ripples by finishing runner-up in the previous year’s Tour de France and World Championships.
As the pursuing pack bunched up like an accordion when the gradient pitched up, a Peugeot rider slipped and fell across the road, forcing everyone behind to slam-on the brakes. A handful managed to swerve around the obstacle, but Van der Poel was one of several big names to be caught on the wrong side of what caused a collective shouldering of bicycles, as the Ronde van Vlaanderen temporarily became a cyclocross race on the Koppenberg.
“The first information we got a few kilometres later was that there was a group ahead with 10 riders – 10 good riders,” says Van der Poel, who was riding in the pack with, among others, the 1981 winner Hennie Kuiper, the triple Paris-Roubaix champion Francesco Moser, and the double Tour de France winner Laurent Fignon (who 10 days later would go on to win La Flèche Wallonne).
With three Panasonic riders (Vanderaerden, Van de Velde and Planckaert) and two trans-Atlantic La Vie Claire stars in Bauer and LeMond, it was a strong group of seven that had formed from the melee, with three more joining shortly after the Taaienberg.
“The problem in the first group,” Van der Poel recalls, “was that one team had three or four riders in it. The gap was around 40 seconds but it was never bigger than 1 minute 10 seconds. I felt quite quickly that there was something not good in the first group, otherwise the race was over at the Koppenberg.”
He was right. Planckaert’s rear wheel had punctured. And with no team car in sight, he had to wait for some shoddy mechanical assistance from the neutral service car before being forced to close a 45-second gap. Teammate Van de Velde eased up to help pace Planckaert back ahead of the Leberg with 40-odd kilometres remaining, shortly before LeMond put in a softener as part of a La Vie Claire one-two. The American led onto the Berendries section and, once again, it was left to utility man Van de Velde to neutralise the threat.
With LeMond’s cameo on the front over, teammate Bauer and a revived Planckaert combined ahead of the 11th test of the day, the mighty Muur van Geraardsbergen. It was on the mythical climb up to the chapel where the cheques that Planckaert’s tired legs were trying to cash bounced. Canada’s Bauer rode clear of a physically bankrupt Planckaert with a decent 50-second lead on the main chasers over the summit, driven by Kelly after the break had been all but mopped up by the pack.
Bauer’s lead was still 40 seconds after the last major test, the Bosberg, with 20km remaining. With Planckaert swallowed up, some riders started to test their legs – including Kelly and the persistent LeMond, as well as the former world champion Claude Criquielion and his Hitachi teammate Jean-Philippe Vandenbrande. And it was here that Adrie van der Poel began to come to the fore, the Dutchman having kept a low profile since his jog up the Koppenberg.
“One by one they came back and, after the Muur of Geraardsbergen there was a small group in front with Kelly, Bauer and Vandenbrande,” he recalls. “I think with around eight to 10 kilometres to go, I was the only one who could close the gap. That’s a short way of telling you that I was the strongest.”
Indeed, no sooner had Van der Poel managed to join Kelly and Vandenbrande than this trio became a leading quartet after Bauer was reabsorbed on the outskirts of Meerbeke with 7km to the finish. The raft of quality riders behind meant there was no let up for the leaders – no chance to play cat-and-mouse on the run-in.
But it was also quite clear that one of these four would end up winning Flanders for the first time in their career that afternoon.
Approaching the finish
Watching the race back today, one observation it’s hard not to make is just how strong Kelly looked. In fact, such was the calibre of the seven-man breakaway that formed after the Koppenberg, it’s a marvel that it did not go the distance. Perhaps had Planckaert not punctured – or Kelly been more clinical, or if North American teammates LeMond and Bauer had combined with greater belief and more maturity – it might have just done so. But in Kelly’s defence, what he had up his sleeve was his staying power, his excellent form, and his fast finish. He knew he could beat all the others in a sprint.
His autobiography, however, raises another dynamic: that Kelly was riding the Ronde with one eye on Roubaix. In Hunger, Kelly admits that he offered to help out Van der Poel in return for the Dutchman returning the compliment a week later over the cobbles of northern France. Not only was the Dutchman in desperate need of a win, a victory in Flanders (as opposed to in France) offered his Kwantum team, a Low Countries DIY chain, more bang for their buck.
