Dublin’s Shay Elliott was a man of firsts;
- The first (and only) Irishman to win Het Volk, 1959
- The first English speaker to win a stage in the Vuelta and to wear the amarillo jersey of race leadership, finishing an eventual third overall, 1962
- The first English speaker to win a Giro stage, 1960
- The first Irishman to hold the yellow jersey of race leadership in the Le Tour, 1963 (the first English speaker was Tom Simpson the year before, and the first stage winner was Yorkshire’s Brian Robinson in 1958)
- The first English speaker to stand on the podium of the World Professional Road Race Championship, 1962.
Sadly, Elliott’s pro career ended ignominiously and his premature death at just 36 years of age is still the subject of speculation in Irish cycling circles.
Elliott’s amateur career in Ireland was brief but stellar including the Irish Championships.
In 1954 and 1955 he had ridden excellent amateur seasons in France, including winning the prestigious Paris-Evreux classic, noted as a passport to the professional pastures.
He was pro for season ’56, moving seamlessly from the amateur to the cash ranks and winning the GP Algiers, GP Catox and the tough, late season GP Isbergues in his debut season.
As a second year pro he was top 10 in the Tour of Flanders and Ghent-Wevelgem.
A year later in 1958 he won two stages in the Dunkirk Four Day and was top 10 in Gent Wevelgem, Milan-Sanremo, Paris-Roubaix and Paris-Nice.
Season 1959 saw him win Het Volk (now known as Het Nieuwsblad but the same race) and go top 10 again in Flanders.
The Giro stage came in 1960 along with a host of lesser wins and a raft of placings of honour as well as the Manx Premier, show case event of Manx Cycling Week and ridden by the biggest stars of the day.
Season 1961 saw stage wins in the Four Days of Dunkirk and another clutch of wins and placings.
The Vuelta was held in the spring back then and in 1962 Elliott won a stage, held the amarillo jersey for nine days and was third in the final reckoning.
That year also saw him make the Worlds podium, silver behind ‘friend’ and trade team mate Jean Stablinski – but more of that later.
If his name was well known but not ‘household’ in France he changed all that with a stage win and three days ‘en jaune’ in Le Tour in 1963 – and that was on the back of a Vuelta stage win.
In 1964 there was another Manx Premier win and the usual placings to keep him firmly in the upper echelons of the professional firmament.
The 1965 season saw the Tour de L’Oise and Grand Prixs of Saint Raphael, Orchies, Esperanza and Puteaux all go his way as well as the inevitable placings, like fourth in Gent-Wevelgem.
He should have also won the Tour of Luxembourg and that’s probably a good place to start looking at the one commodity the talented, genial, good looking man should have possessed as an Irishman – Luck.
But that good Lady was never his friend.
In the Luxembourg race Elliott was race leader, a break went and Stablinski covered it – but instead of policing the move, the Frenchman of Polish extraction spelled hard to make it work, treachery against his team mate and ‘friend’ Elliott.
The story is that the French team had not been picked for the Worlds and ‘Stab’ needed results to join ‘les bleus.’
As it was, he won the stage and Elliott retained the lead – but when he repeated the performance later in the race and won the GC there was little doubt that ‘Stab’ had live up to his name.
It wasn’t the first time that Stablinski fooled Elliott, going back to the ’62 Worlds where Elliott took silver and ex-miner ‘Stab’ gold the pair were in a break of four – from which the winner was going to come – the Irishman and Frenchman as trade team mates made a pact that they would not chase each other in the event of one going on the attack.
Eventual bronze medallist Jos Hoevanaers (Belgium) and German cyclo-cross ace, Rolf Wolfshohl were the other two riders.
Interestingly, when Elliott attacked the pair worked like Trojans to bring him back but when ‘Stab’ went they remained strangely passive.
Then, as now, money changes hands in pro races.
It wasn’t until after ‘Stab’ had ‘flicked’ Elliott on the way to Luxembourg that he realised the man who was godfather to his son Pascal, had been abusing their friendship, more than once.
Disillusioned, he left the Ford France team at the end of that season to join Barry Hoban at Mercier BP and season 1966 was a good one with seven wins – but again the bad luck which haunted his life struck again.
Elliott had invested much of his not inconsiderable earnings in a hotel in Brittany – an Irish Cycling historian friend puts it thus;
“I was told that before he finished racing he put all his money into that hotel in the port and seaside resort of Loctudy in Brittany.
“Former Irish pro and Route de France winner, Peter Crinnion worked for him but Shay got some so-called friends to run it for him while he raced his last season.
“They cleaned him out and he didn’t discover the extent of things until it was too bad to save.
