A belated happy birthday to Seamus Elliott, who was born on June 4, 1934 and died on May 4, 1971.
The Irish rider is best remembered for finishing second in the 1962 World Championship Road Race behind Jean Stablinski of France.
Earlier that season, Elliot also earned himself a position on the podium, after finshing 3rd in the 1962 Vuelta a Espana behind Rudi Altig of Germany and Jose Perez Frances of Spain.
Elliott was the eldest son of James and Ellen Elliott. He played Gaelic football and hurling and didn’t learn to ride a bicycle until he was 14. He used it to ride to the town of Naas. He joined a small cycling club attached to St Brendan’s Church, Coolock, when he was 16 and took part in races of about 20 miles that the church organized around the city streets. He came second in his first race, riding a scrap bike with a single fixed wheel that led his pedals to bang the road on corners.
Elliott joined the Southern Road Club when he was 17, and later won the Grand Prix of Ireland. The club broke up soon afterwards and Elliott joined the Dublin Wheelers in March 1952. That summer he won the Mannin Veg, a race over one lap of the TT motorcycling circuit on the Isle of Man. He also won the Dublin-Galway-Dublin two-day race, winning the race back to Dublin in a sprint.
In 1953 he rode the Manx International, over three laps of the TT circuit, for the Ireland “B” team. He fell on the tricky turn at Governor’s Bridge, shortly before the finish, but came fourth. He won the 1953 Irish amateur road championship. His second place in the Tour of Ireland that year earned him a trip to the Simplex training camp in Monte Carlo the following spring.
Elliott did not return permanently to Ireland at the end of the training camp. He had just finished six years as an apprentice sheet-metal worker and he and his family in Old County Road in Crumlin, Dublin, had decided that he had mastered panel-beating and would have a trade to return to if his efforts to become a professional cyclist failed. He contacted a former French professional, Francis Pélissier, for advice. Pélissier told Elliott to compete in as many races as possible, at least three or four a week – possibly in France, but not in Ireland, a cycling backwater. Elliott planned to move to Ghent in Belgium, where he could race several times a week and, as an amateur, win money denied to him in Ireland. At the training camp, however, he met the journalist and race organiser Jean Leulliot who told him he would burn himself out in round-the-houses racing and urged him to move to Paris.
Leulliot remembered how Elliott had won the Tourmalet stage of the 1954 Route de France, which Leulliot’s paper, Route et Piste, organized. Leulliot asked in his paper for someone to accommodate Elliott in the capital and added “The Irishman is soaked with class and has a great future before him.” The appeal was answered by Paul Wiegant of the Athletic Club Boulogne-Billancourt in Paris, France’s top amateur team. Elliott won five one-day amateur classics in 1955 and set the world 10 km amateur record on the Vélodrome d’Hiver in Paris. He became a professional for the 1956 season.
Elliott turned professional for the Helyett-Félix Potin team. Helyett was a bicycle factory. He won his first race, the GP d’Echo Alger in Algeria, outsprinting André Darrigade. He also won the GP Catox and the GP Isbergues. In his first major race of 1957, the Omloop “Het Volk” in Belgium, he made a race-long break with Englishman Brian Robinson. The break was caught near the finish but Elliott’s form was noted. He won the Circuit de la Vienne. He became a team-mate of Jacques Anquetil and Jean Stablinski, staying with the team under different sponsors for much of his career.
In 1959 he won Omloop “Het Volk”, the first foreigner to succeed. He attacked on the Mur de Grammont with 30 km to ride and dropped all his rivals except Fred De Bruyne, the Belgian hope. The pair raced together to the finish where Elliott won easily. That season Elliott rode the Tour de France, then run for national teams, in a mixed team that included the Englishman, Brian Robinson. Robinson rode above his level across the Massif Central and next day paid the price. He trailed far behind the field.
Both finished outside the time limit and expected to be sent home. The team’s manager, Sauveur Ducazeaux, insisted the judges apply a rule that no rider in the first ten could be eliminated. Robinson had started the day ninth: it was Elliott who was sent home. “The mother hen was cooked; the chick avoided the pot”, Fotheringham said.
