Sunday, January 20, 2008
I’ve been somewhat fascinated by several pro cyclists through the ages whose appearance does nothing to instill fear into their peloton rivals. In fact, quite the opposite. Just take a quick glance at them—Jean Robic, Mariano Martinez, Jan Raas, Gerrie Knetemann, Martin Earley— a cast of characters more likely to sit across a desk from you granting approval to mortgage loans than ripping people’s legs off in the Euro pro ranks. Add to these ranks Australian phenom Russell Mockridge (pictured to the left), seen here rolling to the start line of a stage in the 1955 Tour de France.
Mockridge’s story is rather extraordinary, and it’s one that’s likely not too well known outside of his native Australia. I’ve very recently read his autobiography, My World on Wheels: The Posthumous Autobiography of Russell Mockridge, and it’s an exceedingly well-done piece of cycling-related writing. Tragically, Mockridge was struck by a bus and killed during a road race in Melbourne, Australia on September 13, 1958 at the age of 30. He was primed to return to Europe for the 1959 road season and perhaps make his mark in the Tour de France, but one will never know if he could have done what only Patrick Sercu did later in the 1974 Tour de France: make the complete transformation from Olympic gold medalist as a track sprinter to Tour de France stage winner and green jersey winner.
There are several resources online which summarize Mockridge’s career: an Australian newspaper article about a cyclist who crashed in the same accident that killed Mockridge, an earlier piece on cyclingnews.com, and the very recent Les Woodland penned cyclingnews.com article***. Here’s a brief timeline:
1948: Competed in the Olympic Summer Games held in London without success
1950: Two gold medals (match sprint, kilometer TT), one silver medal (4000 pursuit) at the Empire Games
1952: Paris Grand Prix match sprint…only person to win the amateur event and then beat all the pros in the open event
1952: Two gold medals (match sprint, tandem sprint) at the Olympic Summer Games in Helsinki
1953: Turned pro in August, moved to Europe to pursue career as a pro track cyclist
1954: February—DNF at 6 Days of Gent
1954: Rest of season—turned to the road competing (with some success) in Belgian kermesse events
1955: Track—Victory at 6 Days of Paris (teamed with Sydney Patterson and Reginald Arnold), steady number of regional madison and omnium events throughout France
1955: Road—Mockridge’s sole full-on Euro season highlighted by Paris-Roubaix (41st place), Tour du Vaucluse (1st place in a 160 mile event which included an ascent and descent of Mont Ventoux), Tour of the Midi Libri, Dauphine-Libere, Tour de France, World Championships (Frascati, Italy…DNF), Paris-Tours.
1956-1958: Track and road racing in Australia
Russell Mockridge anecdotes:
1. Why was his autobiography so well-written? Mockridge apprenticed as a journalist and nearly left cycling to pursue a journalism career after his 1948 Olympic participation. And while it’s not too unusual for cyclists to transform into journalists, Mockridge is likely the only world-class talent to give up cycling to pursue a career as an Anglican minister. Following his performance at the 1950 Empire Games, Mockridge enrolled in the University of Melbourne to become a minister and did not pedal a bike for 14 months. He then abandoned his aims at the ministry and returned to cycling for the rest of his life.
2. Mockridge had a well publicized showdown with the Australian Olympic Federation when he refused to sign their fidelity bond. This contract made it illegal for an Australian Olympic athlete to turn professional until 2 year after the Olympics. Mockridge was ready to give up his Olympic team slot in protest, but a last minute deal was brokered in which Mockridge would only have to remain an amateur for one year instead. Mockridge won 2 gold medals at the Games, remained an amateur for exactly one year per his contract, and immediately turned pro the following day.
3. Here’s an amusing anecdote which occurred January 1, 1954 while Mockridge was living miserably in Gent trying to earn money exclusively as a pro track cyclist:
[Oscar] Daemers [manager at the indoor track at Gent] lived in a flat in the velodrome building, and I went over to see him on New Year’s Day to discuss contracts. It was bitterly cold with some snow flying around. I strolled into his office, wearing shorts, which to me was perfectly usual. Daemers was horrified. ‘Your legs—they will freeze’, he gasped. Several other cyclists in his office at the time shared his view. They made it plain that I was either crazy or the original dead-end kid. It had always been my habit to wear shorts no matter what the weather conditions. I looked at it from the point of view that if you have to race in bitterly cold weather wearing shorts why not train in them, too? Surely one would toughen you for the other. But this is not the custom of cyclist in Europe who believe in keeping their legs thickly wrapped up no matter the conditions. I complied with this idea when I was in Europe but since I have returned to Australia I have reverted to wearing shorts in the winter-time…I have never found it detrimental to my muscles or condition.” My World on Wheels. pgs. 89-90
4. Mockridge devoted a chapter of his book to doping and here are some select comments:
Dope is the ‘bomb’ that will send a rider romping home miles ahead of everyone else in the race and have such a bad after-effect that he will never ride well again. Stimulants, according to Louison Bobet, are the milder types of drugs in more common use, which, if used wisely have definite advantages without being harmful.” My World on Wheels. pg. 130
I believe that I have, unwittingly, taken stimulants or drugs sometimes—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. I had sufficient confidence in my soigneurs in these races to take what they gave me as I did not believe that they would knowingly give me something that would be harmful.” My World on Wheels. pg. 132
Mockridge’s description of racing his first 6-day event (the 6 Days of Gent) was undoubtedly the most vivid chronicle of pain and suffering I’ve ever encountered involving track racing. Mockridge almost finished the event in 2nd place with his much more experienced teammate, but just two hours from the finish Mockridge blacked out on his bike from complete and utter exhaustion, crashing heavily. He could not recover and DNF’d.
