Ireland’s Cycling Heroes (And One Villain)

There is more to Ireland’s cycling glories than Kelly and Roche. Here we go all the way back to the eighties – the 1880s – to celebrate St Patrick’s Day.


Harry Reynolds AKA the Balbriggan Flyer

Born Balbriggan, 14 December 1874. Died 16 July 1940.

The first Irishman to win a world championship, the 1896 track cycling world champs held in Copenhagen. Reynolds won the men’s amateur sprint.


William “Willie” Hume

Born Belfast 3 April 1862. Died 1941.

The very first poster boy for pneumatic tyres. In 1889 he got himself a safety bicycle with Dunlop’s new pneumatic tyres on it and then basically pretty much every race he attended in Ireland and then across the sea in England. Hume’s feats secured him a place in Cycling Weekly’s legendary ‘Golden Book of Cycling‘.

Tour_de_France_1963_27th_June_Vor_dem_Start_SeamusElliott_JeanStablinkski_Jacques Anquetil

Seamus “Shay” Elliott

Born Dublin 4 June 1934. Died 4 May 1971.

The first Irish cyclist to make a dent into the continental European race scene. He won stages in all the Grand Tours. Something of a flahute, Elliott spent most of his career as a domestique for Jacques Anquetil and Jean Stablinski (that’s Elliott, Stablinski and Anquetil pictured above).

He didn’t learn to ride a bike until he was 14. when he was 16 he joined a cycling club and did his first race, a 20 miler around city streets organised by the church. He finished 2nd despite riding a junkyard fixie that caused him to constantly pedal strike around the tight corners.

Elliott’s best result was in the 1963 Tour De France when a breakaway left Anquetil stranded in the peloton and Elliott was free to attack off the front. He won the stage by 33 seconds and ended up in the yellow jersey. It would take twenty years for an Irishman to get in the yellow jersey again (Sean Kelly).

It all started to unravel for Elliott in the mid-60s. He left Anquetil’s team and joined his rival Raymond Poulidor’s Mercier-BP team. Elliott opened up a hotel in Britanny (as his retirement fund) and this proved to be a real time-sucker. His racing nosedived. Mercier-BP gave him a chance to make amends in the world champs… but Elliott’s chain came off and he finished nowhere.

His marriage failed. The hotel failed. He sold a ‘doping and bribes’ scandal story to a British tabloid and none of old cycling friends would talk to him any more. On 4 May 1971 Elliott died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The Shay Elliott Memorial Road race is run every year in Ireland in his honour.

All for the sake of a dropped chain eh?

Sean Kelly

Born Carrick-on-Suir 24 May 1956.

Simply one of the greatest all-round racers of all time. Fearless sprinter, good climber, quite insane at descending, skilled in the wet and on the cobbles. Taciturn and modest with media. Sean Kelly IS Irish cycling.

There is literally too much to talk about so we’ll just give a quick run-down of his prime palmares. 193 professional wins. Nine Monument wins. He won Paris-Nice seven times in a row. Victory in the 1988 Vuelta a Espana. Loads of wins the Classics. Kelly was ranked No.1 when the world rankings were introduced in 1984, a place he held on to for a record six years!


Stephen Roche

Born Dundrum 28 November 1959.

Roche’s career can arguably be summed in with two years: 1986 and 1987.

In 1986 he did his right knee in after a high speed crash at the Paris-Bercy race. He did complete the Tour De France but was way down the pack and it hurt. A lot. His knee injury very probably lead to further problems with his back.

Despite all this, Roche had an amzing 1987. He became one of only two cyclists to have done the Triple Crown win: the Tour De France, the Giro d’Italia and the World Champs in 1987. This fact alone secures his place in cycling’s hall of fame.

He broke team orders – and the hearts of his Italian teammate’s fans – to win the Giro. He passed out during the Tour De France after reducing Pedro Delgado’s minute and a half time advantage to a mere four seconds. Up a mountain climb! He had a form of help from his fellow countryman and team mate Sean Kelly to win the world champs (Kelly didn’t attack as he might in the finale) but there’s every likelihood Kelly knew that Roche would have bested him anyway.

Roche is part of an extended dynasty of Irish cycling. His brother Laurence was a pro rider, his son Nicholas now rides for Team Sky and his nephew is Dan Martin (Cannondale-Garmin).

Paul Kimmage

Born Dublin 7 May 1962.

Although better known as a Lance-baiting journalist, Kimmage was also a workaday road racer in the 80s. It was during his time in the peloton playing second fiddle to Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly that Kimmage first wrote some stuff for a newspaper. Cycling was having a mini-boom in Ireland and the papers wanted someone to write pieces about life in the peloton.

In 1990 Kimmage wrote a book called ‘Rough Ride’ that described doping use in pro road cycling. In it he admitted using amphetamines but claims he didn’t do any of the more serious drugs. The book caused a mild stir but it wasn’t ground-shaking stuff.

It wasn’t until the late noughties that his pieces for the Sunday Times – about Lance Armstrong in particular – that he started to make himself a bit more of a significant nuisance to the UCI.

Watch this tense video of Kimmage and Armstrong having a right old ding-dong at a press conference in 2009.

Pat McQuaid

Born Dublin 5 September 1949.

And here is your villain. Time will probably be kinder on Pat McQuaid as we realise that he was just another part of a seemingly intractably broken system (the UCI). But for now, he – along with Lance Armstrong – is the bad guy.

He raced road bikes from 1966 to 1982. He was Irish national champion in 1974 and won the Tour Of Ireland in 1975 and 1976. He was banned from the 1976 Olympics for competing in apartheid South Africa (he tried to get away with it by using a false name).

As President of the UCI from 20016 to 2013 McQuaid was regarded by many as being inconsistent, or soft, on doping. And he seemed to have favourites within the peloton who could get away with things. In 2013 a leaked dossier contained several allegations against McQuaid: asking for €250,000 to promote a certain cycling team, seeking payment to cover up Alberto Contador’s positive drug test and conversing with Lance Armstrong about which races he could do that wouldn’t have doping checks present.

The future’s green

With Nicholas Roche, Dan Martin and Sam Bennett doing great things in the professional peloton, it feels like we’re entering the era another mini-boom in Irish cycling.

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