Tales from the peloton, January 19, 2008
For a country with such a small population – more people commute into London every day – Australia has turned out no small number of champions. Almost all of them with Irish names – Stuart O'Grady, Robbie McEwen and so on. However, they all owe much to a man with a more English name, the man who pioneered European ventures from Australia after the war: Russell Mockridge. Les Woodland takes a closer look at the man who would have been 80 year-old this year.
I don't remember Russell Mockridge who passed away 50 years ago. I do remember his determination, though. He wrote a book about his racing experiences, and explained how determined he was to establish himself not just in French racing but also in France. He said he would study French until he could understand every word of horse-race commentaries on the radio. And he did. If you can do that in another language, you can truthfully say you're fluent.
His fellow citizen and Tour de France rider Sir Hubert Opperman described him as "the most versatile cyclist Australia had produced ... no other cyclist in his experience had been gifted with such a level of overall cycling talent."
On September 13, 1958, Mockridge had just started the Tour of Gippsland. It was a 225-kilometre race beginning in Melbourne. Like most Australian races of the time, it was a handicap. Mockridge, the greatest rider in the country, was in the last group to leave. He was notoriously shortsighted but it's hard to imagine he didn't see the bus coming towards him. He had covered less than four kilometres. Mockridge died at just 30 years old.
A strange man, Mockridge. He was not your usual rider. He went to the elite Geelong College, and he was torn between becoming a journalist or a priest. His accent, his education and the distracted way he peered through thick glasses led others to call him Little Lord Fauntleroy. Not that he needed to worry too much about them because he bowled through the field to win the first race he ever rode.
In months, he won the 109-kilometre Melbourne-Castlemaine. When he then won the national championship in Sydney, he refused to be interviewed by the radio commentator because he said that wouldn't have won without his team-mates. In 1950, he won the sprint and the kilometre, and came second in the pursuit at the Empire Games in Auckland. Then he gave his bike away – "There's a lot more to this life than riding a bicycle," and said he would after all join the church.
He decided that perhaps he had it wrong about there being more in life than cycling. He came second to Enzo Sacchi in the world sprint championship – not bad for a pursuit rider – then went round Europe riding revenge matches, in one of which he beat the world professional champion, Reg Harris. Harris wasn't at all amused nor were the organisers, who changed their rules to keep amateurs from embarrassing their betters.
Mockridge wanted to ride as a professional. But he also wanted to ride the Olympics, and to do that Australia demanded he stay amateur for two years once the Games had finished. Mockridge wasn't so sure and he stood firm, but so did the selectors. It got to the point that Australia wasn't going to pick the greatest rider it had ever had, not through any rule of the Olympics people but on a point of principle imposed by Australian officialdom. The row reached parliament before the selectors decided to back down and settled for 12 months. They must have been glad they did because Mockridge won two gold medals in one afternoon.
That would be striking in itself but one of those medals came in the tandem sprint and not only had Mockridge and Lionel Cox never ridden together but Cox had never even ridden a tandem.
And a year later, Mockridge turned professional. In 1955, he, Roger Arnold and Sid Patterson won the Paris Six – a three-man team for the first time, and all Australians. That summer he went to the start of the Tour de France with an aching knee and a 15cm gash above his eyes – a souvenir of a training crash two days earlier. Three weeks and 3,830 kilometres later, and riding for Luxembourg, he finished in Paris. Ninety of the other 150 starters had dropped out.
Like everyone else, he went on to ride the criterium circuit that paid most of a rider's living in those days.
"The difference between me and the others," he observed, "is that they are Tour de France riders who are riding criteriums whereas I am a criterium rider who rode the Tour de France."
That could be the reason he rode only that Tour. He was much happier in short races than long ones. In addition, there was the point that the Tour then was for national teams and that Australia and New Zealand had only once fielded a joint team, and that didn't look likely to happen again. The best a rider like Mockridge could hope was to find a place in a team from a little nation like Luxembourg, which couldn't find enough riders of its own.
Mockridge went back to Australia and dominated it for three years. He won the Sun Tour and the Tour of Tasmania. And he still firm to his morals: he begged the judges to change their mind and award him second place when, he believed, they had wrongly given him victory in a sprint match with the world champion, Enzo Sacchi. And that in front of a home crowd.
He was a great man in every sense. Then came the Tour of Gippsland, the 13th, and the bus.
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