Before there was the Foreign Legion there was the era of the Pioneers. Years when individual riders left the comfort and familiarity of their own worlds and tried to make it in a European peloton that shied away from outsiders. This is a story about one of them.
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Chuireamar ár n-aisling ag snámh mar eala ar an abhainn. Rinneadh fírinne den aisling.
Rinneadh samhradh den gheimhreadh. Rinneadh saoirse den daoirse agus d’fhágamar agaibhse mar oidhreacht í.
A ghlúnta na saoirse cuimhnígí orainne, glúnta na haislinge.
1998, Ireland: Just south of Dublin, nestled at the foot of the Wicklow Mountains and a few kilometres southwest of the jaded seaside resort of Bray, lies the village of Kilmacanogue. The village’s cemetery sits behind the church of St Mochnog’s, in the shadow of the Sugarloaf. It is here on this day that dignitaries from the Tour de France and the world of Irish cycling have come to pay tribute to one man and his legacy.
The Tour has come to Ireland for various reasons, not all of them laudable. The Tour is a commercial operation and a not inconsiderable sum of money has bought the grand départ of the 1998 Tour for Ireland. But behind the cynicism and venality the Tour is a living organism with a heart and a soul. It has a history and a heritage it is proud of, and proud to celebrate. And today, in this cemetery in the foothills of the Wicklow mountains, the Tour is wearing its heart on its sleeve.
The Tour’s dignitaries are here today to celebrate the Irish who have participated in the Tour de France and who have contributed to the Tour’s rich history. Laurence Roche and Martin Earley and Paul Kimmage and Ian Moore, unsung heroes of the peloton. Sean Kelly, who once got to wear the yellow jersey but was more at home in the sprinters’ green jersey, which he won four times. Stephen Roche, who won the race outright in that magical Summer of 1987. And – the reason they are here in this cemetery – Shay Elliott, domestique to Jacques Anquetil. The first Irishman to ride the Tour de France. The first to win a stage. And the first to wear its fabled maillot jaune.
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1959, France: It was the fourteenth stage of the Tour de France. Shay Elliott and Britain’s Brian Robinson were riding the race as part of the mongrel International team.
Elliott had been having mixed fortunes as he chased for a stage win. On the third stage he’d gone clear of the peloton and held off the chase until just five hundred metres from the line. On the eighth stage he’d finished third and pocketed a few francs for being the day’s most aggressive rider. Jean Stablinski, his teammate when they raced in the colours of their trade team (Helyett-Fynsec), his rival when they raced in national colours, finished ahead of Elliott that day.
On the thirteenth stage multiple punctures and a tyre coming off its rim cost Elliott time and spoiled his chances in the stage. Brian Robinson, on the other hand, had prospered on that thirteenth stage, finishing fourth and moving up to ninth place overall. That GC position would prove very important in the events that unfolded the next day.
The fourteenth stage was taking the riders to Clermont-Ferrand, across the Massif Central. The heat was up and Robinson was in trouble from the off. Having a real jour sans. Stomach pains had kept him up through most of the night and were still troubling him. The Briton was off the pace from the gun.
Elliott dropped back to him, tried to nurse him along. Robinson could see which way the wind was blowing and tried to tell Elliott to ride on and save his own skin, but Elliott wasn’t hearing him. When the Irishman wasn’t alongside the Briton, pushing him, sheltering him, splashing water in his face, he was sprinting ahead to get fresh drinks from roadside cafés and bars.
Pierre Dumas, the Tour’s doctor, was doing his best to minister to Robinson’s problems, but there’s only so much you can do when really your patient needs to be in his bed recovering. Dumas fed Robinson glucose tablets and tried to advise him to pull out. Elliott told the Briton that if he did, there’d be two of them climbing into the broom wagon. Robinson probably didn’t need that sort of emotional blackmail from Elliott – he was a hard bastard and wasn’t going to give up without a fight. But as hard as he was he had no desire to bring Elliott down with him.
Robinson wasn’t the only one Dumas had to attend to that day. Elliott himself also needed the medic’s help. The heat of the day had made the road’s surface melt and a passing car had splashed tar into the Irishman’s right eye. Dumas administered a sedative but Elliott spent most of the rest of the stage riding with just the one eye open.
