Council unveils plaque to cyclist Shay Elliott,  Ireland’s Tour de France trailblazer

by Alex Greaney
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Alex Greaney 

Dubliner Shay Elliott made history in June 1963 when he won the third stage of the Tour de France, taking the overall lead and wearing the Yellow Jersey or ‘maillot jaune’ for three days.  

The stage-win also made Elliott the first English-speaking rider to win a stage in each of the Grand Tours, adding to his victories in the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España.  

It would be another 15 years before an Irishman won a stage and a further five years before an Irishman wore the Yellow Jersey in Le Tour, when Sean Kelly took it with a victory in stage 9 in 1983. 

Shay Elliott was born in Crumlin, Dublin, in 1934, and having served an apprenticeship as a panel beater, became a professional cyclist in 1956, following success in the amateur ranks. In 1955, he became the first foreigner to be ranked top amateur in France. 

In 1958, he narrowly failed to win the Paris–Roubaix and Paris–Brussels classics due to mechanical faults and lost a sprint stage in the Tour de France by being blocked. Professional cycling could be ruthless. 

Elliott rode as a super-domestique for nearly ten years with the five-time Tour de France winner, Jacques Anquetil, as his team leader. The team was widely regarded as the Galacticos of professional cycling such was the quality of its riders.  

In 1962, Shay competed in Salò, Italy for the World Road Race Championship. He won the silver medal, losing out to Jean ‘Stab’ Stablinksi, a teammate, best friend and godfather to his son, Pascal. Shay later claimed that Stablinski paid other riders to chase him down when he attacked on the penultimate lap thus denying him victory. The consensus among his peers was that he was cheated out of gold. 

Deprived of certain victory in the 1965 Paris–Luxembourg stage race by one more betrayal by Stablinski, a devastated Shay left the team and joined Jacques Anquetil’s greatest rival, Raymond Poulidor at Mercier. Sadly, the move proved to be a disaster. Looking to the future Shay invested his life savings in opening a hotel in Brittany. It haemorrhaged money and his marriage failed as a result. Faced with bankruptcy, he returned to Ireland leaving his wife and son behind.  

In the years that followed, Shay rebuilt his life, setting up a garage on South Prince’s Street, Dublin, where he also lived. He regularly tuned into French radio to listen to the cycling coverage. He even dreamed of one more victory on the bike. With the near miss at Salò never far from his mind, he looked to competing in the World Road Race Championship in Leicester in 1970. Sadly, he never got to the starting line. Less than a year later and within weeks of the death of his beloved father Jim, Shay was found dead in his home. He had suffered a shotgun wound to the chest. 

Sixty years on from taking the Yellow Jersey as race leader of the Tour de France, Shay Elliott should be remembered as a pioneer, a man who set many firsts in his cycling career, and achieved 50 race victories. His legacy is one that inspired future Irish legends to conquer the roads and the mountains of Europe.  

Speaking at the unveiling at Elliott’s childhood home at 96 Old County Road, Crumlin, Councillor Carolynn Moore, deputising for the Lord Mayor, said, “Shay Elliott, born and reared in Crumlin in 1934, blazed a trail for Irish cyclists when he turned professional on the Continent at the age of 21. His determination and abilities as a cyclist were matched by his sense of loyalty as a teammate, and his unfortunate death cannot overshadow all he achieved in his relatively short career. I congratulate all involved in ensuring that Dubliner Shay Elliott is now commemorated in his own Crumlin community”. 

The proposal to commemorate Shay Elliott was proposed by filmmaker Martin Dwan, whose film ‘Shay Elliott: Cycle of Betrayal’ was screened at a reception following the unveiling: “Shay Elliott was the first Irishman to ride professionally in France and further afield. His teammates were some of the greatest cyclists of the era. Despite being in such exalted company he managed to make a name for himself. To paraphrase one commentator, Elliott went to France to learn how to race only to become the teacher. During his career he secured 50 race wins but he also suffered awful bad luck and even treachery that denied him victory in some of the classics.” 

The decision to erect the plaque was made by the Dublin City Council Commemorations & Naming Committee, whose chair, Councillor Micheál Mac Donncha, said, “The Commemorative Plaques Scheme allows the City to formally commemorate people who have made a significant contribution to the life of Dublin. We welcome suggestions from the public for people and events to be commemorated, and full details are on the Council website.” 

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