When a young person looks at their sporting heroes in action there are two thoughts very often going through their minds.
One – They want to be the hero. They want to feel the experience of crowds cheering them on, all shouting their name. All willing them on to succeed. They unintentionally want to feel the surge of emotion that very few regular people ever get the chance to experience. They want to feel the hairs on the back of their necks rise as the screams of sports fans drive them on.
Two – They want friends, family and people who know them to see them, and share the moment with them.
Only the very few ever get to experience such a high at any moment in their lives, but on a warm September afternoon in 1986, in the country town of Clonmel in County Tipperary, two young brothers and a farmer’s son from Carrick on Suir got to experience the moment of a lifetime.
Anthony and Dick O’Gorman were two of the best cyclists in the country at a time when Irish cycling was at the top of the World. Kelly and Roche were amassing so many UCI points that amateur races everywhere wanted Irish teams on their start lines. The two Clonmel brothers were regulars on the teams that went to the best races, and gave some of the best performances.
Working side by side in the family bakery, starting at 5.30 am each morning, both taking a half day on Wednesdays to get a big spin in, hard work on and off the bike was never a problem. Saturday too was a workday, and often a morning spent baking bread and cakes was followed by a 2 or 3 hour drive to the start line of a weekend stage race where the brothers often decimated the opposition, many of whom were full time bike riders.
The Nissan Classic began in 1985 and gave the nation a showcase for their very own world number one cyclist Sean Kelly along with the future Tour de France winner Stephen Roche. Cycling was huge and Anthony was on the Irish National team and got to ride on the day that Kelly broke all records on the famous time trial from Carrick to Clonmel. That afternoon Anthony was at the front of the bunch as it departed his home town.
One year later, almost to the day, the Nissan Classic was back in Clonmel but this time with a full stage finish after traveling from Cork, including two laps of the Ragwell, a savage climb fit to rival St Patricks Hill in Cork, on the outskirts of the town. Thousands of people lined every inch of O’Connell street in Clonmel as the whole town along with most of its hinterland came to a complete halt as everyone piled in to see the huge sporting occasion.
This time both Anthony and Dick were selected on the Irish team and approaching their home town they went on the attack together. Behind them the likes of Phil Anderson, Eric Vanderarden and Adri Van der Poel not to mention the great Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche were all left in the Clonmel brothers’ wake.
The announcer was giving the huge crowd which was up to 10 deep all the way along the main street plenty of updates as the race approached via a plethora of loudspeakers which ran the full length of the street. The excitement was building and even an hour before the race entered the town a mention of Kelly was greeted with a loud roar from the enormous crowd. When the announcement came that the two local boys , Anthony and Dick O’Gorman were leading the race and would be the first two riders to cross the finish line on the first lap, a finish line just meters from the front door of their family bakery, the entire town seemed to rise off the ground, so loud and thunderous was the roar of approval.
Aluminium barriers groaned as everyone tried to catch a glimpse of the two local boys passing their home and family and friends. A jumbo jet taking off would have gone unheard as it would have been drowned out by the encouragement of the local population urging on two of their own. It felt like the whole world was focused for one moment in time on the return home of two warrior brothers on steel horses. The moment lasted about twenty seconds as they raced along the length of the main street and just as it was beginning to subside along came the bunch which had a yellow clad Sean Kelly near the front and the crowd erupted once again.
The bravery of the O’Gorman’s was overcome by the ferocity of the world’s top professionals on the savage climb of the Ragwell.
I still remember being there that day, standing at the edge of the West Gate outside Johnny Kavanaghs shop. Beside me was a local farmer from Kilsheelan, 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.
It was all well and good Sean Kelly 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 also 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, YOU’RE 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 the O’Gorman brothers or Sean Kelly’s’ 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 up the main street in black woolly 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 193 big races abroad was one thing but winning a huge race back home in Ireland was another feeling altogether. Over the top of The Ragwell 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 he was boxed in and out of position to respond immediately.
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 stone wall on a treacherous bend pushed back. A hole in a grass verge upended Kelly and he smashed hard into the 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 as he exited onto the mountain road 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 two chasers in pursuit. The crowd gasped as the announcer relayed the news of Kelly’s’ 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 around the Main Guard 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 however, had very little to do with Anderson, but everything to do with the Yellow jersey of 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 behind. 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 from Kilsheelan 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 BLOODY MAN’ The day, however belonged to three men. The greatest cyclist of his time Sean Kelly, and the two O’Gorman brothers from Clonmel.