The Shay Elliot is probably the most iconic one-day race on the Irish calendar, and for good reason: a brutal 150km course that tackles the climb at Glenmalure, made famous by the first legend of Irish cycling. A stone monument stands proudly at the summit. “In memory of Shay Elliot” it reads, as a reminder to all who ride past it of the rich cycling history that exists in Wicklow. No more is this represented than in Bray Wheelers cycling club, who have run the Shay Elliot Memorial race since his death in 1971 (the race itself stretches back to 1958 in various guises).

Since I joined Orwell, I had heard many stories about the race and the respect it commanded. Whippet climbers and future “Men of the Ras” would be the only ones fool hardy enough to answer the call. Thankfully, as a mediocre A3 racer, I can enjoy a sample of what the A1/A2 event offers in a much more palatable package. Yes, for many years the Shay Elliot has been accompanied by what was cleverly called the “SHA3”, a warm up race featuring less talented riders. Think of it as getting to see Britney Spears warm up for the Rolling Stones.

This year I noticed that it was now called the “Ken Duff Memorial”, which was intriguing to me. Who was this man and what had he done to earn a place next to Shay Elliot? A short bit of googling later (I recommend you do this, there is a great piece in the independent about him) revealed that Ken was a local publican who passed away late last July following a short illness. Ken was a rock within the communities of both Bray town and Bray cycling, Frank Duff’s Pub is a living museum of cycling memorabilia and a social gathering point for the local cyclists. Having read about Ken makes me feel even more honoured to have been able to ride the race.

Photo: Duff’s Pub. I’ve never been, but I will stop by soon for a pint and a nod to Ken

The A3 bunch appeared rather small as we gathered outside the Bray clubhouse. Myself, Paul “Sugar” Kane, Alan Hickey, Cahir O’Higgins and Ken O’Neill lined up in the Scott Orwell colours (I’m planning on giving everyone call-signs, like in Top Gun). Unfortunately we lost Ken before the race even began, his Di2 had a “computer says no” moment which left him frustrated and us without our road captain. A big loss.

Proof that Ken did try to get to the start! Photo thanks to Sean Rowe

The neutralised roll out was about 5km, much longer than usual but this added to the occasion as you couldn’t escape the feeling of importance that these races have. A stiff breeze kept the pace down in the early part of the race as we headed down the N11, well marshalled by the excellent motos, I really felt like we were in a pro-race as we were totally insulated from the normal flow of traffic heading to Arklow and beyond.

Cahir leading the bunch on the main roads

Once we turned onto the back roads, the attacks started to come, but each was chased down quickly and the danger only came when the bunch would stall again and people were fighting for every inch of space. I didn’t see any crashes, which was a relief after Deenside. I’m running out of rear wheels at this stage!

I’m keeping it brief, because there really was not much to note in the first half of the race. With plenty of the top juniors either promoted or racing abroad (I had heard rumblings about racing in France), there was little in the way of petulant youth to make the splits happen. We rolled on through Rathnew, Glenealy and finally Rathdrum. The pace over rolling roads made it feel more like a sportive than a race, which is no bad thing let me tell you. It feels a far cry from the Mayo-2-Day when I was chewing the bars around Achill. Sugar Kane was always up near the front, keeping himself out of trouble except for the odd time he could be seen darting down the inside of a corner.

Paul "Sugar" Kane cresting the Shay Elliot

The view soon peeled back to the familiar hills of the Wicklow mountains, the neat rows of trees on the Slieve Maan side to my left and there, just in front, was the Glenmalure lodge. I signalled that this was it, the main event was here, to a friend from Park Wheelers. The familiar bass of “Paint it Black” kicked in and the pace went up to 11.

We turned the corner and unfortunately a car had been stopped at the junction. The marshals were flagging and riders were being  pushed and squeezed. I was losing vital places, but I forced my way out to the right and began to move up. The front group were starting to pull away. Do I dig in now and get onto the wheel or just ride at my own tempo and close it down near the top? I opted for the latter, which in hindsight might have been the wrong choice, but you so rarely race on these kinds of hills that judgement is not based on the most important thing of all: experience. I’ll know for next year!

I was going well, just turning the gear and moving around any riders rather than easing up and sitting on wheels. I knew I was riding at a pace I could sustain for a lot longer than the climb, but the gap was opening up to the front men and I was resigned to a chase. Should have dug in, should have made a big surge sooner!

A hard day at the office for our author!

I rode over the top with a couple of other riders and moved to the front, glad of my recce spin the week before. I probably took more chances than I should have near the bottom, but there was a bit of a headwind on the descent which didn’t favour me much and I think I was panicking a bit. Once we reached the bottom, 8 of us formed up together and a rider from Burren CC started to get us organised. One rider kept surging ahead, which is an absolute killer when you’re still trying to recover after a hard effort, but it seemed to be more due to inexperience rather than trying to disrupt the flow. There were a few passengers in the group: namely a Tiernans rider who said he had a man in the lead group and so kept disrupting the rhythm when he could.

I wasn’t doing much better myself, I skipped a fair few turns as I knew that I was probably one of the weaker ones in the group. I wanted to be there at the end and not blown out the back, left to ride in on my own or worse: being absorbed by a bunch behind.

Every time that I thought we were close to the finish, a marshal would cruelly point us in a different direction. Still, we worked well. The gap went from 45 seconds down to 28. We could see them up ahead! Dangling just in front of us. Were they slowing? Were we working better as a unit? No, out it went to 1:12 with less than 10km to go. Guys were starting to look cooked, but I was feeling ok. Not super strong, but good.

We came into the finishing kilometer and our patron from the Burren said there was no point sprinting, all the points were gone. Yeah, fair enough. We started to chat and I congratulated him for his determination. The guy rode seriously strong on the front for most of the pursuit.

winding it up for the finish line

Breda was perched on a bank at the side of the road. I gave her a little wave and got a shout in return: “Stop talking!”. Some of our group started to sprint. No points? Ah, who cares, I might get a good photo out of it. I joined in and took 3rd over the line. Possibly finishing 12th overall. No points, but I feel like I’m starting to knock on the door now. According to Whatsapp, Cahir finished just behind me and Alan Hickey is camping out half way up the Shay Elliot to get a head start on next year’s race.

The Ken Duff memorial. What a race. Ken Duff. What a man. RIP.

 Bonus video thanks to Breda Horan;)