Remembering Shay Elliott, 1934-1971
Last year I asked my Aunt who lives in County Wicklow about the best way to get onto Lugnaquilla Mountain, one of Ireland's 3,000 foot peaks. She advised me to take the old military road from Glendalough and up past a memorial to a cyclist. I guessed correctly that it would be the memorial to Shay Elliott, an Irish rider who over a long and prestigious career, won stages in all the Grand Tours and placed second in the 1962 world championships.
Elliot grew up in Dublin playing GAA football and learnt to ride a bike at the grand old age of 14. His amateur career in the early 1950s saw him winning or placing well in the Dublin-Galway-Dublin race, Tour of Ireland, Irish amateur championships and races in the Isle of Man. As a result of these results he was invited to a Simplex training camp and from there he signed for the ACBB team in 1955; a period where he went on to win 5 one day classic races in France and break the amateur 10km track world record in Paris.
Turning professional in 1956 for Helyett-Felix Potin, which later became St Raphael-Geminani, Shay acted as both teammate and domestique to such luminaries as Jean Stablinski and Jacques Anquetil throughout his 8 years with the team, during which time he won his first professional race, beating Andre Garrigade to a sprint finish in Algiers. In 1959 after a 30km break on the Mur de Grammont, he became the first non Belgian to win the Omloop Het Volk, and later that summer made his debut at the Tour de France as a guest rider in the British team at a time when National teams, rather than trade teams, took part. Unfortunately, Elliot's first foray in the Tour ended through time-elimination after gamely helping team leader Brian Robinson thought a difficult stage. Robinson was however not ejected, as he was sitting in 9th position at the start of the stage.
1960 though brought better results, with the plucky Irishman taking victory in that year's longest stage of the Giro d’Italia between Trieste and Belluno to complete his first Grand Tour victory. Elliot's team leader Jacques Anquetil went on to win the Maglia Rosa. In 1962, proving that he was maturing into a true GC contender, Shay won the fourth stage of the Vuelta a España, leading the race for 9 days before eventually finishing third behind teammate Rudy Altig. Later in the year he was second to another trade team-mate Jean Stablinski in the world road race championships in Salo, Italy.
For all his achievements though, it was perhaps the 1963 Tour de France that truly animated Elliot's career. After puncturing twice, Elliot won the stage into Roubaix by 33 seconds - enough to give him the yellow jersey. Elliot managed to hold this mighty prize for three long days, and it would be many years before another Irish cyclist in the form of Sean Kelly earned the right to wear the ‘yellow jumper’.
Like many riders in that era Elliott made his living by riding crits (criteriums) and from appearance money. In 1965 he was contracted to ride the 275 mile Holyhead-London race. The race was won by Tommy Simpson but it was rumoured that approaching the finish line Elliott was braking to stop Albert Hitchen getting through. Elliott admitted later he earned more money from selling races than winning them. In 1963 it was alleged Simpson offered him £1,000 to help him win the world championship. Elliott refused and it was thought he received a better offer elsewhere.
In 1966 Elliott moved to the rival MercierBP team to ride for Raymond Poulidor and this was the beginning of the end of his top flight career. He bought a hotel in France which took up a lot of his time but this venture and his marriage subsequently failed. In 1967 he returned to Dublin and set up a metal working business with his father for which he had served an apprenticeship in his early days. He made a low-key return to cycling in 1970 with the Falcon Cycles team but never managed to reach his previous level.
On 21st April 1971 his father died and 2 weeks later Shay was found dead in the family premises with a gunshot wound. He is buried in Kilmacanogue cemetery, Wicklow, next to his father. He was just 36.
A memorial stone has been erected at the top of a climb on the Glenmalure to Laragh old military road. The Shay Elliott memorial race is perhaps the most prestigious one-day race in Ireland after the National Championships and in the past has been won by the likes of Sean Kelly, Martin Earley, Pat McQuaid, Malcolm Elliott and 2 of the Kimmage brothers - though not Paul himself.
As stage 3 of 2013 Tour de France unfolds I will be thinking of Shay, Ireland’s first cycling great. Can cousins Dan Martin and Nicholas Roche take a yellow jersey 50 years after Shay? It would be nice to think so.