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Retro: Fausto Coppi races in Dublin in 1959

By:
Barry Ryan
Published:
May 08, 2014, 15:20 BST,
Updated:
May 09, 2014, 1:44 BST
Race:
Giro d'Italia
Fausto Coppi is greeted by Jim McQuaid and CRE president Paddy McQuaid on arrival at Dublin airport in 1959

Fausto Coppi is greeted by Jim McQuaid and CRE president Paddy McQuaid on arrival at Dublin airport in 1959

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I

Since landing in Dublin the previous afternoon, he has scarcely spoken a word to his hosts except to let it be known that his hotel was inadequate. If the republican bombing that blew a hole in the Santry track overnight bothers him, it’s impossible to tell. Until it’s time to race, his eyes stay hidden behind sunglasses, his expression stiff as cardboard.

Repairs are still ongoing when the riders begin to arrive at the track, yet the caste system remains in place. The local amateurs - who will fill the meeting’s undercard - make nervous small talk, casting furtive glances at the professionals. Those bronzed boys of summer from the continent, meanwhile, sprawl languidly across their top tubes, laughing and joking amongst themselves.

Even within that group, there is an unspoken hierarchy. Only one man, with lank hair and a hooked nose, has an entourage all to himself. Men in sunglasses who check and re-check his bike, massage his legs and gently chastise one another in Italian. Even his fellow professionals approach with a certain deference.

Gradually, the stands fill up and the shadows draw longer in the pleasant midsummer sunshine. Just before the first event, the 1,110 yard sprint, the pros gather in a huddle and confirm the script for the evening’s entertainment. The man with the entourage nods when the instructions are relayed to him.

He rides onto the track for the first heat, aboard a celeste bike bearing his own name, and applause ripples around the stands. It’s a scene he’s lived a thousand times before, and he rolls impassively to the start line. The gun sounds and the crowds applaud again. Then, after half a lap, a chant begins to gain currency. It’s muffled at first but slowly the words sharpen into a mantra. The name they cry is not his. Up Shay! Up Shay! Up Shay!

For the first time that night, Fausto Coppi’s features crease into a broad smile. Though now almost a decade past his best, riding as a supporting act is still a bit of a novelty. Coppi is already sitting on local hero Shay Elliott’s wheel as they begin the second lap, and now he leans forward mischievously, mimicking the chant in heavily accented English: Eh! Up Shay! Up Shay! Up Shay!

In front, Ireland’s first professional rider does his best to keep a straight face, and then dashes away with 300 metres remaining to win the heat. Coppi feigns a chase before freewheeling across the line in third place behind Elliott, his job done. Cheers cascade down from the stands. The meet will be a success.

II

Coppi’s was the marquee name among the small group of professional riders who came to ride a track event in Santry Stadium, Dublin on June 15 and 16 of 1959, a rare excursion to what was then an outpost on the very fringe of Europe, far removed from the racing scene on the continent. Shay Elliott’s encouraging start to life in the pro ranks was undoubtedly the catalyst – that spring, for instance, he had become the first foreign winner of Het Volk – but in a roundabout way, their presence was also thanks to Irish runner Ronnie Delany’s victory in the 1500 metres at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956.

Middle distance running in Ireland had typically taken place on grass tracks, but on the back of Delany’s success, businessman and administrator Billy Morton had managed to construct a cinder track in Santry in 1958, and Herb Elliott came and broke the world record for the mile in one of the inaugural meets that August. Buoyed by that early flourish and always with an eye for a profit, Morton then turned his attention to cycling, which also had a long-standing grass track tradition in the country.

Christy Kimmage went on to win the individual pursuit in the amateur undercard of that Coppi track meeting, and he remembers Morton as “a small little businessman with a very sharp brain and an even sharper tongue.” The Dubliner did, however, manage to turn on the charm long enough to convince the Guinness brewery to mark the 200th anniversary of its foundation by stumping up the money to build a banked cycling track at Santry.

On May 1, 1959, Lord Moyne, the chairman of Guinness, turned the first sod of the new track, which would be constructed around the perimeter of the existing athletics track. The cycling track – 515 yards long, 25 feet wide and with a tarmac surface – was built in the space of just six weeks, earning Morton the accolades of the local press. Indeed, later that summer, readers of the Irish Independent would even vote Morton – “this little man with big ideas” – as one of Ireland’s ten most popular public figures, alongside the playwright Brendan Behan and the actress Maureen Potter.

While work continued on the construction of the track, Morton set about putting together a world-class field for the gala opening on June 15, with Paddy McQuaid, president of the Irish cycling federation, the CRE, and his brother Jim, enlisted to help. (Incidentally, Jim McQuaid’s son, Darach, was heavily involved in bringing the Giro d’Italia to Ireland this year). Elliott, now in his fourth season in the professional ranks with Helyett, would be the star attraction for the home crowds, and he was delegated to approach some of the stars of the peloton himself.