The pact looked immaterial for a large part of the race, what with Kelly in the break and Van der Poel leading the chase behind. But it was perhaps activated once the two men found themselves in the leading quartet as they approached the finish, since Kelly, for someone who was the clear favourite, certainly seemed to do the lion’s share of the work. That said, Kelly also insisted in Hunger that, once the final sprint started, both riders gave 100 per cent. And when quizzed for this piece about any ostensible collaboration, the pair played any arrangement down.
“I can remember a lot about that race – primarily because of the sprint, because I was in the leading group,” Kelly admits. “It was one of the years that I was really feeling good in the final of the Tour of Flanders. With around 25km to go, as the leading group formed, I remember speaking to Van der Poel and agreeing that we’d ride together and then see what happened.”
For his part, Van der Poel was relieved twice over: first, that he managed to close the gap on Kelly and Vandenbrande, and second that Bauer was caught.
“Steve had been on the front for a very long time, and we knew that we had to get Steve back or the race would be over,” he says. “I knew that and Sean knew that too.
I felt really good that I wasn’t just riding into the finish alone [behind the leaders]. When I joined the group, I did my work but not at all at 100 per cent. Maybe around 89 per cent, you know? Because we were close to the finish, so I don’t think we calculated. [But] the first following group wasn’t that far behind.
If the result seemed predictable for those watching at home, it did so, too, for the man in yellow who everyone felt would soon join the illustrious club of riders to have won all five of cycling’s Monuments. Even so, the sight of Kelly leading the quartet onto the home straight before pre-empting the final battle by launching his sprint with 200m remaining did raise eyebrows.
“To be honest,” Kelly says, “I felt so strong that I didn’t feel like anyone could beat me on that day. I kept riding and in the final kilometre I was pulling that group along – really keeping the pace high, making it difficult was my tactic.
“We came into Meerbeke and that run to the line and I remember saying to myself that I’d just ride on the front and then wind up the sprint, show them how to sprint uphill. I think it was around 180m that I started to wind up the sprint and I felt like nobody would be able to come around me.
“But in the final 20 or 30 metres I started to get the big legs and the lactate was building up. Slowly I was starting to get the bigger legs as I was getting closer to the line. Then I could see Van der Poel who was just coming up by me in slow motion. And he just came around me in the final few metres.”
As the tiring Kelly faded, Van der Poel veered to the left, taking the wind out of the sails of the unfortunate Bauer, before powering past to take the win by a bike length. Would a race jury today have taken a second look? Perhaps.
But the result stood. As the Dutchman celebrated with an upwards scoop of his arms, Kelly took second ahead of Vandenbrande, with Bauer, the first Canadian to finish in the top 10 of Flanders, missing out on the podium place his combative ride probably deserved.
Overconfidence the biggest obstacle for Kelly
On a blog entry about the Tour of Flanders on his website, Sean Kelly looks back at that race in 1986 and asks himself why Adrie van der Poel won. “Because on the day I wanted to win, but he really, really wanted it more,” is his conclusion.
It’s a fair assessment, but one that doesn’t tell the whole story. Kelly undoubtedly sensed, aged 29 and approaching his pomp, that he would have many more chances of adding a Ronde trophy to his crowded mantlepiece, but he also clearly felt – as he approached the finish line in 1986 – that the wait was over, that the job was done.
“I certainly believed that I’d have other chances over the years to win Flanders, but on that occasion I was confident that I could win in the sprint by keeping the race pace high and keeping everybody under pressure,” Kelly says 34 years later.
“I reckoned I could beat everybody in the sprint. But that’s the time to make mistakes – when you’re really riding well and feeling so strong, that’s exactly when you can lose races. If I had played it a bit more, not taken out the front and made the sprint, came around a bit, then I think it could have been different.”
Kelly admits that he knew both Bauer and Van der Poel were the dangermen.
But the way I was feeling in the final kilometres – I felt I had them on the ropes. That was the mistake I made with Van der Poel, who was very experienced, very cute in those scenarios. I probably gave him too much and I paid for it in the final metres before the line.
“That’s something… you know, in hindsight, you realise just after the race. Maybe years after, I say: ‘If only I had ridden differently, I think I could have won that race.’ But hindsight is a great thing.”
