Twenty years before the multi-million pound Sky Team rode the WorldTour, there was another ‘ground breaking’ British team that took on the Continentals in their own back-yard. The ANC team had its eventual problems, but it showed what was possible. One high point was Malcolm Elliott’s 3rd place in the 1987 Amstel Gold Race.
Amstel’87 winner – Joop Zoetemelk
There are many things you can say about maverick ANC boss, Tony Capper but a lack of ambition wasn’t one of them. The ex-policeman who founded, built and then sold – during the 1987 Tour de France – the ANC transport company was an unlikely candidate to start a cycling team, hugely over-weight and a chain smoker he seemed ‘anti-fitness’ personified.
But he did in 1987 what it took the Murdoch millions to do some 25 years later with Team Sky – in getting a British team into the Tour de France. But not just Le Tour, he somehow got the team into some of Europe’s greatest races – like Paris-Nice and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. There were the inevitable ‘kickings’ but there were also rides of real quality, including the one we’re about to look at; the 1987 Amstel Gold Race.
The Dutch are pretty protective of their only classic – the Amstel is Amsterdam’s river and Amstel Gold is the popular beer which sponsors the race – of the first 21 editions of the race the home nation took 11 wins. Of the other 10 Amstel Golds it took riders of the quality of Merckx, Maertens and Hinault to wrest the honours out of the Netherlands.
And in 1987 it took three of Holland’s finest riders to stop a handsome, blond 25-year-old from Sheffield taking the honours across the North Sea to England. Malcolm Elliot was riding for Capper’s minnow ANC squad but due to a combative performance in the 1986 Nissan Tour of Ireland the multi-talented Englishman wasn’t an unknown quantity to some of the continentals who always take a mental note of a fast finisher.
The Amstel Gold takes place in South Limburg so it’s anything but flat, one ‘berg’ follows another – the 2016 edition will see 34 climbs – so maybe it’s just as well Malcolm; ‘Doesn’t remember much about the race except for the last 20 or 30 kilometres, it was 20-odd years ago after all!’
But Elliott was no stranger to hills, winning the British Hill Climb Championship on the savage Nick O’Pendle climb in 1980, the same year he’d been in the team which – albeit briefly – held the world record for the four kilometre team pursuit at the Moscow Olympics.
Elliott takes up the story; “Coming on to the Cauberg climb in the closing stages of the Amstel there was a bit of a lull then Steven Rooks (PDM and Holland, twice Dutch pro champion and winner of the Amstel and Liege-Bastogne-Liege) and Teun Van Vliet (Panasonic & Holland, a winner of Het Volk and Gent-Wevelgem) went to the front, they didn’t put in a fierce attack, but they did up the tempo a little and began to open a gap, Joop Zoetemelk (Superconfex and Holland, 1980 Tour winner and 1985 World Champion) moved to get on to them, I tucked in behind him and we bridged-up.”
“I must have good legs because it didn’t feel like we were flying but we soon had a 30 second gap, Bruno Cornillet (Z-Peugeot and France, a winner of the Tour of Valencia and the Circuit de la Sarthe) came up and that made five of us up the road.”
After race interview
“It didn’t feel like we were riding our legs off, no one seemed fully committed but there were little jumps going in, we all kept rolling-through though to keep the momentum going. Zoetemelk went to the front – I think it was Rooks who was behind him – he just rode off the front, we all hesitated, looked at each other and the gap grew, five seconds, then ten, then 20 then it was too much for one rider to bridge on their own.”
What Elliott hadn’t realised was that a win by the veteran Dutchman was much better for the race, the Dutch media and the home fans than some unheard of foreigner; and also meant that Rooks was due ‘a favour’ from Zoetemelk in letting him ‘drift’ off the front – Zoetemelk won the 1985 Worlds in much the same way.
“I can’t remember why but I had it in my head that Van Vliet was the guy to watch because I thought that he had paid-off Rooks and Zoetemelk so I didn’t imagine it would be the race-winning move. At the death Rooks took me by surprise and jumped away for second place but I put ten lengths into Van Vliet to take third place easily with Cornillet back in fifth.”
I asked if he was made a fuss of at the finish as an outsider grabbing a big result and Elliott explained; “Not really, I don’t even remember there being a podium, all eyes were on Dutch hero Joop winning his home classic.”
When I told Elliott him that someone “in the know” once said to me that what the Englishman should have done was to have spoken to Rooks and suggested to him that he would hand-over some cash in exchange for a ‘straight’ sprint but as the man himself says;
“Hindsight is a great thing, I think it would have cost me a couple of years salary to get that deal, they all knew I could sprint, they had seen me at the Nissan in ‘86. After the race I was pretty happy with the ride but you can’t help but think about how things might have gone, I had hoped that Dutch rivalries might have come in to play and I could have benefited but it didn’t work out like that.”
“Just the other year though I heard that Rooks and Van Vliet had been arguing coming in to the finish that day, one of them had done the other a favour at Het Volk and wanted it repaid, but the other wouldn’t do it because the Amstel is such a big deal in The Netherlands”
Like I said – those Dutchmen don’t like to let go of that Amstel Gold easily.
Elliott would go on to be a highly successful road man sprinter in the colours of teams like Teka and Fagor winning stages and the points jersey in the Vuelta, stages in the Tour of Britain, Sun Tour in Australia, Tours of Aragon, Galicia and The Mining Valleys, the Semaine Catalan, Trofeo Castilla y Leon, Trofeo Cantabria and Pais Vasco, all in Spain – as well as a raft of races in the USA with LA Sheriffs later in his career.
He would ‘come back’ as a professional in the UK as a veteran pro with Pinarello and win the season-long Premier Calendar competition against men half his age.
He disappeared back to his tax haven on the Isle of Man having abandoned his ANC team during the 1987 Tour de France, leaving dozens of unpaid bills and a thousand ‘Capper stories.’ But his place in British cycling history is assured as is Malcolm Elliott’s in the Amstel story.