The atmosphere changed when Seán Kelly arrived to take part in the 2015 Cork to Galway Charity Cycle in partnership with Coca-Cola Zero Bikes on Friday the 19th of June. Excited looks were exchanged between the 70 amateur cyclists who were taking part. Several had autograph books at the ready and many more posed for photographs. Virtually all of them had vivid memories of watching this former professional road racer in action during his 1980s heyday.

Seán was one of the most successful cyclists of that time. He won nine monumental classics and 193 races from when he turned professional in 1977 to when he retired in 1994.

However, his path to becoming a professional cyclist wasn’t clear cut. Born into a farming family in rural Waterford for whom cycling was merely a way of getting from one place to another.

“My father had a bike and I remember teaching myself how to ride it when I was six or seven years old,” says Seán. “I got my own bike when I was ten or so. I would use it to get to and from school, which was three miles from home, as well as to get to town. Cycling was just a way for me to get around.”

It took Seán several years to realise he was good at cycling and even longer to appreciate that it was possible for him to make a career out of it. “A cycling club was set up in the nearby town of Carrick-on-Suir and they went around the schools to drum up members,” he recalls. “They held races on Sunday afternoons and I went along with some friends.”

Although Seán’s bike was a very basic model, he immediately showed an aptitude for racing. He won his first amateur race in 1970, aged 14. He soon upgraded to a racing bike and the more races he competed in, the more he was exposed to the world of professional cycling.

“It was so different back then,” says Seán. “Living on the farm, I had no idea it was possible to be a professional. Now, I meet youngsters who know all of the cyclists’ names and who they cycle for. It took me years to realise that people were professional cyclists and that I too could make a career out of it.”

This is what he did when he turned professional in 1977, at the age of 21. By 1983, he had reached his physical peak. In that year, he won prestigious races such as Paris-Nice, Paris-Roubaix and Liege-Bastogne-Liege as well as coming second in Milan-San Remo and Ronde van Vlaanderen.

He looks back on his wins with pride but what he is most grateful for is that he progressed through his career without incurring major injury. “It’s so easy for cyclists to crash and get hurt,” he says. “I’m lucky I emerged in good shape.”

He urged his fellow cyclists in the Cork to Galway Cycle to prioritise safety. “Today is for having fun,” he said. “But just remember that we share busy roads with motorists. Drive two abreast or even single file. Do what you can to stay safe.”

Seán is still involved in the world of cycling today. He set up the Seán Kelly Cycling Academy in Belgium and launched Ireland’s first professional cycling team there in 2006. He also takes part in charity cycles to raise money for different causes, such as the Cork to Galway Cycle which was in aid of Breakthrough Cancer Research.

It gladdens him to see more people cycling. “So many people are cycling now,” he says. “The tax breaks from the Bike to Work Scheme got a lot of people into it and the economy slowing down meant people had more time for sports and fitness. Cycling is good because it’s a form of transport as well as a way of staying fit. It’s something people can slot into their daily lives.”

Because safety is always a priority for Seán, he understands that many inexperienced cyclists might be nervous about sharing the roads with fast-moving vehicles. He has a solution to this problem.

“There are lots of cycle tracks around the country now, particularly along old railway lines,” he says. They’re a great place to practice if you’re nervous.”

Not everyone can reach the cycling standards of the great Seán Kelly but if there’s one lesson we could all learn from him, it’s how to stay safe while enjoying the challenge of cycling on our busy roads.