A quarter of a century prior to Team Sky’s domination of the Tour de France, another British team was invited to cycling’s biggest race.
While failing to attract the budget or results of Dave Brailsford’s WorldTour squad, the inclusion of ANC-Halfords represented a significant step for British cycling.
The team’s sprinter, Malcolm Elliott, finished third on the twelfth stage from Brive to Bordeaux, one of several strong results in a season that saw him win the the Milk Race with five stage victories, take three stages of the Nissan Classic, and finish third at the Amstel Gold Race.
Elliott rode the following year’s Tour in the Fagor team of defending champion, Stephen Roche, winning a stage of the Vuelta and finishing fourth in Paris. “Sitting here, when you say, fourth in Paris, I think, was I?” Elliott jokes. “It’s not a super clear memory.
“I do have fantastic memories. I’ve seen a lot of pictures over the years and then those pictures become imprinted in your mind as events without an actual recollection of that time and what was going on that day. You’ve just got small mental snapshots of just random moments in stages.”
Now the manager of the Node4-Giordana team, one of just six British teams competing in the UCI EuropeTour, Elliott is as impressed as anyone by Bradley Wiggins’ Tour victory. He believes the Londoner’s triumph will be a watershed moment in the history of British cycling. Could he have foreseen a British Tour winner from a British team back in 1987? “Not in my lifetime,” Elliott admits. Even Brailsford’s announcement three years ago that the team would produce a British winner of the sport’s toughest race within five years struck him as ambitious.
Elliott speaks with the authority of experience. For most riders, he says, the Tour is just about surviving; “hanging in there, enduring”. ANC Halfords were not entirely out of their depth, he insists, but had simply arrived at the Tour a year, perhaps two, ahead of schedule. Their budget and programme of international racing would nowadays have made them contemporaries of Endura Racing, he agrees. But the level of racing at the Tour was greater than they had prepared for. The French-registered Fagor team with whom he rode the Tour in 1988 had a heavy Spanish influence, he says, and was lax.
Riding the Tour, he insists, was not the ‘quantam leap’ for his ANC Halfords teammates many people believe. The two-week Milk Race had provided some preparation, and while the Tour was, even in 1987, the biggest of the three Grand Tours, it was not, he insists, the ‘monster’ it has become. “In my mind it’s been engineered into this global thing that wasn’t the case then.”
What more can Team Sky achieve? “The general public cannot possibly conceive the scale of what’s just been accomplished,” he says. “To try and equate it with England winning the World Cup is nowhere near. It’s far beyond that.”
The story of the day concerns the possible departure from the team of Mark Cavendish, rumours Elliott admits to being aware of. A former sprinter, he doesn’t believe Team Sky can give equal parity to a yellow and green jersey campaign and believes Cavendish must ultimately do what is best for his own career. He hopes this will be with Sky.
Before the Manxman turns another pedal for Sky, he will ride for Brailsford in the colours of Great Britain. Cavendish has made the Olympic road race the focus of his season. Were the events of the Champs-Élysées and the run into Brive-la-Gaillarde on stage 18 a dress rehearsal for Saturday and a sprint along the Mall? “The thought of that happening, of Bradley being able to repay the favour and lead out Cav to an Olympic gold is magical beyond belief. That’s the moment we’re in at the moment with all the planets aligning: the Tour days before a home Olympics. It’s a fantasy world!” he jokes.
The reality, Elliott acknowledges, will be more complicated. The length of the course (250km), the five-man teams, will make the task difficult, and while he describes a scenario in which other nations hoping to win with a sprinter, Australia and Germany, for example, might prove themselves allies on the run to the Mall, he concedes there may be an equal number of teams pursuing contrary strategies.
Despite the challenges, he is backing Cavendish. “We saw how Cav came through the Tour,” says Elliott. “He said himself, he’s managed to look after himself very, very well. The last week of the Tour, both the sprints, on Friday and Sunday, were extremely long sprints, and you don’t go long like that unless you’re in the form of your life.
“On paper, Cavendish has got the form, he’s the favourite. It’s where the smart money would go, I suppose.”