Stickybottle’s icons of Irish cycling; the legends of our game

Posted on: November 21st, 2018

In the history of Irish cycling, two names are up in lights above all others; Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche. But they are not the only icons of Irish cycling.


As Bradley Wiggins embarks on a national tour in Britain to promote his new book Icons, about the 21 cyclists that were most iconic to him; we bring you our own selection.

These are the men who have stepped forward from their beginnings in domestic racing to write their names into world cycling’s history books.

These are stickybottle’s ‘Icons of Irish Cycling’.


Sean Kelly

One of only two Irish riders to win a Grand Tour; the fact Kelly could win the Vuelta as well as bunch sprints and classics says it all.

No terrain was beyond him and he could excel from the rain and mud of Paris Roubaix to the sweltering high mountains of the Tour or Vuelta.

His pro career spanned 18 years in an era when few riders lasted that long. He is a former world number one; for a period of five years uninterrupted.

And he claimed Paris-Nice seven times in a row, while also enjoying incredible success in the monuments.

Those classics wins, among 193 pro career victories, included Giro di Lombardia three times, Milan–San Remo twice, Paris-Roubaix twice and Liège-Bastogne-Liège twice.

The only monument he didn’t win was the Tour of Flanders, and he was 2nd in it three times.



Never a man for the Giro, having ridden it only once towards the end of his career; the only other major events that eluded him were the World Championships and the Tour de France.

But even in those, he took medals in the Worlds twice and was 5th and 4th in the Tour; in 1984 and 1985.

Kelly scored an incredible four victories in the points classification in both the Tour and Vuelta, claiming five and 16 stages in those races respectively.

His palmares is almost unthinkable in modern day cycling given his longevity, his versatility and the sheer number of the biggest races in the world that he won.

In recent years, Kelly said while he tested positive twice during his career, he pointed out one was for a cough bottle-type product and the other for codeine, which is found in some headache pills such as Nurofen.


Stephen Roche

Kelly may have won the Vuelta, but Roche claimed the Tour, the Giro and the Worlds; all in the same glorious season of 1987.

But, of course, his time in the pro peloton was about much more than hitting such dizzying heights in one year.

He claimed 58 career wins in a 13-year period on the professional scene. In 1979 he was Irish junior champion and the following year he won the senior crown and the Rás.

A year later he won the espoirs Paris-Roubaix and the following season, his third out of the juniors and his first as a pro, he won Paris-Nice overall.

And before that win, literally during his first days as a pro, he won the Tour of Corsica; beating Bernard Hinault to outright victory.

He claimed four stages in the Tour and two in the Giro, along with a number of smaller stage races; “smaller” for riders like him but career highlights for most others.

They included Critérium International twice, Tour de Romandie three times and the Tour of the Basque Country.



He would also win the season-long Super Prestige Pernod International in 1987. But it was Roche’s homecoming that year that really cemented his stature.

The centre of Dublin was mobbed in a way only ever witnessed for the Irish soccer team returning from major tournaments. The city has seen nothing like it since.

In the early 2000s a judicial inquiry in Italy named Roche among a group of cyclists who had doped while with Carrera one year in the early 1990s.

However, Roche has insisted he was innocent, saying he had never doped and pointing out he was never interviewed for the inquiry or even contacted.


Paul Kimmage

Kimmage’s contribution to Irish cycling, indeed world cycling, is much different to the others on this list. But his place is just as deserved.

Indeed, in many ways he has earned his spurs traveling down the loneliest and hardest road.

Professional cycling has gone through a period over the last two decades during which doping has been named and efforts have been made to tackle it.

The cycling and anti-doping authorities have traditionally overestimated the progress made. But at least drug-taking has long been a topic of conversation in the sport.

But back when Kimmage published his Rough Ride book – about his life and exposing doping in the peloton – the omerta was alive and kicking.

His bravery in bringing out the book, and being disowned and shouted down by most in cycling, is enough alone to secure his status as an icon of Irish cycling.



But his traveling to the US in 2009 to put doping questions to Lance Armstrong was another legendary moment in world cycling.

Kimmage was on the American’s home turf at a time when he was still the cancer Jesus and all-American cycling hero.

Armstrong famously told Kimmage, at a Tour of California press conference, that he wasn’t worth the chair he was sitting out.

However, it was the Irishman who was proven right in the long-run; Armstrong eventually caught and stripped of his seven Tour wins.

Kimmage was the trail blazer. His work and fearlessness in writing about doping created a comfort zone for others to do the same.

Journalists like David Walsh, who had shied away from the topic for years, suddenly saw the light; but only after Kimmage shone it into the dirtiest corners of the pro game.

One forgets that Kimmage was no slouch himself on the bike. Indeed, he was one of the best cyclists Ireland has ever produced.

But his writing on doping changed the conversation in cycling globally around drug taking. And that will be his legacy.


Shay Elliott

Shay Elliott travelled to France, learning the language and the ways of the peloton decades before the invasion by English speakers.

He not only survived in the pro game but wrote his name into the history books. And every Irish rider who has gone away since then has been following the trail he blazed.

His finest hour came 55 years ago when, in 1963, he claimed a stage of the Tour de France; from Jambes to Roubaix.

He was the first Irishman to ride the Tour, to win a stage and to wear the yellow jersey. Elliott was also the first English-speaking cyclist to win stages in all three Grand Tours and lead the Vuelta.

From Crumlin in Dublin, he turned pro in 1956 at the aged of 22 years after he had worked for six years as a panel beater.



He married in France and had a son though his marriage would break up. Shay Elliott also lost his money in a failed hotel venture in France after his racing days.

After the break-up of his relationship he returned to Dublin, where he lived in an apartment above a panel beating business he had set up with his father.

However, at the aged of 36 years – just two weeks after his father died and after a failed attempt to race again with the Falcon team in the UK – Elliott died of a shotgun blast at his home.

His tragic death was light years from the glory of his cycling career. The fact he died so young means our image of him now is frozen in time; the first, and iconic, Irish yellow jersey destined never to grow old.


Martyn Irvine

We don’t appreciate Irvine yet, but we will in time. And the photos of him wearing the rainbow bands that we quickly came to take for granted at the time will take on a new, higher, meaning as the years pass.

Not one prone to high emotion, Irvine would be horrified to be included on a list of sporting icons.

But what he did on the track was simply incredible, even if it is too recent for us to fix a historic perspective on it just yet.

On one glorious day on the Minsk Arena velodrome in Belarus in February, 2013, Irvine set the standard that all Irish cyclists who ride a track bike must now aspire to.

He claimed a brilliant silver medal in the individual pursuit. And less than an hour later he climbed onto his bike again and won scratch race gold.

It was Ireland’s first world title on the track in the modern era.

Indeed, one has to go back to the days of the Balbriggan Flyer Harry Reynolds, more than century before the wonder of Minsk, to find Ireland’s last track world champion in the history books.

Irvine was competing on a shoestring budget and for a nation with no velodrome and little or no track pedigree.



But not only did he bridge a 117-year wait for Ireland to win a medal at a track Worlds; he took two, including a gold, in the same afternoon.

He would also win World Cup gold in the points race at the UCI World Cup in Manchester nine months after his Worlds success.

On that occasion he saw off former Olympic champion Lasse Norman Hansen and world class road sprinter Elia Viviani.

Irvine also medalled at the European Track Championships. But the ride of his life in Minsk 5½ years ago secured for him a place as an icon of Irish cycling forever.