If winning the Ronde was the greatest success Van der Poel had tasted in his career to that point, the rangy Dutchman did not take any particular pleasure in beating Kelly, whom he considered to be a close colleague and very good friend.
“Of course, I was happy that I won the race but not especially that I beat Kelly,” he says. “He was certainly more of a favourite than I was. But I think Seany’s only mistake that day – especially in the final – was that he was quite sure he was going to beat the three of us.”
Kelly already had 11 wins to his name that season. That was 11 more wins than his three rivals put together. Put simply, he underestimated Van der Poel – and for that he was punished with a second place he’d always regret.
What happened next: second again for Kelly
“Of course Kelly was disappointed,” Van der Poel says. “But when we next met – at Paris-Roubaix the following weekend – he said: ‘Okay, today we have another chance’. And, again, we were four in the front. That time he beat me.”
But before the Hell of the North, Kelly had Kas and his contractual obligations to consider. There was no time to cry over spilt Belgian milk. And with Van der Poel celebrating his win with a Leffe or two, Kelly had a plane to catch to Bilbao ahead of the opening stage of the Tour of the Basque Country the next morning.
“Maybe if there had been someone on the team to take on the stage races, it would have relieved the pressure a bit,” Kelly told Procycling magazine in 2016.
Given his Sunday exertions over the Belgian bergs, you can forgive Kelly for being a little leggy in the opener, the Irishman coming home in eighth. In stage two, he finished behind compatriot Martin Earley in second place before returning to winning ways in stage three. He would add two more stages to his name before the weekend, taking the General Classification in the process. A flight back to Belgium and a drive down to Compiègne meant King Kelly could then grace the Queen of the Classics.
In filthy conditions, a quartet of Kelly, Van der Poel, Rudy Dhaenens and Ferdi Van Den Haute came to Roubaix together for a finish that, for the first time since 1943, did not take place in the velodrome, but outside the local La Redoute clothes factory outlet. When Van Den Haute attacked with a kilometre to go and Dhaenens’ legs turned to jelly, Kelly, mindful of what happened the previous Sunday, sat tight and let Van der Poel take up the chase. It was then the Dutchman who launched his sprint early, with Kelly easing past his rival for the sixth of his nine Monument victories.
“For me it was always better to be second or third behind Kelly than a rider like Van Den Haute,” Van der Poel told Procycling three decades on.
Kelly’s San Remo-Roubaix double in 1986 was something only achieved once before – by Belgium’s Cyrille Van Hauwaert in 1908 – and once since, by Germany’s John Degenkolb in 2015. Adding Flanders would have given Kelly an unprecedented triple. And it would have seen the Irishman join Belgians Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx and Roger De Vlaeminck in the hall of fame as a winner of all five of cycling’s Monuments.
There was, however, no respite for Kelly once he’d held his cobblestone trophy aloft. Three days later he was at the start of La Flèche Wallonne before taking on Liège-Bastogne-Liège the following weekend and then the Vuelta a España, which started two days later. There he won two stages, finished third overall and took the Points Classification.
Kelly later skipped that year’s Tour de France – not because of his demanding schedule, but owing to a serious crash in the final stage of the Tour de Suisse. He bounced back from his unplanned rest period to come fifth in the Worlds in Colorado Springs. He then won the Tour of Catalunya and his home Tour of Ireland, before capping a frightfully long season as a bridesmaid in Lombardia.
Image credit: Getty Images
Kelly’s ubiquity in the pro peloton and versatility over all terrains made him something of an example among his peers, with Eric Vanderaerden telling Procycling: “If you wanted to win at that time, you had to be better than Sean Kelly because he was there at every race. He was never a lazy rider. Get in a break with him and he rode. He didn’t look around and see who was there.”
Kelly returned to Flanders in 1987 and finished runner-up once again – this time one minute down on the winner, Claude Criquielion. In 1988, he finished fourth – pipped by Van der Poel again, this time in the sprint for the final place on the podium. Looking back, did the 1986 edition he lost to Van der Poel represent his best ever chance at winning the one major Classic that eluded him?
“When you look at the final kilometres of that race, then it was definitely my best chance – especially given the way I was feeling, the way I thought the other riders were feeling.” Kelly admits.
