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WORDS: Roger St. Pierre
It was a shotgun blast, held by the coroner as suicide but still regarded by many who knew him as an accident, which turned triumph into tragedy. In an age when few Irish cyclists would even venture as far as England to race, a fresh-faced young Seamus Elliott had taken the Continent by storm. Not just as the devotedly loyal lieutenant to future five-times Tour de France winner Jacques Anquetil but as winner in his own right, a rider who took stages in all three Grand Tours.
It was a second place in the amateur Tour of Ireland that had forged Elliott’s destiny. His prize was a place at the fabled Simplex training camp, a showcase staged in the South of France by the derailleur company that, back then, was a great rival to Campagnolo.
Elliott’s hard-riding toughness on the sinuous roads of the Riviera brought him to the attention of Mickey Wiegant, the highly-regarded Svengali behind the powerful Athletic Club de Boulogne Billancourt (ACBB), the Parisian outfit that served as a nursery for Anquetil’s then all-conquering Helyett team.
The young Irishman may have looked on the chubby side but the famous French masseur, Raymond LeBert, who examined him at the training camp, reportedly commented: “My fingers tell me Elliott’s muscles are solid rock. He is a hard man in the mould of the great Flemish champions.”
Jean Leulliot, of Route et Piste magazine, was equally forthright in his verdict: “Elliott is soaked with class and has a great future”.
Instead of returning home or, as he had planned, moving to Belgium, Elliott stayed in France , quickly making friends and winning admirers with his ever-smiling nature and determined riding. In 1955, he won five of France’s premier one-day amateur classics.
A professional contract with the 1956 Helyett-Potin line-up followed and Elliott started as he intended to continue, outsprinting multiple Tour stage winner André Darrigade to win Algeria’s early-season Grand Prix d’Echo de Alger.
Elliott’s career-long relationship with Britain’s Brian Robinson began with a headline-making breakaway in the 1957 Omloop Het Volk, in Belgium. An epic, near race-long effort, it would ultimately fail but it revealed the duo as two of the pro game’s most promising new stars. It was a race Elliott was to win two years later, the first non-Belgian to take that honour.
That same year saw Elliott make his Tour de France debut, riding as a guest in the British national team led by Robinson. One of the sport’s greatest sagas unfolded when Elliott nursed a seriously ill Robinson through a personal Calvary by pushing him up many of the hills. The duo finished outside the time limit but as Robinson had started the day in ninth place overall the rules let him back in. Elliott was eliminated, left to pack his bags and return home. But with his big-hearted self-sacrifice he had carved an indelible mark on Tour history. Within days, Robinson went on to win a stage by 20 minutes in tribute to Elliott’s loyalty.
In 1959, the pair were at the head of affairs again, this time in the Manx Premier Trophy Race on the Isle of Man, with Elliott outsprinting Robinson for the victory. A year later, in 1960, Elliott won stage 18 of the Giro d’Italia, a performance that assured his place in the front echelon of the sport. By 1962, Elliott was a key player in Jacques Anquetil’s all-conquering St. Raphaël team, under the direction of wizard team manager Raphael Geminiani, a former Tour great dubbed Le Grand Fussil, the ‘Big Gun’.
Elliott won the fourth stage of the 1962 Tour of Spain, led the race for nine days and eventually finished third as well as coming second on points.
That year’s world championship road race at Salo in Italy again revealed Elliott as the loyal teammate. His greatest friend in the pro peloton at the time was France’s Jean Stablinski; Elliott had married the Frenchman’s sister, Marguerite, and Stablinski was both uncle and godfather to Elliott’s son. In Salo, the duo worked together to break down the opposition in the small leading group.
On flying form, Elliott clearly had the ability to win but when Stablinski launched a savage attack the Irishman put the calls of personal friendship above that of national duty and blocked the chase. The French champion sailed on to a glorious solo victory and Elliott made a lone break of his own to take the silver medal.
On flying form, Elliott clearly had the ability to win but when Stablinski launched a savage attack the Irishman put the call of personal friendship above that of national duty and blocked the chase. The French champion sailed on to a glorious solo victory, leaving Elliott to make a lone break of his own to take the silver medal.
The highlight of Elliott’s career, however, came in the following year’s Tour de France. A 33-second stage win over the cobbles to Roubaix on stage three put him into the yellow jersey. It was an Irish first and a feat not to be repeated until the arrival of Stephen Roche two decades later. Elliott held on to the coveted jersey for three stages.
In 1964, he won the Isle of Man’s Manx Premier Trophy race for the second time but it was his reputation as a super-domestique that became the hallmark of his career. The relative shortage of big wins on his palmares is more than balanced by the success rate of the teams he rode for.
Though they were riding in different colours, video clips reveal the role Elliott played in helping Tom Simpson win the 1965 London-Holyhead marathon; in a tight sprint finish, it was Elliott that blocked home-based pro Albert Hitchen’s charge along the Holyhead promenade. Then came the big betrayal. Having served as their loyal footsoldier, Anquetil and Stablinski conspired to rob their teammate of a seemingly certain victory in the Tour of Luxembourg.
Not surprisingly Elliott left Anquetil’s employ at the season’s end. And who did he sign for? None other than the Mercier-BP team, headed by Anquetil’s arch-rival Raymond Poulidor, the man dubbed ‘The Eternal Second’.
The move didn’t work. With his racing now largely restricted to local criteriums in Brittany, where he had set up a rapidly failing hotel business, and with the acrimonious break-up of his marriage to Marguerite, his life started to unravel. To make matters worse, in a sensational interview with The People newspaper, Elliott lifted the lid on doping and the selling of races in the pro peloton.
Ostracised by his former cycling colleagues – friends and rivals alike – he went back to Dublin in 1967 to set up a panel-beating business with his father. Despite the financial pressures he was under, Elliott never stopped training and rode a few races for Falcon Cycles in 1970, finishing 21st in that year’s London-Holyhead, his last big race.
On 4th May 1971, two days after his father’s funeral, Elliott was found dead in the flat above the family business. It was a tragic ending to the story. The Shay Elliott Memorial road race, staged every year since, is Ireland’s recognised classic while a monument to his memory stands in his native Wicklow Mountains.
More on Shay Elliott:
• Shay Elliott – A Cycle of Betrayal 2009 documentary produced by Zampano Productions.
• Shay Elliott – The Life and Death of Ireland’s First Yellow Jersey by Graham Healy
published by Mousehold Press