Anatomy of a Photo: 1986 Milan-San Remo

Lemond and Beccia are caught by a terrifying Kelly on the Poggio. Photo: Cor Vos

It’s a classic tactic. The day’s break is caught and before anyone has time to decide what to do about it, you counter-attack. Already tired from chasing the break, maybe – just maybe – the suckers you tricked into pulling for you will let you get away.

That was Beccia’s plan in the 1986 Milan-San Remo. He attacked right as the break was caught on the Poggio and Greg LeMond – America’s greatest-ever cyclist – went with him. The Poggio’s big-ring gradient must have suited LeMond’s powerful style perfectly and riding with the weaker Beccia, he must have felt almost assured of notching what would be the first American win in a monument.

A quick check over the shoulder to make sure no man is bridging up. Sure enough; no man is coming, but that doesn’t mean you’re not being overtaken. That’s Sean Kelly – half man, half bear, and half pig – doing his best to crack his bottom bracket on his one-race-per-frame Vitus.

That’s three big rings and three hard men, but only one has managed to scare the mud off his forehead. Spoiler alert: the finish line photo shows Kelly with spotlessly clean face.

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83 Replies to “Anatomy of a Photo: 1986 Milan-San Remo”

  1. @Rob

    As for Armstrong never met the man and have such mixed feelings about his Palmeres and methods of training. Leaving aside pharmacology he was too mechanical and driven with out the humanity of Merckx who was also the same in his training. The difference is that Merckx risked failure and Armstrong never did…

    Well articulated as usual, my man. As for LeMond, I was probably too young and starstruck to recognize spoiledom or some such, or maybe he was over by then. One way or another, he was incredibly friendly and approachable.

  2. I loved King Kelly.  And I really loved his Vitus.  I raced an Alan for a little while, which was essentially the same bike.  Aluminum tubes screwed and glued to lugs.  If someone still made that frame, but designed it to support the wider hubs of today, I’d buy one. 

  3. @frank  I liked him too for the 4 races and 3 hours I spent socially with him. It’s just that I still have a bug about him that does not need going into here and it ties into that “spoiledom”. He was a natural, talented and dedicated and if his mini dufoosness of getting shot had not sped his retirement he would have stood with the Gods. Perhaps it was karma?

    Also while I am on a rant one could argue that his Yank sense of entitlement caused the whole train wreck of Euro dopage or at least speed it along. His ego and need for a U.S. football like pay check was what started the quest for teams demanding more from all the riders. . . Maybe that is simplistic and you can’t put the genie back?

  4. @Jeff in PetroMetro Kelly for me is the epitome of old school tough, get it done with style, don’t whine, ride with balls of steel and throw in the best accent in the peloton!

  5. I did not discover competitive cycling until 1989, inspired by Greg LeMond versus Laurent Fignon and 8 seconds to wiin the Tour de France. And can still hear Phil Liggett caught in the excitement.

  6. @versio and the deficit going into that ride was 50 seconds and Lemond got all aero then did the ride of the decade and Fignon was just devastated… I remember how intense it was and poignant, happy and sad all at once – the smallest margins of victory/defeat ever for the Grande Boucle.

  7. @frank


    Sean Kelly is about as hard as they come, but I have never cared for LeMond.  You may not like him, but it’s hard to argue that Armstrong (Lance, not Kristin) is America’s best all-time cyclist.  There, I said it, let the thrashing begin ; )

    Finally someone bit, it’s about time.

    Pharmy isn’t the best not because of his obvious doping to get to the top, but because he was a one-trick pony. Pre-Cancer, it was only classics. Post-Cancer, it was only the Tour with the exception of Liege to test his form. Not to mention that he was standing on the shoulders of giants in terms of infrastructure and a precedent of American cyclists in Europe.

    Not only was LeMond a pioneer in Europe, but were it not for his hunting accident, he’d have 5 if not 6 or 7 Tour wins to his name as well, along with podiums or wins in races on both ends of the calendar. He was second both in MSR and Lombardy (both to Kelly, incidentally).

    And that’s even before we start talking about what an incredibly nice guy LeMond was. Having known him personally and spent more than a few hours hanging out and skiing with him, he was absolutely genuinely friendly. And fucking hard as nails. And – we know now that LeMond was right all along when he went all douchey about drugs in cycling.