By the time Robinson and Elliott reached Clermont-Ferrand they were forty seven minutes behind the stage winner. Five minutes outside the day’s cut-off time. Eliminated. But their directeur sportif, Sauveur Ducazeaux, seemed to know the race’s rules better than the race commissaires. The cut-off rule, introduced only five years earlier, had a loophole: no rider who started the day inside the top ten could be eliminated for missing the time cut. The commissaires relented and Robinson was reinstated. Elliott remained eliminated.
L’Équipe found a new hero that day, a new Renee Vietto. The Tour’s paper of record likened Elliott’s attention to Robinson to “les attentions de mère poule,” the attentions of a mother hen. The race jury voted Elliott the unluckiest rider of the day and awarded him another pocketful of francs. Pierre Dumas spoke up for the Irishman:
Elliott’s self-sacrifice was one of the most moving pages in the Tour’s history. Despite his eye ailment Elliott could have finished the stage in time, but he chose to stay at the side of his friend to help and encourage him.”
The commissaires were umoved. Rules is rules. It wasn’t the first time a judgement from the Tour’s commissaires didn’t fall Elliott’s way. Nothing personal, just the rub of the green. The previous year the blazers had also had to rewrite history, again for Robinson, awarding him a stage victory after judging that he’d been impeded in the sprint for the line. That day Robinson became the first rider from the English-speaking nations to win a stage at the Tour. But when the Briton spoke to the media about it afterwards he said he should have been the second:
I am proud of being the first rider from across the Channel to win a stage of the Tour, but I really should have been the second. The journalists all tell me that Shay Elliott was fouled just as badly yesterday when he finished second at St Briuec, but the judges wouldn’t listen to his protest.”
Elliott took his dismissal from the 1959 Tour stoically, putting a brave face on it:
I’m not complaining. It’s just one of those things that happen. I came into this Tour to help Brian. There are mountain stages ahead in which he can still do well. Good luck to him. I am going [home] to Paris tonight, as I want Brian to forget all about me for the time being. He’s a bit upset about my disqualification, and seems to think he put me out of the race.”
The next day, Robinson marked Elliott’s departure with these words:
It’s too unjust. Elliott helped me throughout yesterday and without him at my side I would have dropped out of the race. He took care of me like a mother.”
Robinson’s stomach troubles passed and a week later, come the twentieth stage, he got away on his own for a hundred thirty kilometres, crossing the line twenty minutes ahead of the next rider. Speaking after that stage victory, the Briton was quick to remember his Irish friend and team-mate’s sacrifice:
I won today for Séamus Elliott of Ireland, who helped me so much when I was dragging behind last week. Poor Elliott was eliminated because of his assistance and his cares for me. I promised him that I would try to win a stage to thank him.”
But cycling is no sport for romantics, no sport for fools who believe in chivalry and just rewards and things like that. The meek might inherit the earth but they win fuck all in bicycle races. Jean Bobet noted how Elliott’s act of kindness toward Robinson coloured the way some in the peloton viewed him:
He got criticised a lot because in this ruthless world an act of kindness could be seen as a weakness. So, as a racer, Shay was ‘weak,’ as hard and rotten as that might sound.”
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1963, France: The road to Roubaix. The day Shay Elliott completed his Grand Tour triple: stage wins in each of the three big Tours, the first rider from the English-speaking nations to do this. And, following Tom Simpson the year before, Elliott became only the second English-speaker to don the Tour’s maillot jaune. He’d already worn the leader’s jersey at the Vuelta a España earlier in the year.
Jock Wadley, in his report on the race for the Daily Telegraph, made reference to events the previous September and the role they played – or, in his analysis, didn’t play – in Elliott’s victory:
Minds went back to last September when Stablinski and Elliott were together in the decisive stage of the world road race championship. It was Elliott who made the ‘suicide’ move which enabled Stablinski to win. Today we wondered if the Frenchman would repay the move. He did not need to, the Irishman being strong enough to win under the power of his own pedalling. Four miles from the finish he attacked, his opponents had no fight left and the Dublin-born rider who now lives on the outskirts of Paris arrived at Roubaix as stage and race leader.”
Wadley was the Phil Liggett of his day, the guy who talked up the successes of English-speaking riders and helped bring the Tour to the attention of a nation that didn’t understand road racing. But Wadley – like many who report this sport – was an insider to the sport. Sometimes what this closeness to the sport means is that the journalists become carny barkers. And Wadley – who had his own magazine, Sporting Cyclist, to sell – didn’t always want to let his readers know exactly how bike races were won and lost.
