Standing at the edge of the West Gate in Clonmel as an entire Country came to a halt as Sean Kelly strove for a second consecutive victory in the second ever Nissan Classic emotions were running high. Beside me was a local farmer, 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.
Late September 1985. The Master (school principal) stands in front of a room full of fourth, fifth and sixth class pupils and informs them that a big cycle race is passing nearby and that if they were interested they could all walk down to Keatings cross to watch it pass. A chorus of yesses went up and the decision was unanimous, although it probably had more to do with getting out of the classroom than any huge desire to watch a cycle race go by.
The sun was shining for the mile long walk and shortly after the group of 10,11 and 12 year olds arrive down to the crossroads which is on the main Clonmel to Ardfinnan road a Garda motorbike passes by at speed which was spectacular in its own right to the group of young school kids. Next over the brow of the hill comes a big flashy white hatchback Nissan Bluebird with lights and speakers on its roof. The car slows when it sees the gathering and stops to inform them via the speakers that the Nissan International Classic had just left the town of Clonmel on its way to Cork city via the Vee and that a local man had won that mornings time trial from Carrick to Clonmel in a record time and was now wearing a yellow jersey.
The name Sean Kelly was known to all in a rural school where sport was of huge importance but the understanding was just that he was a good cyclist who won a lot of races over in France. That was all well and good but he never played in an All Ireland for Tipp, so his status was as of yet unconfirmed. On the walk to watch the race we passed the homestead of the famous Babs Keating, a man who had a heap of All Irelands and who was in the running for managing the Tipp hurlers. That was what you’d call a famous sportsman at that crossroads an hour before the race would pass by.
The steady stream of colourful cars, one of which had three blond girls in it, and the funny sounding horns as they sped by gave rise to an atmosphere of anticipation. Then came the thump thump of a Helicopter and we were all waving mad up at the unusual sight in the rural sky. Then came more Garda motorbikes and a clutch of different coloured saloon and hatchback Bluebirds when suddenly appeared a dazzling barrage of colour. Jerseys in all the colours of the rainbow were occupied by lean hungry looking men who were aboard the shiniest looking pieces of metal which had spokes reflecting sunlight with a brightness that would rival any Hella spotlamp drilled onto the front bumper of the flashiest Ford Capri.
Then the cry went up. Someone had spotted him. ‘There’s Kelly in the yellow’. We all strained to catch a glimpse of the local lad who seemed to be the centre of all this activity. A split second glimpse was all it took for a life to change. The man in yellow really stood out from the pack. He resembled a King surrounded by his servants. In seconds they were gone and I felt a hunger in the pit of my stomach for more of this intense atmosphere that had the hairs on the back of my neck standing tall and cutting through my shirt.
Within minutes of their arrival we were all on the way back to Grange school once more. The talk was all about the cycle race and all about Kelly. Everyone was convinced that they saw him, even the student who was counting the number of cows in the field across the road at the time. Those who did actually see him all had a faraway look in their eyes. A small group of hurlers and footballers now wanted to get out on their bikes as soon as possible after school and see what it would be like to dream that they were Sean Kelly.
Four years later along that same stretch of road with one full underage racing season behind me I was out for the first time with the Carrick group. They were headed for the Vee and having joined in just outside Clonmel I was hoping to last as far as Ardfinnan. Going up Knocklofty hill and along the line I saw Kelly, in the flesh, just up ahead. His calves were like two pieces of granite shaped like rugby balls and he exuded power on the bike. The riders ahead went through and less than a mile from where I had first seen him, and heading in the same direction I was now cycling alongside Sean Kelly.
I did not know what to expect. I was starstruck and did not know what to say. A timid ‘howaya’ made its way through my mouth and he turned and looked me up and down in a glancing motion that took less than half a second. I didn’t know what was going to happen. In an instant I pictured being told to get lost, or to be asked to go to Belgium to become a pro. Neither happened. Instead he just asked ‘ Are you doing a bit of racing’, I said I was and he spent the next few minutes asking me how I was getting on and how I was enjoying it. There was no supernatural insight or no golden nugget of wisdom. Neither was there any condescending smile or smart remark. All there was, was the greatest cyclist of his generation out on his bike acting like an ordinary bloke. Except he wasn’t acting. Then and now Kelly does not see himself as above anyone else. He is a great example of someone who sees themselves as ‘just as good as everyone, but no better than anyone’.
Over the years I have come to know Sean pretty well, both on and off the bike. I have seen middle aged men turn into giddy teenagers as they meet their childhood hero and discover how willing he is to sign an autograph, pose for a 'selfie' or just have a chat. I have seen the joy that these encounters can bring and the astonishment people display upon discovering just how approachable this global cycling superstar is.
One evening I was out in the shed on the turbo trainer watching a DVD. It’s title was The Sean Kelly story. It is as if there are two Sean Kellys. The one who is in the top five of the Greatest cyclists of all time and the local man from Carrick who is out with the group every weekend when he is home and is just one of the lads.
They say that you should never meet your hero as it usually ends in disappointment. I disagree. I’ve met mine and my life has been all the better for it. In a hundred years time ebooks will look back and tell a tale of people in Ireland and throughout the World who were greedy and power hungry. People who had no respect for themselves or anyone else. But there will also be examples of people who inspired generations. People who treated others with respect and civility. People who gave hope and who made ordinary people want to be the best that they could become. Sean Kelly will have a whole inspirational chapter in one of those books!