    We do know he was right. I said some fairly not nice things about LeMan during a certain period of uncertainty over some doping cases some years ago. And…I was very wrong, and LeMan was very right. He still is.

    I learned my lesson.

  8. It’s so sweet to counter attack, catch ’em by surprise, and then strong leg it to the line.


  9. @frank No it’s not! MSR is “just” attrition, being able to handle the Cipressa and the Poggio and having a fair sprint at the end – any GT rider should be able to handle the distance – whereas Fleche and Amstel are tough races that aren’t won by punters, and who cares if they aren’t monuments?

    I agree that LeMond had some good classics results, but he was essentially a Tour specialist too – in fact, like Armstrong post-cancer, LeMond post-shooting was almost laughable outside the Tour, Worlds win aside. I’m not trying to say LeMond was or wasn’t better or worse than Armstrong, but the calibre of non-Tour results are actually very similar between the two.

  10. @frank And, again, you’ve twisted my words – I didn’t say he hoped to just improve on 36th in the Tour, I said he believed (and those around him believed) that he was capable of at least a podium, perhaps more. When I can be arsed I will scan the interview he gave after the ’95 Tour where he says that just making it through the race was the plan, with a view to the future of more clear performance goals once he knew how it was to finish a three week GT. You have to remember he was still very young at that point (24 in ’95) too.  Like him or don’t like him, but he was always a prodigious power, in much the same way as LeMond was when he was young.

  11. Lemond was the first cyclist I “remember” – I read about his and Kelly’s tour exploits in the Daily Mail growing up in the UK, I remember reading about the hunting accident and the comeback and just being amazed. To be honest, personalities apart, all of these greats actually move me to tears with their efforts – even guys like Cadel or Cavendish who it seems it’s unfashionable to admire. As a mid 40s social cyclist, I have my own goals and things I’d like to achieve on the bike – most of which centre around finishing in one piece (an even more that I will probably never manage) – I can only imagine the pain and the torture these guys put themselves through to achieve, and I think most of them to have every right to be a little self focussed and pumped – I think any athlete at the top of the game must be absolutely convinced that they are going to fulfil their goal every day they go out there – there is no room for self doubt, they just won’t make it if that’s the case.

    I love the Hinault P-R clip posted above, never seen that, just totally inspiring, and in the same vein I loved Armstrong going across the paddock in the Tour, Cavendish and Renshaw’s efforts on the Champs-Elysee, Cadel’s TT at the end of last year’s tour. These things blow me away. Over and over again – and what’s best is they make me want to run out jump on the bike and ride.

    Am totally feeling the warm and fuzzies at the moment. Just thought I’d say it.

  12. @Giles

    It is always fashionable to admire riders you like around here. People may not admire the same ones and we all have to be prepared to catch a little but I don’t think anybody takes this seriously enough to make it personal. At least where riders are concerned. But you’re wrong. Cadel and Cavendish are fashionable – Cadel always has been and Cav is really coming into his own this and last year. So there.

    Great comment.

  13. @marko


    It is always fashionable to admire riders you like around here … Cadel and Cavendish are fashionable – Cadel always has been …

    Great comment.

    Wut? Cuddles pre-Tour win was painted as the biggest weirdo ever. Sure, he was probably frustrated as all get out by the situation with his team pre-BMC, but there wasn’t a lot of love for Cuddles outside Aus. Anyone else here think Cuddles was a wheelsucker before he won the tour? 

  14. Is that a fact: did Kelly only ride those 979 frames once before swapping them out?

  15. @minion

    Can you stop posting common sense? I feel dirty when I agree with you.

    Every non-Australian (and quite a few Aussies – like Brett) used to bag the shit out of Evans. But you are wrong on the timing – his Worlds win was the point when he started to turn people’s opinion – then we saw him win Fleche, the muddy Giro stage win, etc etc.

