Russell Mockridge broke ground for sprinters

LEGENDARY Australian cyclist Russell Mockridge did not care for the norm.

Russell Mockridge wins the 1,000 metre Time Trial at the Helsinki Olympics in August 1952. Picture: Getty

The Australian, who first came to prominence at the 1950 Commonwealth Games (or British Empire Games as it was known then), where he won two gold medals in the time trial and the 1,000 metre sprint, as well as silver in the 4,000m individual pursuit, was the epitome of a sporting gentleman.

Often wearing regular clothes and a Panama hat as he belted around arenas, as well as steel-rimmed spectacles taped to his temples, he looked like he was simply in a rush back home after picking up the groceries. Allied to his well-to-do and well-educated background, the look earned him the nickname “Little Lord Fauntleroy” but he soon disproved the notion that he was too refined for the cut and thrust of competitive cycling. Of his efforts in the 1955 Tour de France, he once recalled: “Andre Leducq, winner of the Tour in 1930 and 1932 and now a journalist, was quoted in the Press as saying, ‘I did not have much time for sprinters until this Tour, but if Mockridge finishes I will shake his hand as warmly as I shake that of the winner.’ He added that if I did finish I would have accomplished the impossible, meaning that pure sprinters, as I had previously been classified, just do not finish the Tour.”

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Mockridge was a man who challenged stereotypes, pushed back boundaries and followed his own path. It made for an irridescent life, albeit one cut so tragically short.

In 1958, aged just 30, the man who blazed a trail for so many to follow was killed during a road race in his homeland. Two miles into the 140-mile Tour of Gippsland, he, along with several other riders, collided with a bus. Mockridge bore the brunt of the impact and was killed instantly as his wife and young daughter, who were following behind, looked on helplessly.

It was a brutal end to a life that had delivered so much and challenged so many, on and off the bike. As the Queen’s Baton reaches the Antipodes on its route around the globe before next year’s Glasgow Commonwealth Games, the legacy of Mockridge is carried on by Australian riders who have continued to pick up medals on the track, while cyclists all over the world have followed his route from the track to the Tour.

His decade was the 1950s, a time when track cycling still included tandems and an era where those who won medals in the velodrome did not then chase glory on the roads and mountains of Europe.

Having suffered a double puncture while competing at the 1948 London Olympics, it was in the Empire Games in Auckland two years later that he earned his reputation on the track.

A man considered something of a mystery, he had an unorthodox pathway into cycling. Training to become a journalist, he had turned to the sport as a way of keeping fit, his congenital short-sightedness ruling him out of many other sports. But just as he was making his name on the world stage, he decided it might not be the career for him after all. Instead, he enrolled at the University of Melbourne, studying to become a minister. For 14 months he did not compete but then, as suddenly and as surely as he had quit the sport, he quit his studies, jumped back on his bike and it was as though he had never been away. Months after his return he became the only man to have won the amateur and professional Grands Prix of Paris while competing as an amateur. That status was to prove a source of contention as the 1952 Olympics rolled round. At that time the Australian Olympic Federation required athletes to agree a £750 fidelity bond, vouching to remain amateur for two years after the Games. But with a professional career in the offing, he refused to sign. It took the intervention of the Mayor of Geelong, his hometown, who agreed to guarantee the money himself if the AOF agreed to reduce the terms to one year.

The compromise was rewarded when Mockridge travelled to Helsinki and won individual gold in the 1,000m time trial before adding a further gold later that same day, in the 2,000m tandem. That fact that he was paired with Lionel Cox for the first time that day elevated the achievement in the eyes of competitors and observers alike.

True to his word, he waited exactly one year before turning professional, packing up his bike the following year to hit the roads of Europe. Without an agent, he was naïve in the ways of the peleton, the glamour, the stimulants pedalled by the soigneurs and surprised by the snobbery of European road racers, unaccustomed to the pretentions of an Australian and erstwhile track competitor. But he still succeeded where all expected him to fail, wising up and toughening up.

“I believe that I have, unwittingly, taken stimulants or drugs, particularly during the Ghent and Paris six-day races. During the course of these races bottles of various liquids are constantly being handed to you by your soigneurs and there is just not the time to insist on a written analysis of their contents,” he wrote in the memoirs he was in the process of competing with John Burrowes, a young Scottish journalist who had settled in Australia, when he died. They were subsequently completed with the help of his widow, Irene.

The book, called My World On Wheels, offers a far-reaching insight into the world of cycling, which intrigues and offers the kind of insights which remains pertinent today. With few friends in Europe, he did, however, earn many admirers. The conversion was complete following the 1955 Tour de France, in which he reached Paris and recalled: “Sitting on a grass verge waiting my turn for a bouquet-laden lap of honour – where each finisher is applauded as if he has won the race – I noticed Andre Leducq. He was the man who had stated that if I finished the Tour he would shake my hand as armly as the winner’s hand.

“He was a man of his word and was lavish in his praise of what, to me, seemed to be a lowly position in the overall race,” said Mockridge, who had finished 64th, with only 69 of the original 150 riders finishing.

It was tale of triumph in his only full European season. He spent the final three years of his life racing in his homeland, cementing his reputation as one of Australia’s greatest ever cyclists. A Commonwealth Games hero, he had gone on to be so much more. And his star was far from on the wane. But then tragedy struck. His had been a colourful, action-packed life – it just ended too soon.