5. Russell Mockridge rode the 1955 Tour de France for a composite Luxembourg national team in the national team era of the Tour (1930-1961). Since Luxembourg did not have enough riders to complete a full squad (only four) several riders of other nationalities, such as Mockridge, were recruited to compete. There were Germans and Austrians as well on the 1955 Luxembourg squad. And what of the “Vampire” on Mockridge’s jersey? Russell Mockridge rode for the French trade team Vampire-D’Allesandro in 1955 and Tour riders were allowed to wear a trade team panel on their national team jerseys. I believe Vampire was the bicycle sponsor for his squad. Mockridge’s most notable teammate in the Tour was Charly Gaul who ultimately finished 3rd overall. Mockridge defied the odds and the critics to become the first track sprinter to ever finish the Tour (plus the first Australian post WWII) and he wrote of his premier naysayer, French journalist Andre Leducq:
After the stage [Stage 8: Thonon les Bains-Briancon], 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 de France.” My World on Wheels. pg. 162
And at the Tour’s conclusion…
Sitting on the grass verge waiting my turn for a bouquet-laden lap of honor—each finisher is applauded as if he had won the race—I noticed [Louison] Bobet speaking with M. Mercier (they were probably discussing bonuses) the cycle manufacturer whose machine he rides, and journalist and twice winner of the Tour, Andre Leducq. Leducq was the man who had stated that if I finished the Tour he would shake my hand as warmly as the winner’s hand. He was a man of his word, and was lavish in his praise of what seemed to be a lowly position in the overall race.” My World on Wheels. pg. 174
6. Mockridge finished the 1955 Tour in 64th place. Only 69 of the original 150 riders finished. Mockridge was overshadowed by British rider Brian Robinson who finished 29th overall (one of only two British national team riders to finish, the other being Tony Hoar in DFL) and stole the spotlight as highest-finishing English speaking oddity. While Mockridge finished the Tour de France that year, he was so physically destroyed from the effort that he never fully recovered his strength for the remainder of the 1955 Euro road season. He did, however, finish Paris-Tours (his last Euro race) with the lead pack which turned out to be the fastest road race over 200km in history…an average speed of 27.5mph for 153 miles. However, that record would stand for only 1 year…
7. The longest race in Australia is the Warrnambool to Melbourne at 163 miles. In Mockridge’s day it was run as a handicap and in 1956 Mockridge set out with 11 other riders as the scratch group. Mockridge beat his fellow scratch companions in a sprint, and set a new fastest road race for events over 200km. Those 12 riders covered 163 miles at over 28mph average speed. Even more extraordinary was 1957’s event in which Mockridge and one other competitor were the only two scratch riders. Primarily powered by Mockridge, those two riders did a two-man TTT for 163 miles (with Mockridge winning the sprint) and averaged a scorching 27.5mph. Wow.
8. While in Australia from 1956-1958, Mockridge was the reigning national road champion as well as match sprint champion on the track. While building his strength on the road year after year, he still had the jet engine turn of speed in his legs to win 5 mile velodrome scratch races in about 9 minutes. European track stars would head to Australia for competition and get their clocks cleaned by Mockridge and others. He was nearly wooed back to Europe for the 1958 Giro d’Italia, but the invitation came too late for his liking. Mockridge didn’t feel he had a big enough window to arrive in Europe well in advance of the Grand Tour, rid himself of all travel related adjustments, and lay down a massive final block of training in the mountains. It seemed he had every intention to return to Europe in 1959 to take part in the Tour de France. Since his humbling experience in 1955, Mockridge set out to truly become an exceptionally powerful endurance cyclist and he felt he had the strength and the experience to return in 1959 and actually compete and not merely survive. Unfortunately his life was cut short in September, 1958.
***If you really have plenty of time to kill, this is what initially popped into my head upon reading the latest Les Woodland feature, John Turturro’s signature line from the forgettable film Secret Window. I mean, what are the odds of two Russell Mockridge stories coming out in such rapid succession?…Just kidding, of course, Mr. Woodland!