In 1962, he came third in the 1962 Vuelta a España, winning the fourth stage and coming second in the points classification. He led the race for nine days. In the 1962 world road championship at Salò in Italy, he got into the winning break with Stablinski. Stablinski was a team-mate in the professional peloton but a rival in the championship, where riders rode in national teams. However, Elliott and Stablinski worked to wear down the other break members. When Stablinski attacked, Elliott refused to chase and the Frenchman won alone. Elliott eventually broke away to take the silver medal. Elliott admitted he had sacrificed his chance for Stablinski’s benefit.
“Team loyalty was a theme that ran throughout Elliott’s career,” noted the editor of Cycling Martin Ayres. Elliott said: “I’m not supposed to say that I helped Jean, but he’s the best friend I’ve got in cycling and godfather to my son, Pascal. So I couldn’t very well go after him, could I?”.
His best result was in the 1963 Tour de France. He won by 33 seconds, enough to give him the yellow jersey of leadership. He held it for three days. Another 20 years passed before another Irishman, Sean Kelly, led the Tour.
Elliott spent his career as a domestique a rider who sacrifices his chances for his leader, but with the right to sprint for wins. He made a career from appearance contracts and start money, riding criteriums in Belgium – the races that Leulliot said would burn him out – and races in Britain, including a meeting at the velodrome at Herne Hill in London where the star attraction was the Italian, Fausto Coppi. Elliott also rode and won the professional race on the Isle of Man, the Manx Premier.
Elliott was contracted to ride London-Holyhead in 1965, at 275 miles the longest single-day race in the world not to use pacers. Tom Simpson won, beating Elliott and a domestic professional, Albert Hitchen. Controversy started the moment that Cycling printed a picture of the sprint. Elliott had his hands tugging his brakes before the line. The magazine suggested he was braking to avoid the crowd further down the road. But many thought it a fix. Elliott later wrote a newspaper article admitting that he made more money by selling races than winning them.
Elliott, braking to stop Hitchen behind him, so Simpson could win, was riding in Simpson’s pay. Simpson offered Elliott £1,000 to help him win the world championship in 1963. Elliott refused, speculation being that he had been offered more by someone else.
Elliott’s career started to fade from the mid-1960s. He moved in 1966 from Anquetil’s team to the rival Mercier-BP, sponsored by a bicycle company and an oil company and led by Anquetil’s rival, Raymond Poulidor. Elliott planned for retirement by opening a hotel in Loctudy in Brittany. That took so much of his time that he could ride only local races. After promising Mercier-BP that he would make amends in the world championship, the chain came off his bicycle and he finished 15th.
Things grew worse. His marriage to Marguerite, failed. The hotel, too, failed and Elliott lost all his money. To make amends, he sold a story to the British newspaper, The People, telling of drug-taking and bribery. The article went into few details but was enough for him to be snubbed by other professionals. The same had happened to Simpson when he sold his story to the same paper. But while Simpson recovered despite reprimands from his agent, criticism in the cycling press and a threat of dismissal by his team, Elliott’s career never regained momentum.
British cycling journalist Jock Wadley, who had shared a room with Elliott at the Simplex training camp, said: “I knew times were hard for him but nobody knew just how hard until he had to do that.
Elliott returned to Dublin in 1967 and set up a metal-working business with his father. Marguerite remained in France, with his only son Pascal. Elliott tried a racing comeback in Britain in 1970 with the Falcon Cycles team and came 21st in his first race, London-Holyhead. Domestic professional racing was not as attractive or rewarding as continental. Combining cycling with a full-time job meant he struggled. Despite problems, he continued to ride, train juniors and formulate plans for Irish cycling.
On 21 April 1971, his father died. Two weeks after his father’s death, on 4 May 1971, Shay Elliott was found dead in the living quarters above the family business premises. The cause of death was from a shotgun wound. He was laid to rest alongside his father at St Mochonog’s Church, Kilmacanogue, County Wicklow.
The Shay Elliott Memorial Road Race is run every year in Ireland in his honor. The race was previously known as the Route de Chill Mhantain (Circuit of Wicklow). It became the Shay Elliott Trophy in the late sixties, then the Shay Elliott Memorial after his death in 1971.
A monument to Elliott erected by friends stands at the top of the climb from Drumgoff Bridge, Glenmalure heading towards Laragh, County Wicklow, where the race’s KOH mountain prime is situated.
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