Imagine knocking up with Jimmy Connors, playing keepy-uppy with Johan Cruyff or doing laps with, I don't know, Duncan Goodhew. Well, that's what about 1,400 riders got to do, sort of, on Sunday 24 August, when at a reception on the eve of the inaugural Sky Ride Etape Hibernia, an 82-mile sportive on closed roads around County Clare, Ireland, guests started nudging each other and looking at a fairly short man in a stripy shirt.
"Who's the old guy?" I asked a cycling journalist to whom I had already exposed a fairly poor grasp of the sport. "That," said the man who knows his stuff, "is just about the hardest, baddest man who ever rode a bike."
It turns out we were in the company of Sean Kelly, a cyclist whose name, if not face, I recognised immediately. The Irish son of a farmer dominated the sport in the 1980s, using grit, brawn and occasional ruthlessness to win a string of classics and, almost, the Tour de France.
Now 54, Kelly was in a gentler mood the morning after drinks, when he lined up in the town of Ennis for the start of one of the sportive calendar's most exciting new additions. The route of the Hibernia, which I tackled with Kelly as well as a more recent convert to the sport, the Olympic champion, Denise Lewis, and the newsreader Dermot Murnaghan, wound north through morning mist before skirting the coast at Black Head and heading south again.
A few miles in, as I admired the views, Kelly, dressed in green, zipped effortlessly past. I picked up speed to catch his tail and sat, for as long as was decent, in the Irishman's slipstream. We didn't speak, but for a few minutes at least, I was riding with a great.
And then I beat him! Well, sort of. He pulled up after a few miles to go back in search of friends. But as I rolled back into Ennis in 34th place, after four hours, 13 minutes in the saddle, the crowds who had turned out to cheer the pros would have to wait at least another 10 minutes for Kelly to sign autographs. A hollow victory, perhaps, but one to embellish for the grandkids.
To find out how Denise did after only a couple of months of cycling, go to etapehibernia.com. To view or download my route, go to ind.pn/hibernia.
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