it is something of a tautological statement to point out that there can only ever be one first. in the words of the former head and shoulders shampoo tv advert, 'you never get a second chance to make a first impression'. though competitive cycling has existed for little more than a century, winning ways have largely been the preserve of riders from mainland europe. with cycle racing now becoming a tad more popular in the uk, it is worth remembering that its place in the international hall of fame has only relatively recently been assured. riders such as brian robinson, tom simpson, robert millar and latterly bradley wiggins and mark cavendish have engraved their names on winning jerseys, and simultaneously on the list of british firsts.
this alacrity in the face of international competition has not, of course, been confined to the shores of mainland britain. excluding the fact that mark cavendish hails from a small island in the irish sea, those on the other side of that stretch of water haven't done too badly either. sean kelly has worn the tour's yellow jersey and won several green, while his countryman, stephen roche topped the lot by winning giro, tour and worlds all in the same year. their success on behalf of southern ireland, however, was preceded by that of shay elliot, a rider whose tenacity and abilities kept him racing in the same team as five time tour winner jacques anquetil for ten years, not only being the first irishman to wear the yellow jersey, but also the first to win a tour stage.
kelly and roche may have improved upon his early successes, but they could never lay claim to be first.
with modern web enabled video sites such as youtube and vimeo, it's currently a simple situation to have edited highlights of any given race available mere minutes after the event. not only that, but such viewing is then more or less on-demand twnety-four hours a day for the foreseeable future. it has meant that we can all become armchair analysts, (often to a high degree of argumentativeness if the comments below many a youtube video can be used as an example) without having to rely on any informed commentary from the national or cycling press hours or days after we've all moved onto the next thing. it has, of course, not always been this way.
piecing together a biographical film of a rider whose heyday was in the 1950s, a period not renowned for high quality imagery of competitive events, least of all a fast moving and geographically challenging sport such as cycling. not for them the phalanx of motorbike cameramen, squadrons of helicopters and satellite transmission. and in the quest of footage depicting ireland's favoured son, it should be remembered that the cameras were more than likely concentrating on one of the french or belgian heroes rather than the irish. in this respect, martin dwan has pulled off little short of a miracle in cycle of betrayal, portraying elliot's successful, but ultimately doomed career by way of an almost immaculately constructed narrative.
in doing this, he has recruited many noteworthy riders and irish colleagues of the man to flesh out the portions between ageing movie clips. narrated by declan conlon we are treated to testimonials and comments from elliot's best friend, john cleary, dublin wheelers' billy long, the guardian's will fotheringham, jean bobet, winner of the 1955 paris-nice, andre darrigade, 1959 world road race champion, brian robinson, rudi altig, sean kelly and several others. i have previously reviewed the mousehold press published biography of elliot by graham healy and richard allchin, a book with the odd flaw, but highly worthwhile nonetheless; this film can be considered the perfect accompaniment. as one who was all but oblivious to shay's career until reading the book, the film has made much of the man's career a lot clearer.
there's no doubt that modern cycling history is being recorded in minute detail in print, photography and film. the latter is often available on several dvds, leaving virtually no stone unturned. these, however, more often than not, present racing in uncritical fashion; perhaps that's what today's market requires of its racing footage. the halcyon days of yore seem rarely to have been captured in what might be termed sequential fashion; in order to make retrospective sense of an individual career, we must depend on the skill and tenacity of film-makers like martin dwan. for it cannot be right that we have almost unrestricted knowledge of bradley wiggins' record collection, yet be ignorant of those who paved the way for the british and irish invasion of european cycle racing.
cycle of betrayal, if nothing else, proves the theory that the past informs the future. the opening 1970 television interview shows there is little that's new under the sun, concerned as it is with elliot's confessions to a national newspaper about the iniquities of professional cycle racing, midst accusations of drugtaking. in this interview, filmed only a year before his untimely and mysterious death, elliot looks relaxed and very confident in his assertions against his former competitive life. there's no doubt that anquetil and stablinski co-operated in undermining their team- mate in several key races. had this not been the case. elliot's palmares would have contained several more victories, but it's doubtful that this could ever have him commended more highly to his friends and fans on the continent and in ireland. shay elliot was a cyclist of the highest calibre and ever worthy of admiration.
if there is such a thing as a school of cycling, even if requiring self-education, watching this film would not be optional. if you consider yourself a cycling scholar, or member of the cognoscenti, you need to own or borrow a copy. an entertaining and educational masterpiece.
cycle of betrayal is available from bromley video at a cost of £15.99
posted wednesday november 2 2011..........................................................................................................................................................................................................