Elliott’s trade teammate André Darrigade quickly signed on, as did Brian Robinson, Albert Bouvet and Roger Hassenforder, but the greatest coup of all looked set to be triple Tour de France winner Louison Bobet. The Frenchman originally agreed to make the journey to Dublin, but then demurred following the organisation’s initial reluctance to cover the travel costs of his trainer and soigneur. Shortly afterwards, however, word filtered back to Dublin that a replacement been secured, for the princely sum of £400 plus expenses – Fausto Coppi was coming to Ireland.

III

“The first item on the agenda is the split,” was Brendan Behan’s reported quip about the myriad factions and committees of Ireland’s republican movement, and it’s a saying that had deep resonance for cycling competition in the country, which was governed by two competing federations in 1959.

The internationally-recognised federation at the time was the CRE, or Cumann Rothaíachta na h-Éireann, which represented the 26 counties south of the border, while racing in the six counties of Northern Ireland officially fell under the remit of the British federation. The CRE had only been founded in 1949, however, after the existing federation, the National Cycling Association, had been ordered by the UCI – under pressure from Britain – to confine its jurisdiction to the Republic of Ireland.

The NCA’s riders were thus unable to compete internationally – at least officially – and instead focused largely on the federation’s national tour, the Rás Tailteann, which was established in 1953. The driving force behind the Rás and the NCA in 1959 was the charismatic Joe Christle, active in Sinn Féin and the IRA, and consequently both the race and federation espoused a decidedly nationalist ethos at the time.

Even so, joining the NCA or CRE was largely a matter of chance rather than any overt political leanings: in rural Ireland, NCA clubs were simply more common, whereas the CRE was the dominant force in Dublin city. At official level, however, there was considerable enmity between the two bodies, and Kimmage – who, like Elliott, rode for the CRE-affiliated Dublin Wheelers – remembers that the NCA would regularly look to disrupt CRE events.

“They were very violent in some of their methods – cutting down trees during the Coast to Coast [the CRE’s flagship event, a two-day race from Dublin to Galway and back, which Kimmage won in 1959], setting fire to the road or putting down tacks and changing arrows on the road, all that kind of stuff,” he says. “But in Dublin, we didn’t know anything about the NCA at all – we didn’t even know it existed.”

At 4am on June 15, just hours before Coppi, Darrigade, Elliott et al were due to race in Santry, the rancour between the NCA and CRE appeared to take an even more sinister turn. Two explosions blew in the windows in the row of houses across the street from the stadium and opened two large craters in the track itself, as well as damaging one of the stands. In the modern day, the event would be cancelled immediately, but from reading contemporary reports, it is striking that the blast was treated almost matter-of-factly.

When the Irish Times interviewed the foreman of the repair work the following morning, for instance, he simply noted that “whoever laid the explosives knew the best effect to get,” and then quietly got on with the task in hand. Billy Morton vowed that “the show will go on, bigger and better,” before adding, almost as an afterthought, “thank God nobody was killed.”

Three days later, the IRA itself felt sufficiently embarrassed by public reaction to the bombing to issue a dryly-worded statement denying responsibility, with J. McGarrity, secretary of the loftily titled Irish Republican Publicity Bureau, quoted as saying “no member of the movement was involved in this affair.” The culprits were never formally identified, but the feeling was that a high-profile CRE event such as the Santry meeting was never likely to pass off without some manner of NCA protest.

IV

Morton had already had to deal with another potentially combustible situation on the eve of the race. On arrival at Dublin airport, Coppi was collected by the McQuaid brothers, who drove him to the city centre. He was due to stay in Groome’s Hotel on Parnell Street, which would later host the Beatles when they played in Dublin, but the lodging was not to Coppi’s liking. Il Campionissimo may have conquered the Stelvio, but he did not, it seems, “do” flights of stairs.

The local legend, as retold by Graham Healy in his 2011 biography of Shay Elliott, is that when the news was relayed to Morton, his initial response was “Well fuck that pigeon-chested Italian.” It certainly tallies with Kimmage’s recollection of Morton as a man who “would cut you down to size in seconds if he didn’t like what was going on,” but alternative arrangements were still quietly made for Coppi at Wynn’s Hotel on nearby Abbey Street.

At 39 years of age, Coppi was already assured of his place in the canon, but his masterpieces were long behind him and the Heron was by this point reduced to scrawling out lines at events like this all around Europe in exchange for cash. He arrived in Dublin in the midst of that posthumous existence between the demise of the great rider and the death of the man.

Now in the colours of Tricofilina rather than the famous celeste of Bianchi, Coppi had been softly fading since his 1953 world title. Mentally, he was worn down by the public outcry over his relationship with Giulia Occhini, the Dama Bianca. Physically, his gifts had all but extinguished, and increasing recourse to amphetamine at exhibition races such as this – recalled by Nino Defilippis in William Fotheringham’s biography, Fallen Angel – did nothing to arrest the slide.

Even though the local amateur riders were well aware that this Coppi was no longer the figure they had seen in grainy cinema reels, his presence among them still evoked the hushed reverence and mystery of a Marian apparition. Information on the continental peloton had been scarce in 1950s Ireland, and Coppi’s devotees attached an almost religious significance to what few relics washed up on their shores.