“In France in those days if you went bankrupt you went into a debtors’ prison until there was a creditors’ meeting.
“Shay was tipped off and fled back to Ireland. At that stage his marriage broke up and he wasn’t allowed to see his son Pascal.”
His financial woes were such that he sold a ‘doping story’ to The People newspaper, an act which did his credibility no good amongst his peers.
Elliott returned to Ireland and his trade of panel beating, in Dublin where he ‘lived above the shop.’
His premature death at just 36 years of age is still the subject of speculation in Irish cycling circles.
The official verdict is ‘suicide’ – his father, to whom he was very close, had passed just two weeks before and it’s thought that his financial and personal woes became too much and he took his own life with a shotgun wound to the head.
Others, who knew him well and spoke to him before the tragedy said he was his usual self and that they believed that weapon involved had a ‘hair’ trigger and he died as a result of an accidental discharge.
This seems unlikely to me even with my slight knowledge of hunting and gun craft, drummed into me by my late father.
The story I was told one evening in the famous Duff’s cycling bar in Bray by men who knew Elliott well was that some of the money he had lost in the ill-fated hotel venture had been borrowed from people it didn’t pay to mess with.
According to my companions for the evening, Elliott’s death was no suicide or accident, rather a signal from the ‘Boys in Brittany’ that debts due to them were always honoured, one way or another.
Elliott died just as I got seriously into cycling but a large batch of old ‘Comics,’ as we called ‘Cycling Weekly’ back then, received from a friend gave my knowledge of the sport a huge boost and I became fascinated by the stories of Elliott, and of course, Tom Simpson.
Back in 2004, I had the great fortune to follow the Shay Elliott Memorial Race thanks to the good offices of Brian Smith, who was the manager of the Scottish Team at the time.
The race was won, for the second time, by home rider David O’Loughlin (Team Total Cycling) and the parcours passed the memorial stone to Elliott which stands high in the beautiful Wicklow Mountains atop the Glenmalure climb.
As we were on team car duties it wasn’t possible to stop but I resolved one day to come back, see the memorial properly and pay my respects to one of the ‘Greats.’
It took me 13 years but I made it, with some rare Irish sunshine blessing my visit; the spot is idyllic with aspects over the mountains where the man used to train and just the rustle of the grass in the late afternoon breeze to disturb the calm – and the occasional impatient four wheel drive, perhaps on the ‘school run?’
Austin Walsh of Quay Cycles told me where Shay is buried; in the quiet church yard at Kilmacanogue, not so far from Bray.
The dates on the gravestone of his and his father’s death are only days apart; the inscription alludes to the fact that there is perhaps more to his death than a simple suicide;
‘Just when life seemed brightest, in the prime of his youthful days, Shay’s life on earth was ended by fate’s mysterious ways.’
The stone also spells out the bad luck which continued to haunt the Elliott family even after Shay’s death; his son Pascal died in a road accident in France aged just 16 years and Shay’s brother Paul – no mean bike rider himself (Irish National Champion, Tour of Ireland winner and twice winner of his brother’s memorial race) drowned in a tragic hunting accident at just 45 years-of-age.
The next port of call was Frank Duff’s bar down in the seaside resort and Dublin dormitory town of Bray and start/finish for the Shay Elliott Memorial Race.
Frank sadly died recently, succumbing to cancer but his sister continues to run the big bar which is a shrine to Irish Cycling – especially Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and, of course, Shay Elliott.
His Claud Butler track bike hangs up on the bar wall along with one of his leader’s jerseys from the Vuelta and images of him during his career.
Although it’s not well known, Elliott set amateur world records for the flying kilometre and 10 kilometre standing start.
His sash for winning the 1964 Manx Premier hangs proudly, just to the left of big images of Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly.
A cold Guinness in Frank Duff’s surrounded by images of Shay in his glory days is a memory I’ll cherish.
But every pilgrimage has to end and my final place of worship was Quay Cycles in bustling Drogheda, another Dublin dormitory town but this time to the north.
The owner Austin Walsh is building as fine a collection of cycling memorabilia as you’ll find just about anywhere, and pride of place goes to a glass cabinet packed with terrific images of Shay, his Mercier jersey and cycling shoes.
Austin also has one of Shay’s bikes but it’s over at a master restorer Dave Marsh’s in England being brought back to it’s 1960’s glory.
And finally, there’s one exhibit which comes as a bit of a surprise but is surely a good place to close; Shay’s first bike – a wee tricycle from 1929 when all those wins were yet to come and there were no concerns about money or being stabbed in the back.
Rest in peace, Shay Elliott, all time great.