Criquielion’s victory, however, provided Kelly with a whole new raft of tactical regrets. “I remember when we were in the final 25km and I was the only one from my team,” he says. “Criquelion said to me: ‘I’m going to attack,’ and I said: ‘If you attack, I’m not going to chase’. There were three or four Panasonic guys and I thought that would suit me because they would chase and I would get a free ride, then maybe mop up in the sprint and win it that way.
“But Criquelion attacked and he was allowed to take 30 seconds. Then Panasonic started riding but they didn’t have enough to take him back. We came to the sprint for second place and I beat Vanderaeden, and you start thinking then: ‘If I had done things differently…’
“But that’s after the race – and when you analyse, it’s easy to come up with ideas of what you should have done.”
Further Monument wins would come for Kelly in 1989 (Liège), 1991 (Lombardia) and 1992 (San Remo again), while he also won the Vuelta in 1988, the same year he secured his seventh successive Paris-Nice win.
As for Van der Poel, his form continued into the Ardennes that spring with a third consecutive Monument podium, finishing second behind Moreno Argentin in Liège following his victory in Flanders and third place in Roubaix. The Dutchman never won the Tour of Flanders again, but he did add La Doyenne to his palmarès in 1988, outsprinting Belgium’s Michel Dernies and Scotland’s Robert Millar in Liège for a victory he felt was “maybe a little bit more special” than his Flanders win.
“With all those climbs many people thought it would be too hard for me,” he says. “But that year I was good. I followed the best climbers of that moment. I got in the breakaway and then at the end it was quite easy because I was in front with Millar and Dernies.
“Normally, in the sprint, that shouldn’t be a problem for me. But I was not in the same position as Sean was in Flanders in 1986. That’s to say, I wasn’t too confident I was going to win. I was very careful to go not too long, not too short – just at the right moment. It was a little bit easier because it was a very hard and cold day, and normally in those conditions I am at my best. When I was in a position to win a big race, I often won that race. For me, it was very special to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège.”
Like father, like son: 34 years on
When Mathieu van der Poel edged Wout van Aert to win 2020’s rescheduled Tour of Flanders in a photo finish at Oudenaarde, he was wearing the number 51 on his jersey – not too dissimilar from the number 57 that his father wore when he zipped past Kelly three and a half decades earlier.
The nail-biting victory over his long-standing Belgian rival came less than an hour after world champion Julian Alaphilippe’s dramatic collision with a motorcycle. But it took nothing away from the Van der Poels becoming the first father-and-son duo to win the same Monument. And if you factor in the Milan-San Remo victory of the late Raymond Poulidor – Adrie’s father-in-law and Mathieu’s grandfather – then you have three generations of monumental winners.
Highlights of a remarkable edition of the men's Tour of Flanders
“Father and son winning the same races is something special,” Adrie says. “We also both won the Amstel Gold Race. There are still some races for him to win that I won. But he will win many more races that I didn’t win, that’s for sure.” That expanding list now includes Strade Bianche – although the white-road classic in Tuscany (which many feel should be declared the sixth Monument) was admittedly not around in Adrie’s day.
Watching Van der Poel junior win the Ronde last year, Sean Kelly enjoyed seeing the son of his good friend Adrie – now one of cycling’s hottest properties – open his Monument account after being able to do what Kelly failed to do: lead out from the front on the home straight of the Ronde.
“It was amazing to see Mathieu van der Poel win last year to follow in his father’s footsteps – but it doesn’t make it any easier for me,” Kelly rues.
“When you look at my palmarès and finishing three times second… yeah, it’s just something is missing there. There were occasions when I think I was good enough to win it, but if I had ridden better tactically then I could have won the Tour of Flanders.”
A win in Flanders might leave a huge void on his record, but there was another one-day race that also eluded King Kelly: that which would have enabled him to wear the rainbow bands for a year.
“To make the call between the Flanders and the World Championships, it would always be the World Championships,” he says. “Everybody would want to win that. But Flanders is one of the great Monuments and it’s something missing for me. That’s definitely the one what hurts because I was good enough to win, certainly on one occasion and maybe more than one occasion. If only I had played it a bit different, tactically, then possibly I could have won a Tour of Flanders.”