“Sometimes the English cycling books would have information on Fausto and Gino Bartali, and sometimes you’d see little clips on Movietone News when you went to the cinema,” Kimmage recalls. “We saw little clips of him and the particular style that he had, and we knew all about his chalky bones, and how any time he’d fall at all, he was sure to break something.”

By comparison, the general public may have known little about Coppi beyond his famous name, but its cachet was enough to ensure a crowd of some 8,000 turned out for the first night of racing on June 15. “With Fausto, it was like Tiger Woods coming to Ireland now for the golf, it was as big as that,” Kimmage says. “For Billy Morton to get Fausto to agree to come over, you couldn’t imagine how huge it was.”

In spite of the apparent glamour of his entourage, however, there is poignancy to Kimmage’s recollection of Coppi behind the scenes, and he remembers his willingness to hawk his bike to pad out his £400 earnings from his two nights of racing in Dublin. “If anyone wanted to pay big money for his bike, he would sell it to them but he always took his saddle off,” Kimmage says. “He would never, never sell his saddle, but you could have the rest – if you had the money.”

Not that the amateurs deigned to speak directly to Coppi, not even when some of them shared a charter plane with him two days later as they travelled with the professionals to race on the Isle of Man. “I never spoke to him, and I imagine he had just broken English,” Kimmage says. “But I do remember Coppi being directly behind Shay, and teasing him, saying ‘Up Shay, Up Shay, Up Shay.’ I remember that so distinctly. They’re the only words I heard him say and even on the plane they were in an area of their own.”

Much like a post-Tour de France criterium, the results of the professional races were fixed beforehand, with Elliott naturally designated as the leading light. On the opening evening, he duly beat Robinson in the final of the sprint, before being pipped by Darrigade for the honours in the points race. The climax of the night was the individual pursuit, where Elliott faced Coppi in the final, and handed him a sound beating, clocking 5:07 over the 4,000 metres to the Italian’s 5:22.

Elliott was again to the fore on the Tuesday night, once more winning the sprint event, although there was a nod to Coppi’s status in the devil take the hindmost, where he edged out Albert Bouvet by half a wheel to take the win. Few were fooled, however, and later that week, a columnist in the Irish Times noted that Coppi had looked “very frail.”

“Only the incredible barrel chest gave any hint of athletic ability,” the piece continued. “All cyclists when divorced from their bikes seem as clumsy as dismounted knights in armour, but Coppi afoot seemed slower and more angular than others: you can’t break all your bones in turn without leaving some scars.”

V

They weren’t to know it that night in Dublin, of course, but Coppi was not just at the end of his cycling career, he was also in the final months of his life. He died in Tortona on January 2, 1960, having contracted malaria while on a hunting expedition in Upper Volta. An estimated 20,000 people gathered among the crooked crosses and headstones of the cemetery in Castellania for his funeral two days later.

Elliott’s life, too, would have a tragically premature end. He died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on May 4, 1971, in the living quarters above his panel-beating business in Dublin. He was 36 years old.

Through the 1950s and 60s, Elliott had been a pioneer. He was the first foreigner to win Het Volk, and the first Irishman to wear yellow at Tour de France, in 1963. He won stages in all three of the grand tours, finished on the podium at the Vuelta a España and claimed silver at the world championships in Salò in 1962, after the winner Jean Stablinski – godfather to his son Pascal – had allegedly paid the rest of the break to work against him.

Yet for all of his feats on the continent, those sunny June evenings on the track in 1959 were perhaps the highpoint of Elliott’s reception back home. “Shay never got anything like the publicity he should have got,” says Kimmage.

Indeed, shortly after that Santry meet, Kimmage would gain firsthand appreciation of the magnitude of his fellow countryman’s achievements when he set off for the ACBB club in Paris where Elliott had also raced as an amateur. Within two weeks, Kimmage packed his bags and came home. Though only 20 years of age, he had already spent time working abroad, on the railroads in England, but the racing life in France, not to mention a Montparnasse still bearing the scars of the Second World War, was a different kind of hardship.

“I realised that it was all about the mental approach, which I didn’t have and Shay had – he just wanted it more than anything, whereas I didn’t. I thought I did, until I went away and I just faced up to the facts,” says Kimmage, whose sons Paul and Raphael would make that same trek to ACBB almost a quarter of a century later.

By the time Elliott returned to Ireland at the end of his career in the late 1960s, the cycling track in Santry had already fallen into disrepair and disuse. It was later removed altogether, though Morton Stadium survives to this day as an athletics venue.

Elliott is remembered still with the one-day race that bears his name, and the small monument dedicated to him atop the Glenmalure climb in County Wicklow. The inscription simply reads: “In Memory of Shay Elliott, Irish international racing cyclist.”

He was that but he was much more besides. And for two nights in Dublin in 1959, he was even the man who overshadowed Fausto Coppi.

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