    Even as a one-eyed Cadel fan, I still didn’t think he was a chance going into last year’s Tour. I was one of those armchair experts opining that he should target the Vuelta and one week stage races…

  16. <iframe width=”420″ height=”315″ src=”” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>


    I didn’t say he’s NOT a creepy little weirdo… 

  17. BTW just kidding I like Cuddles, though I was like Marcus said (ashes in my mouth) I was more ambivalent towards him before he started his worlds/Giro et al purple patch. The only thing I can recall before that was feeling sorry for him in GTs being with Lotto. (See content of above video not related to dogs) 

  18. @lonewheel
    No it’s not a fact, but he did break a lot in a year, I heard him talking them up only this year commentating on MSR, saying what he rode was every bit as light in the 80’s with ali frames and titanium hubs etc. The days when you couldn’t buy what eeh pro’s rode at your LBS. The man’s a legend, my no 2 ride is 979, I only ride it in full KAS regalia, signed by the man himself, breaks all sorts of rules but as a Tipp man it feels good (yes I know he was from Waterford).

  19. Lots of talk here about Kelly being the undoubted hardman that he was/is. Lots of chatter doing he rounds about Wiggo’s meticulously planned training schedule. I’m a big fan of being well-rounded and well-read. Here’s a link to one of the most incredible athletes of all time; Emil Zatopek. Not a cyclist, but a name all should know. His training regimen beggars belief. Add to his success his amazingly personality and strength of character, and it’s well worth  couple of minutes of our time. It’s from the Guardian and the rest of the articles in the series are a joy to read too.

  20. @frank Sorry for the delayed reply… the current round of allegations against Armstrong and Bruyneel seem like bullshit to me.  Armstrong was tested over 300 times as a professional and never came up hot.  Now, more than two years after his last test as a pro cyclist (he is still being tested as a Triathlete- once again, no positives) he is under investigation.  Based on what?  The allegations of riders that were not and never will be as good as him.  I agree that this is like Lebron James vs. Michael Jordan, BUT I think anyone who claims to definitively know that Armstrong was a doper is full of shit.

  21. My mate and Cycling Sensei has had the pleasure of being chased by Sean Kelly (two years ago on the Etape Hibernia when King Kelly acknowledged his effort for bridging a gap and taking Mr Kelly with him!) and riding the Poggio, but unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on what way you look at it) not a combination of the two.  He did have me chasing him up the Poggio, which I imagine doesn’t have quite the same effect…..

    Great section of road – you can really feel the history!

  22. @Ali McKee I think that’s one of the things that keeps me a Kelly fan is that he is still so involved on a grassroots level. This isn’t case of showing up for the occasional Gran Fondo, but it seems like he rides these events very regularly. He truly loves riding the bike and staying involved. I mean, how many folks can say they shot some hoops with Jordan, or played a round with Tiger? Damn few.

    While I’m at it, another great thing about our sport, as Ali suggests, is our ability to ride the very same roads as our heroes. We can have that connection and, if we’re lucky, ride beside one. How many folks can say they hit some fly balls at Yankee Stadium or drove at Indy? There a certain disconnect there that doesn’t apply to us.

  23. Thanks guys.  Interesting. I used to ride one of those 979’s myself (complete with Mavic assembly as close to Kelly’s as I could afford), and even as a 60KG mountain climbing junior, I could make the thing flex like a noodle.  I upgrade to a custom Reynolds 753 and never looked back!  

  24. @wiscot
    Totally agree with you on both points. And by all accounts he doesn’t just turn up and roll along easy. Apparently the pace at the Etape that year was tasty and Kelly was right in the middle of it for the majority of the ride. Legend!

    What amazed me on the Cipressa and the Poggio was the atmosphere I felt riding up them.

    It should be some sort of Velominati challenge to rank the top ten sections of road on the pro circuit and then ride as many as possible in a year or two. Not easy for our American brothers mind you!

  25. @lonewheel I had an Alan and even at 72kg the chain would sometimes jump sprockets when I sprinted – I didn’t flex bikes much back then but I sure flexed that Alan!

  26. @Anjin-san

    @frank Sorry for the delayed reply… the current round of allegations against Armstrong and Bruyneel seem like bullshit to me.  Armstrong was tested over 300 times as a professional and never came up hot.  Now, more than two years after his last test as a pro cyclist (he is still being tested as a Triathlete- once again, no positives) he is under investigation.  Based on what?  The allegations of riders that were not and never will be as good as him.  I agree that this is like Lebron James vs. Michael Jordan, BUT I think anyone who claims to definitively know that Armstrong was a doper is full of shit.

    Some of these old articles and comments are pretty funny to read now.

  27. Haha, Frank and I going head to head about Armstrong v. LeMond – think I’ll concede that one now!

    Also relevant to this thread, I now own a Vitus 979 that I’m slowly restoring!

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