Early life and amateur career
Kelly is the second son of Jack (John) and Nellie Kelly, a farming family in
Curraghduff in County Waterford. He was born at Belleville Maternity Home in Waterford city on 21 May 1956. He was named John James Kelly after his father and then, to avoid confusion at home, referred to as Sean. Seán is the Irish form of John.
For eight years he attended Crehana National School, County Waterford to which he travelled with his older brother, Joe. Fellow pupils recall a boy who retreated into silence because, they thought, he felt intellectually outclassed. His education ended at 13 when he left school to help on the farm after his father went to hospital in Waterford with an ulcer. At 16 he began work as a bricklayer.
Kelly began cycling after his brother had started riding to school in September 1969. Joe rode and won local races and on 4 August 1970 Sean rode his own first race, at Kennedy Terrace in Carrickbeg, County Waterford, part of Carrick-on-Suir. The race was an eight-mile (13 km) handicap, which meant the weaker riders started first and the best last. Kelly set off three minutes before the backmarkers. He was still three minutes ahead when the course turned for home after four miles (6 km) and more than three minutes in the lead when he crossed the line. At 16 he won the national junior championship at Banbridge, County Down.
Kelly won the national championship again in 1973, then took a senior licence before the normal qualifying age of 18 and won the Shay Elliot Memorial race in 1974 and again in 1975 and stages in the Tour of Ireland of 1975.
Kelly and two other Irish riders, Pat and Kieron McQuaid, went to South Africa to ride the Rapport Tour stage-race in preparation for the 1976 Olympic Games. They and others rode under false names because of an international ban on athletes competing in South Africa, as a protest against apartheid. The three Irish were suspended from racing for six months. They were racing again when the International Olympic Committee banned them from the Olympics for life.
Unable to ride in Canada, Kelly rode the 1976 Tour of Britain and then went to Metz, in France, after a London enthusiast, Johnny Morris, had arranged an invitation. Velo Club de Metz offered him £25 a week, free accommodation and four francs a kilometre for every race he won. Kelly won 18 of the 25 races he started in France and won the amateur Giro di Lombardia in Italy.
The win in Italy impressed two French team managers, Jean de Gribaldy and Cyrille Guimard. De Gribaldy went to Ireland unannounced to discuss a contract with the Flandria professional team. He did not know where Kelly lived and was not sure he would recognise him, so he took with him another cyclist, to point out Kelly, and translate. Kelly was out driving a tractor and de Gribaldy set out again in the taxi that had brought him from Dublin, hoping to find Kelly as he drove home. They found him and went to Kelly's stepbrother's house. De Gribaldy offered £4,000 a year plus bonuses, and a week later Kelly asked for £6,000, and got it. He signed for de Gribaldy, with misgivings about going back on his promise to return to VC de Metz; the club had offered him better terms than before.
Kelly left for France in January 1977 and lived for two years at 18 place de la Révolution in Besançon, de Gribaldy's home town. He shared with four teammates.