Malcolm Elliott works for Tour organisers ASO as a driver, but back in the day he was part of the peloton. Nick Westby reports.
In a career spanning the best part of three decades, encompassing two phases, 11 professional teams, a brace of Olympic Games’ 16 years apart and a pair of Commonwealth Games’ medals, Malcolm Elliott can have few complaints.
Yet if there is one thing the Sheffield sprinter wished he had tasted more of, it is the Tour de France.
He rode it just twice in the late 1980s, in the fledgling days of a varied career that only ended three years ago at the age of 50.
He barely had time to get to grips with it, not least tame it.
But cycling in the late 1980s was a different beast, and the Tour de France was not a race that towered above the rest as it does now. There were other races to dominate, and Elliott excelled in many of those.
Yet as the Tour arrives in Yorkshire, on the roads he rode on as a teenager at the Rutland Cycle Club in Sheffield, it is the one race he finds himself asked about most of all.
“It’s one of my regrets that when I look back on my career I didn’t ride it more than twice,” confesses Elliott, who won gold medals in the track and on the road at the 1982 Commonwealth Games, and who also raced in the Moscow Olympics two years earlier, and the Atlanta Games of 1996.
“My career was mainly in Spain and the Vuelta Espana was just as big a grand tour back then and the Spanish teams built their season around that.
“I could have ridden more Tours if I’d have chosen a different career path but I opted for the Spanish teams.
“With the globalisation of cycling, the Tour de France has become the biggest race. It’s self-fuelling. The international sponsors all want a piece of the Tour, which has made it the race to be involved in.
“So my regret has probably become greater over the passage of time, because I certainly didn’t feel it at the time.”
What Elliott did feel during his two attempts at the Tour de France, was pain.
“That first tour was extremely hard,” recalls Elliott of the 1987 Tour de France he rode for British team ANC-Halfords.
“We had no experience of grand tours, in fact the longest race I’d done was the 13 days of the Milk Race.
“I won the Milk Race that year, in early June, and it was decided then that we’d have a team in the Tour at the end of the month and I’d be racing it, so that left us with very little preparation time.
“One of my problems was that I was a rider who peaked in the Spring or in the autumn, I was never at my strongest in June or July, the months of the Tour.
“I had no coach; no sporting director planning a schedule for me. I trained on my own, got fit and I rode to win races. When I needed a rest, I took time off.
“So those first few days particularly were a shock. There were no real favourites in the Tour that year so it was a race that had no control.
“It was a crazy pace, one that took even the veterans by surprise. They were going so fast for so long and I remember one day just hanging on in a cross-wind.
“I had a miserable first week before I started to find my feet. Then I got a third place into Bordeaux, and could have probably won the sprint had I not been caught up in a crash.
“The last week, though, I was suffering like a dog, just trying to get through it.
“The fatigue was so over-bearing that it even descended into your digestive system. Food would sit in your stomach because it was digesting so slowly, and you’d just feel bloated.
“I was never comfortable, but I never lost the confidence that I would make it to Paris.”
Elliott’s second Tour was completed against the backdrop of political squabbling at his new team, Fagor. A Spanish outfit, backed by French money and led by Stephen Roche – the 1987 triple crown winner of Tour, Giro d’Italia and world championship – was not a harmonious environment.
“There was a lot of pressure on the team, particularly with Stephen out injured for most of the year,” says Elliott.
“We started well in the Vuelta, I won my first stage and Sean Yates won a couple of stages.
“And I had a handful of top-10 finishes in that year’s Tour but never anything better than that. Fagor offered me a contract at the end of the year but I didn’t take it.”
Soured by the in-fighting at Fagor, Elliott opted instead to join Spanish outfit Teka.
There he would prove his grand tour pedigree, winning another stage of the Vuelta a Espana and becoming the first Englishman to win a jersey at one of the ‘big three’ when he won the points classification.
It was an honour he held until Mark Cavendish matched the accomplishment at the 2010 Vuelta. Such an achievement by Elliott should not be overlooked, but even he, 25 years on, accepts that it is one that is cast into the shadows when measured against feats accomplished in the Tour de France.