by Owen Mulholland
Ireland is quickly being converted into a leading cycling nation due to its current talented crop of international pros and its superbly run Tour of Ireland. Their number one man, Sean Kelly, has just won the Super Prestige Pernod competition for the third successive time.
This competition, like Fomnula One auto racing, is based on a season-long points series. The winner can rightly think of himself as the best overall rider in the world.
Kelly, Stephen Roche, Martin Earley and the rest deserve every bit of attention they can get at home. Keep this up and maybe Ireland can become another Belgium. But many fans new to the sport don't realize that Kelly had some pretty illustrious Irish predecessors.
Foremost on the list would have to be Shay Elliott. Like all young riders, he dreamed of riding on the continent with the big names, but unlike the rest, Shay did something about it. His second overall in the 1953 Tour of Ireland, at a mere age 18, earned him a trip to the Simplex training camp in Monte Carlo for the spring of the following season.
Over the winter he contacted Francis Pelissier, the grand old man of Franch cycling in those days. Just that previous fall Pelissier had been instrumental in convincing a talented young French amateur to turn pro for the Grand Prix des Nations. That amateur was 19 year old Jacques Anquetil, and he won that Nations race. In a few years time Jacques was to become Shay's boss.
Meanwhile, Pelissier told Elliott to compete in as many races as possible, at least three or four a week. Poor Pelissier couldn't imagine a place on earth where this wasn't possible. Ireland was such a place.
But the Dubliner did the next best thing. Through the slush and rain he trained religiously. His performances at the training camp were more than acceptable. He was snatched up by a club and rewarded that confidence by winning the Galibier stage of the Route de France, a major continental stage race.
The following season, 1955, he was inducted into the ranks of the ACBB, France's most prestigious amateur club. He proceeded to win five one-day amateur classics. The pro scouts needed no rnore convincing. This Dublin kid might come from a strange country, but they didn't care as long as he went fast. 1956 was a year of adaptation, but come 1957 Shay showed his stuff. In the first classic, Belgium's Het Volk, he was in a race-long break with the only British pro, Brian Robinson. They were caught near the end, but not before they won a bundle of primes and made a big name for themselves.
Years passed and the big one always seemed to elude Shay. Like Greg LeMond, Elliott was always there in the front of the action, but not quite there on the finish line.
He got close in 1962 when he went away in the winning move with his friend and teammate, Jean Stablinski, in the World Championship Road Race at Salo, Italy. After collaborating for many miles "Stab" attacked, and Shay felt duty bound to hold tight. After the race he confessed, "I know I shouldn't say it, but I couldn't chase after my friend when he attacked, could I?" Nevertheless, Shay had no trouble of disposing of the rest of the break to take the silver. Stablinski was well aware of the debt he owed. Next year on the third day of the Tour de France he found a way to repay it. Although Jean and Shay rode for Jacques Anquetil in the St. Raphael squad, it wasn't their fault when they were dragged into a nine minute lead by a very active breakaway they'd latched onto. When Shay punctured, Stab deftly slowed the break long enough for Elliot to get a new wheel and power back to the group.
With six kilometers to go to the Roubaix finish, Jean gave Shay a wink as he led the breakaway onto a bike path. (This was preferred to the cobblestone road.) At this moment Shay attacked down the opposite side of the road. He was away for good. At Roubaix, he not only won the stage, but also slipped into the coveted yellow jersey. He was the first (and, so far, last) Irishman to wear the "maillot jaune." He had no illusions. In three days he had lost it, but three days in yellow is a definition of immortality in bikedom.
At age 30, in 1964, he retired from the big time and returned to Dublin to set up a metal working business with his father. He had troubles adapting to this mundane, sedentary lifestyle. In '66 his French wife, Marguerite, returned to France, and the following year Shay attempted a comeback. His first race was London-Holyhead, 270 nonstop miles, and at the time the longest unpaced race in the world. His 21st placing showed the old legs weren't dead yet. Still, the domestic scene didn't interest him like the continental, and in any event, as long as he worked full time it was doubtful he could be really competitive in any field of bike competition. He continued to ride, and train juniors, but when his father died in April of 1971, he appeared to have lost his last real lifeline.
Marguerite came for Elliott Sr.'s funeral, and two days after she returned to France Shay was found, on May 4, 1971, dead from a shotgun wound, apparently self inflicted. The man who had been a pioneer, and adapted to the continent had ironically been unable to readapt to life A.B. (After Bike). His legacy was dormant for only a short time. Within a decade his heirs were emulating him, although none have yet raced in yellow or gone as high as a silver in the World Championships. Perhaps if he were there to cheer them on....