Most every other report of Elliott’s victory into Roubaix that day pays due credit to the role Stablinski played. How Stab and Elliott had made the day’s break and rode defensively, protecting the interests of Jacques Anquetil – their Saint-Raphaël–Gitane–Géminiani team leader behind – making sure that his main rival in the break, Henry Anglade, didn’t put too much time into Maître Jacques. How, when Elliott punctured, Stab had slowed the break to ensure the Irishman could rejoin. How, when Elliott punctured again, Stab had again slowed the break to let his teammate get back on. And how, in the closing kilometres of the stage, Stab had taken the break to one side of the cobbled road leading into Roubaix and slowed the pace down while Elliott attacked from behind and on the other side of the road.
Stab himself explained Elliott’s victory thusly:
Séamus was the best placed in General Classification, and it was completely normal that he should attack and I should protect him. For my old friend Séamus, I am as happy as he is. I remember the World Championships in Salò last year.”
Wadley aside, most people saw that stage win – and the maillot jaune that came with it – as payback for Salò, when Stab won the rainbow jersey and Elliott had to settle for second. Stab got to wear the arc en ciel for a year, Elliott got to wear the maillot jaune for three days. Cycling’s karma bank pays back at different rates of interest depending on where you stand in the peloton‘s pecking order.
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1959, Belgium: Back then, the Omloop Het Volk was held in April, part of the Flanders weekend, doubled with Ghent-Wevelgem, one race being run on the Saturday, the other the Sunday. The previous year Elliott had won the King of the Mountains classification, run off across the two races, part of the Trofee van Vlaanderen. This year he wanted more.
These were the sort of races Elliott was born for. Early-season one-day events. Rotten roads and rotten weather. Hard races for hard men. Four years earlier, back when it was all just beginning, Elliott had attended a Simplex training camp in Monte Carlo, a prize for winning the King of the Mountains title in the previous year’s Tour of Ireland. There he got to break bread with cycling royalty. Charles Pélissier ran the camp and put Elliott and a group of about thirty young hopefuls through their paces. The twenty-one-year-old Dubliner got a chance to ride with Louison Bobet and Jean Robic. Jean Leulliot, the journalist and race organiser, was on hand to offer advice and assistance. Jock Wadley was there to chaperone the English-speaking riders and act as their interpreter. And it was there, at that training camp in Monte Carlo, that Bobet’s soigneur, Raymond le Bert, had given his verdict on the young kid from Dublin: he was, the man with magic topette said, a real flahute. A man born for the rough and tumble of Flanders.
And he’d tried – by Christ had Elliott tried – to live up to Le Bert’s assessment of him. He’d been a promising amateur, riding in the colours of the ACBB, so good that L’Équipe wrote of him that “if a yellow jersey for amateur road racers had been given, Shay would have taken it right from the beginning of the season and kept it to the end.” Since he’d turned pro he’d shown himself at the business end of almost all the Spring Classics. All to no avail. How often had he been where he needed to be only for a mechanical or a puncture to ruin it all? Too often.
And here he was again, at the business end of an important race, the Het Volk, one of a pair of hares the greyhounds behind were coursing after. On the cobbles of the Muur van Geraardsbergen – the Grammont – he’d pedalled away from the peloton, with only one rider following his wheel, Peugeot’s Fred de Bruyne. Thirty kilometres out from the finish in Ghent. Thirty Flandrian kilometres on a beautiful Spring Sunday in Flanders: freezing cold, with snow-soaked roads. Only a real flahute could enjoy racing in conditions like this.
Picture them out there, the two of them, Elliott and De Bruyne. What do you think about when you’re out there like that? You think about the guy you’re riding with, I suppose. You’re in this together but at the end of it it’s going to be one against the other.
He’s your friend now Shay, you’re united with him in a common purpose against a common enemy. But when it comes to which of you crosses that finish line first, he’s no friend of yours. Give him the chance and he’ll screw you over. He’ll shake your hand and smile afterwards, but he’ll still have screwed your over. If you have to, get your retaliation in first. You can shake his hand and smile about it after.
