Cycling: Freewheeling exile makes his mark on Main Street: Jonathan Rendall looks at the career of Malcolm Elliott, the British cyclist now winning in the United States whose potential in Europe was not quite realised

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The Independent Online
MALCOLM ELLIOTT is the Herol Graham of British cycling. Like the boxing 'Bomber' he is a native of Sheffield, and the pair of them were embraced affectionately throughout the 1980s by that tolerant city, which loves its nearly men, even if elsewhere the cry was of 'what if?'.

This might seem harsh judgement on a man who has achieved more than most British cyclists can dream of. Two completed French Tours, a third place on the podium after a raging stage finish at Bordeaux, stage and points winner in the tour of Spain, winner of the Tour of Britain, umpteen sprint successes and, on Sunday, victory in the British professional road race championship on the Isle of Man; and yet. . .

Elliott is one of those cyclists who can excite the non-aficionados and yet at the same time convince them that cycling is unfathomable. They have seen Elliott, dashing blond head rocking from side to side, in innumerable sprint finishes. Then they pick up the paper and read that he is 70-something in the overall race classification.

Yet Elliott was not just some sprinter who could be counted on to lose half an hour on every hill. 'Macolm can climb when he has to,' was the remark of the 1987 Tour winner, Stephen Roche. For a while, as far as British ambitions on the citadals of European cycling were concerned, Elliott was 'the one'. It never quite happened.

In the closed world of mainland European cycling, he acquired the reputation of a prodigiously talented but too-diffident presence. Yet the word persisted: Elliott was good; good enough, if he had wanted, even to have won the green jersey in the Tour, the prize for the most consistent finisher over the three weeks of the road to hell, and one almost as coveted as the maillot jaune awarded to the winner on time.

Elliott has heard it all before, 'They've been saying that about me for a long time,' he says, 'But you've got to be in the right team with the right support. To be honest I don't really want to go back to that European circus.' Instead. Elliott has been based in the United States for the last year, and the results have been impressive: leading rider on the US tour, 11 race victories and a sixth place in the Tour du Pont, not to mention the comfortable lifestyle that comes from a home in Santa Barbara with expenses paid.

Although he is getting good money, Elliott knows that such results carry little weight in Europe. 'I don't think they even notice,' he said. 'I'm 32 next week and anyway I don't feel that it's the age to start making a comeback outside America.' So it looks as if Sunday's victory could be one of the last times we see this master cyclist flashing by the finish line in European climes.

Yet on the baked French roads in the summer of 1987 it had all seemed so promising, Elliott, after a classic apprenticeship that included three years in France, an Olympic appearance and two Commonwealth gold medals, was leading the ANC-Halfords professional team, the first British team to contest the Tour for years.

The team was, by comparison with the heftily sponsored Continentals, a minnow. Yet Elliott and his team- mates performed heroically, catching the public imagination and promising a golden future for British cycling. In fact, it turned out to be a dead end. Sponsors retreated. Now the idea of a British team competing in the Tour is faintly ridiculous.

Four of the team, including Elliott, completed the Tour. 'At the time it was purgatory,' he said. 'There were some days in the mountains when you woke up and wished you could die. But we did it. And looking back, riding the tour with those guys was the greatest of times. We thought it was just the beginning for British cycling. But it turned out to be the zenith.'

Elliott's talent had been noted, however, and employment abroad with the Spanish Fagor and Teka teams followed in the next four years. Neither experience was an out-andout success, although Elliott continued to rack up impressive sprint placings.

'I felt pretty lonely, particularly at Teka,' Elliott said. 'We were treated like children, always getting bollockings. And they were obsessed by diet. You couldn't have vinegar, for example. And for some reason they wouldn't allow you to have red or green peppers in your salad. But they always had wine on the table. You could have sat there and had four glasses of the stuff before a race and they wouldn't have minded. I could never understand it.'

His success in America has encouraged his agent, Frank Quinn, to think that Elliott might next year again attract offers from the European teams.

'If he ends up winning 20 races they'll have to say, unless they're stupid, 'What about this guy Elliott'? ' Quinn said. But Elliott is not concerned. Like the Bomber, he has always been something of a lone ranger.

Having confirmed his mastery over his British pretenders, he is back in American exile. On Saturday the Tour starts. There will be no Sean Kelly, no Greg LeMond - and no Elliott. An era is passing. But there will always be the memory of 1987, that glorious summer of hope on the hellish roads; and no regrets. 'Been there, done that, haven't I,' Elliott said.

(Photograph omitted)