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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: Fighting Irish

My first live glimpse of the Tour de France came on June 26, 1963. I was sitting with my bike and a group of French picnickers on a grassy hillside in Picardy. They were big fans of the defending champion Jacques Anquetil, whose hometown of Rouen was the destination for that day’s fourth stage. As the peloton crested the hill and headed our way, the fans warmly applauded the riders, shouting out “Bravo, Jacques!” when they spotted Anquetil in the distinctive red-white-and-blue jersey of his St. Raphaël-Gitane team. Their hero was tucked in behind a teammate, who was wearing the yellow

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By John Wilcockson

Never shy to attack, Elliott's main quality was working hard as a domestique

Never shy to attack, Elliott’s main quality was working hard as a domestique

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My first live glimpse of the Tour de France came on June 26, 1963. I was sitting with my bike and a group of French picnickers on a grassy hillside in Picardy. They were big fans of the defending champion Jacques Anquetil, whose hometown of Rouen was the destination for that day’s fourth stage.

As the peloton crested the hill and headed our way, the fans warmly applauded the riders, shouting out “Bravo, Jacques!” when they spotted Anquetil in the distinctive red-white-and-blue jersey of his St. Raphaël-Gitane team. Their hero was tucked in behind a teammate, who was wearing the yellow jersey. This was the first time I’d seen Shay (short for Seamus) Elliott, the Irish cyclist who was just as much a part of the Anglo invasion of the European peloton as the two riders I discussed last week, Englishmen Brian Robinson and Tom Simpson.

Elliott was wearing the yellow jersey thanks to his solo stage win at Roubaix the previous day. It was a victory that made the Irishman the first native English speaker to win stages in all three grand tours (he took the 20th stage of the 1960 Giro d’Italia in a solo break at Belluno; and won two stages of the Vuelta a España – the fourth stage at Benidorm in 1962 and the 13th stage at Valencia in 1963).

You may remember that I mentioned Elliott a few weeks ago when, as a 19-year-old amateur, he won the 1953 Tour of Eire. His prize was an expenses-paid trip to Monaco to take part in a pre-season training camp sponsored by the Simplex company, where Elliott received some coaching tips from French cycling great Francis Pélissier.

Elliott, who was a rider never shy to attack, made quick strides in French cycling. He won a stage of the 1954 Route de France (then the leading stage race for French amateurs), and took three French amateur classics in 1955. By age 21 he was a professional on Anquetil’s team, Helyett-Potin. The Irishman would win 57 races as a pro, but his chief quality was not winning major races but working hard as a domestique, either for Anquetil at the grand tours or for teammates like German Rudi Altig and multi-French champion Jean Stablinski in one-day races.

Besides his four grand tour stage wins, Elliott’s most notable performances were winning the 1959 Het Volk classic in Belgium; finishing third overall at the 1962 Vuelta (teammate Altig was the winner); and taking the silver medal in the 1962 world road championship (behind Stablinski).

Elliott might well have won the rainbow jersey in ’62, but he was Ireland’s only pro cyclist, and so he competed at the world’s without teammates. Even so, midway through the 23-lap, 296km race on a hilly 12.8km circuit at Salo, Italy, the green-jerseyed Dubliner worked his way into the winning move. Also there were Stablinski and his French teammate Henry Anglade; Germans Rolf Wolfshohl and Horst Oldenburg; Italians Arnaldo Pambianco and Franco Cribiori; Belgian Jos Hoevenaers; and Dutchman Huub Zilverberg.

At their best in long, grueling races, the stocky Elliott and solid Stablinski proved to be the strongest men as the race headed into its eighth hour. When Stab’ made his move on one of the circuit’s two climbs, Elliott could have gone with him. Instead, he later conceded to the French journalists, “I couldn’t chase after my friend when he attacked, could I?”

Instead, Elliott defended for Stab’ (even though they were on different teams at the world’s), and then jumped away from the others on the uphill finish, to take second place, 1:22 behind his friend, but 22 seconds ahead of bronze medalist Hoevenaers, and 32 seconds clear of fourth-placed Wolfshohl.

Stablinski returned Elliott’s favor on the stage to Roubaix at the 1963 Tour, with the implicit assistance of the St. Raphaël team leader Anquetil. The Irishman, then 29, later told the press: “It was [Anquetil], seeing that I was strong in the previous day’s [team time trial], who told me, ‘Ride at the front of the peloton and control the breakaways.’ And that’s how I managed to jump into the good break.”

Teammate Stablinski went with Elliott in this dozen-strong move that began 150km from the stage finish in Roubaix — with several sections of cobblestone to confront in the closing kilometers. There were some dangerous rivals in the move, including Belgian Gilbert Desmet I of the Wiel’s-Groene Leeuw team of race leader Eddy Pauwels, and the Frenchman Henry Anglade, whose Pelforth squad had won the previous day’s team time trial.

“Our mission was clear,” Elliott said. “We had to make sure that the break didn’t take too much time, and then mark the most dangerous opponents in the finale.”

Elliott said he was feeling strong, but a flat tire nearly cost him the chance at the stage win. Stab’ came to the rescue by slowing the pace just long enough to allow his teammate to chase back on. Then, with 6km to go, Stablinski — who lived in the region and knew the roads intimately — led the break onto a cinder bike path alongside a stretch of cobbles. At the same moment, his friend Shay attacked hard on the other side of the road, went clear and reached the Roubaix velodrome a half-minute ahead of the break, with the peloton at almost nine minutes.

“In those final kilometers I was thinking of my son Pascal. I wanted him to be proud of what I was doing,” said Elliott, who had built a house at Champigny, east of Paris, and married a French woman, Marguerite, whom he met at an earlier Tour.

Elliott easily kept the yellow jersey for the next three days, before ceding it to Desmet in a 24.5km time trial won by Anquetil — who went on to win the Tour for a fourth time. The Irishman stayed with Anquetil’s team for two more years; but when he was leading the then-prestigious Paris-Luxembourg stage race in August 1965, he fell victim to what he believed was a double-cross by Stablinski, who won the race, leaving Elliott in fourth.

As a result, Elliott raced for rival Raymond Poulidor’s team, Mercier-BP, in 1966 and ’67, the last two seasons of his pro career. The Irishman and his family moved to Brittany where they planned to build and run a hotel, but things went wrong financially. So in 1968, he returned to Dublin and went back to work alongside his father in their auto-body repair business. Elliott’s wife wasn’t happy in Ireland and returned to Paris the following year.

Then, in 1970, hoping to supplement his dwindling income, Elliott made a brief comeback for the British domestic team, Falcon. But, after two seasons out of the sport, the 36-year-old Irishman had waited too long to restart his career. When his father died the following April, Elliott’s estranged wife traveled to Dublin for the funeral. His dad’s death was a bitter blow, and two days later on May 4, 1971, Elliott was found in his workshop, dead, a shotgun at his side.

It was a tragic ending to the life of a good-hearted man who will always be remembered as a true pioneer, not only by Irish cyclists but also by all the English-speaking riders who would follow him to the sport’s Mecca.