De Bruyne would certainly take some beating. This was his turf. The Belgian was the local boy, his home town of Berlare just a few kilometres from the race’s finish in Ghent. And De Bruyne was a Classics specialist. Milan-Sanremo, the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Paris-Tours, they were all on his palmarès. Elliott knew some of those victories from up close and personal, having watched De Bruyne’s arse disappear up the road and then finishing behind him in several of them.
But don’t think of the Belgian as an enemy yet Shay, not yet. Right now he’s your friend. Your best friend in all the world. Work with him, get him to work with you. You’re not racing against him, not yet, you’re racing the road ahead of you and the bunch behind you. So work with De Bruyne. Know that if you do this you can hold that chasing pack off and get to Ghent ahead of them. You can do this Shay. You’re a flahute. Your day has come. Believe that.
Belief can only carry you so far. At the back of your mind there’s always doubt, wanting to be heard. Even the strongest riders lose races in their head that they should have won with their legs. So maybe there was doubt whispering in Elliott’s ear. Reminding Elliott of the day-long break he and Brian Robinson had made in this race only two years previous, only for the two to be overhauled coming into Ghent. Reminding Elliott that he was a rider dogged by bad luck: punctures, frame and fork failures, jammed derailleurs and even once a broken saddle all scuppering his chances in major races. Only the previous day, in the Ghent-Wevelgem, a broken frame had ruined his race and seen him abandon before the finish.
And maybe doubt was also reminding Elliott that he was the outsider.
Oh you might speak French, Shay, you might have a house in Paris and a French girlfriend, but you’re an outsider. You’ll always be an outsider. This sport doesn’t like outsiders. This race particularly doesn’t like outsiders.
Never in the fifteen year history of the Het Volk had it been won by someone from beyond Belgium’s borders. Even when Fausto Coppi crossed the line first in 1948 he hadn’t won the race, a wheel change that was judged to be illegal denying the Italian the chance to add victory in the Het Volk to his bulging palmarès. It might have been The People’s race, but those people had to be Belgian.
Don’t listen to the doubt, Shay. Forget the past. The past only matters when it’s all over. All that matters is the here and now. You and Fred de Bruyne holding off a pack containing the likes of Rik van Looy, Wim van Est and Rik van Steenbergen. Don’t let the past weigh you down, Shay. You have enough of that shite at home in Ireland. All that matters is that finish line in Ghent that’s getting closer with every pedal stroke.
Picture it in your head, Shay. Visualise the finish. See in your head you and De Bruyne steaming into Ghent together, the bunch behind still not in sight. See it as clearly as you see the path the rabbit is going to take when you’re out hunting with your father and you send the shot there to meet it at that point. See how you’re going to outfox De Bruyne and get him to lead the sprint out. See it, Shay. See yourself coming around him and crossing that finish line first. See it and make it happen. You’re a flahute, man. Make it happen.
If only it was that easy. De Bruyne and Elliott did work together to keep the chasing peloton behind them that day. They did approach the finish in Ghent together. De Bruyne did lead the sprint out. And Shay Elliott did come sprinting around him and take the victory. It wasn’t easy. He just made it look that way.
It would take the arrival of the Foreign Legion in the eighties to establish a beach-head in continental cycling, to open wide the doors of opportunity for the non-traditional cycling nations. But the Pioneers of the fifties and sixties – men like Elliott, like Brian Robinson, like Tom Simpson, like Vin Denson – they led the way, they lit the path. Shay Elliott’s victory in the 1959 Het Volk was the first time a rider from the English-speaking nations had won one of Europe’s important one-day races. Not that important a race, for sure, but coupled with Brian Robinson’s stage win in the Tour the year before, and Elliott’s own stages in the Quatre Jours de Dunkerque, the English-speaking riders were making the Continentals sit up and take notice of them. In that Spring of 1959, for Irish cycling fans, the future was bright. The future was English-speaking. The future was green, white and orange.
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1971, Ireland: When it was all over, after he’d felt betrayed by friends and teammates he’d trusted in, after his marriage was over and his son was taken away from him and the hotel he’d sunk his life savings into had bled him dry, after he’d packed a suitcase and returned to Dublin, after he’d ostracised himself from continental cycling, after he’d burnt his bridges and spat in the soup, Shay Elliott began to rebuild his life.
What he’d achieved in cycling was in the past. Very few people in Ireland understood the sport then and Elliott’s palmarès counted for very little with them. Before he’d moved to France and become a professional cyclist, Elliott had completed an apprenticeship as a panel-beater and it was to that trade he returned when he came back to Dublin in 1967. Slowly he began to build up his own panel-beating business in Dublin’s city centre, behind the Irish Press offices, in Prince’s Street, just off the Quays. With the help of friends he built a small flat above the garage and lived there.
For a time he didn’t even look at his bike, but slowly he got back involved with the sport in Ireland. He put himself up to be Vice President of the Irish Cycling Federation but was defeated by Paddy McQuaid. He briefly tried a comeback, thinking he could race in the UK, then decided to re-apply for an amateur licence in Ireland. He got involved with training the Irish Olympic squad, ahead of the Munich Games.
And then, on May 4, 1971, Shay Elliott was found dead in the flat above his panel-beating shop. Beside his body was a Luigi-Franchi shotgun he had won at the Vuelta in 1963, booty for winning the stage into Valencia. He had been shot through the chest. No foul play was suspected.
In Ireland, back then, we didn’t do suicide. It wasn’t just a criminal offence, it was a sin, and the Catholic Church still had its hands on the levers of power and the minds of the people. Many a farmer died accidentally, cleaning his shotgun or inadvertently discharging it. There’s no room for suicides in Catholic cemeteries and the authorities had learnt how to be pragmatic when faced with a problem like that. They took a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach to the problem.
And in Ireland back then we didn’t do depression. The economy was fucked and everyone was depressed. Messrs Guinness and Jameson had the cure for that. But there were other cures too, like Diazepam, some of which was found in Elliott’s flat.
Elliott had reason enough to be depressed. Stepping out of the pro peloton‘s bubble isn’t easy, not today and especially not back then. And only a fortnight before his own death, Elliott’s father had died. The young Elliott – and he was still young, a month shy of his thirty-seventh birthday – was close to his father and took his death badly. You could argue, convincingly, that throughout his professional career on the continent, Elliott had looked out for figures to take the place of his father at home in Ireland. And now, back home, that father was gone from him.
As with the likes of Fausto Coppi and Tom Simpson, the friends of Shay Elliott have been protective of his memory. For them, Elliott’s death was no suicide, it has been rationalised as an accident, a man tripping over a shotgun which then discharged and killed him. Elliott, for many of them, has become a character in a Greek tragedy, one in which he, his parents, his two brothers and his only son all died before their time, as if God had some grudge against the family and wanted to wipe all memory of the Elliott name from the face of the earth.
The fact is, no one save Shay Elliott knows how he died. But a cyclist ending his own life just a few years after leaving the sport behind him is not unusual. And, no matter what the Catholic Church preaches, there is no shame in suicide. Shay Elliott was a good man in a hard world. Nothing in the manner of his death takes away from that.
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Present Day, Ireland: If you’re ever in Dublin and want to see how Shay Elliott is remembered, head south of the city, taking the road down toward Glendalough. When you come to the village of Laragh, a couple of kilometres to the east of Glendalough, continue south, on the road to Clara. After a few kilometres, turn right off the main road, following the signs for the Military Road and Glenmalure.
A little hill will rise up in front of you, short, with a stiff gradient. As hills go, it’s nothing special, even by Irish standards. Roll on a little over its crest before you pause to get your breath back. To the east, behind Trooperstown Hill, you can see Dublin Bay spread out before you. Buck Mulligan’s snot-green sea. And here, by the roadside, on your left, you’ll find a stone memorial to Shay Elliott. Compared to continental cycling memorials, this is nothing special, modest, unadorned by anything save a simple inscription.
Each Spring, some of the best and the brightest of the Irish cycling scene race past this stone during the Shay Elliott Memorial Race. And each Spring we wonder: will one of these be the next Irishman to follow in Elliott’s wheel tracks and make a name for himself in the Continental peloton?
We sent our vision aswim like a swan on the river. The vision became a reality.
Winter became summer. Bondage became freedom and this we left to you as your inheritance.
O generations of freedom remember us, the generations of the vision.
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Sources: Shay Elliott: The Life and Death of Ireland’s First Yellow Jersey, by Graham Healy and Richard Allchin, forewords by Sean Kelly and Pat McQuaid (Mousehold Press, 2011). Also: Cycling Heroes, by Les Woodland; Roule Britannia, by William Fotheringham; The Daily Telegraph Book of The Tour de France, edited by Martin Smith; Shay Elliott – A Sporting Life, by John Flanagan.