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An Introduction to - Track Cycling
A Tribute to Russell Mockridge
By Trevor Wykes
When Joe DiMaggio, the Homeric champion of American baseball died in 1999, Time magazine noted...
"One sign of a hero is if you feel enhanced simply when talking about him, recounting his feats, recalling a time when your own little life was touched by his."
These words also sum up my feelings for the greatest of all Australian cyclists, Russell Mockridge.
A sometimes-awarded medal, the occasional one day road race in Victoria, the daily route map ("the Mocka") for the Herald-Sun Tour, and a street in the Canberra suburb of Holt are the permanent reminders to the Australian public of Russell Mockridge. Geelong could also do more to remember one of her favourite adopted sons.
In post-war Australia, one Australian cyclist stands out as having kick started our international success - the late Russell Mockridge. Others have come along and repeated the habit of strong performances on the track who go on to become world and Olympic champions but few have been more brilliant and it is doubtful that any are held in higher regard than Mockridge.
Sadly, 1998, the 40th anniversary of his death passed without remembrance of this outstanding athlete and moral man. Instead, international cycling was plagued by drug scandals and elements of Australian cycling infected with personality politics. Against this darker side of the present and in this Olympic Year it is perhaps, worthwhile to reflect upon the life of a man that Sir Hubert Opperman described as "the most versatile cyclist Australia had produced ... no other cyclist in my experience had been gifted with such a level of overall cycling talent".
Born in Melbourne in 1928, Russell Mockridge did not fit the standard background of Australian cyclists; a sport at the time which was considered more of a working class religion than anything else. He was educated at the elite Geelong College, and on leaving school was in turn, a cadet journalist with the Geelong Advertiser, a university student, and a candidate for the Anglican ministry; and either abandoned or deferred each for cycling.
The 5 feet 11 1/2 inch, 12 stone 3 pound, chronically near-sighted young man took up cycling with the Geelong Amateur Cycling Club in 1946 (he retained an affiliation with the Geelong West Club until his death) His first race, was also his first victory :- a 40 km, "out and back" club handicap, where he was given a second scratch mark. Club officials were aghast that the inexperienced young rider on an old bike, with the stems of his glasses held to his temples with white tape, had won. He would have also recorded fastest time, but no official was there to record it (they were still following the other riders)! It was in this race Mockridge made a remark which probably was the beginning of his career as a world class cyclist, when he said to those riding along with him, whether they would object if he went ahead on his own!
Within three weeks he was riding as a scratch marker and the wins started to accumulate. In an age when class division was still evident, Russell's background was to earn him the early nickname of "Little Lord Fauntleroy", and would become evident later in his career when he was pitted against working class heroes such as the world track title holder, Sid Patterson.
In the space of a few months, Mockridge had become a Victorian cycling sensation, riding his way to a string of victories including, the 109 km Melbourne to Castlemaine race against the State's best riders. As an outstanding new talent, he was then selected in the Victorian team for the 200 km National road championship in Sydney's Centennial Park. Having won his first Australian amateur road title in Sydney, he refused to come to the microphone to be honoured over a national radio network. He said he could not take the limelight, for he could not have won the title without the assistance of his brother Victorians. His title win, and sensational sprint finish ensured his selection as a member of the Australian team to the 1948 Olympic Games in London. Two punctures ruined his chances in the Olympic road race and he was eliminated in the quarter finals of the 4000 metres team pursuit (with Jack Hoobin, Sid Patterson and Jim Nestor) on the track.
The misfortunes of London turned to victories at the 1950 Auckland Empire Games where he took Gold in both the 1000 metre sprint and the 1000 metre time trial, and a Silver in the 4000 metre individual pursuit. His time of 1 minute 13.4 seconds in the time trial was faster than that of the Frenchman Jacques Dupont who had taken Gold at the London Olympics.
A short-lived retirement followed (he had announced that he was to give the bike away to become a clergyman "I feel there is a lot more to this life than riding a bicycle", he had explained ), and within twelve months he had made his way through to the World Sprint Championship, only to go down to Italy's Enzo Sacchi. Having collected five titles at the 1952 Australian Championships, Mockridge went on that year to set Europe alight. In Paris he was again to meet Sacchi, his rival from the World Amateur Sprint Championships in Milan. He defeated the Italian three times. On Saturday, July 6, he won the Paris Amateur Grand Prix and the next day won the Open Grand Prix (beating the world professional champion, Reg Harris), becoming the first rider to win both the amateur and professional divisions of the Paris Sprints. His success so humiliated the professionals that the rules of the race were changed, barring amateurs for many years to come.
Against this backdrop of success, Russell was still unsure of his selection for the Australian Cycling Squad for the Helsinki Olympics. Now nicknamed after the crack express train of the same name, the "Geelong Flyer", had refused to sign the Australian Olympic Federation's fidelity bond, which demanded he remain amateur for at least two years after the Games.
The AOF appeared intent on excluding him from the team. A public outcry ensued and another great cyclist (and local Geelong MHR), Hubert Opperman ("Oppy") was to plead his case without result, in the Federal Parliament. Fortunately, the Mayor of Geelong, Bevan Purnell worked out a compromise between Russell and the AOF, with the time of the bond being reduced to one year.
After a late arrival in Helsinki, and equipped with a tandem that he and his partner Lionel Cox had to assemble themselves, Russell was to add two Gold Medals to the Australian tally in one afternoon! The tandem victory defied all odds - neither Mockridge or Cox had ridden together before. Indeed, Lionel Cox had never ridden a tandem before Helsinki. After coming close to losing the quarter final, when Russell slowed down having mistaken a line across the velodrome for the finish, the pair went on in the final to beat the pre-race favourites, South Africans Ray Robinson and Tom Shardelow. With one Gold Medal each in the musette, Mockridge and Cox then "swapped" events. Lionel Cox disliked the time-trial and Russell (who was entered for the 1000 metre sprint) swapped events with him. Russell took the Gold medal and in the process set an Olympic record time of 1 minute 11.1 seconds (1.6 seconds faster than the Italian Silver Medallist, Marino Morettini).
One year and one day after the expiry of his AOF fidelity bond, Russell turned professional and set his sights on the European pro circuit. Taking a wrong turn 400 metres from the finish of the 240 km Grand Prix de Monaco resulted in him finishing 7th. However, he soon went on to win the Tour de Vaucluse. Having teamed up with veteran Australian rider Alf Strom, he began to collect prize money with places in six-day track events. In 1955, the Paris Six Day was run for the first time as a three man team event. An Australian team comprising Roger Arnold, Sid Patterson and Russell Mockridge easily defeated the French favourites at the Velodrome d'Hiver. Two days before the start of the 1955 Tour de France, Russell crashed while training, injuring his knee and carving a 15 cm gash across his forehead. Two days later, in pain, he lined up at the start of the 3,830 km race. Three weeks later, he was one of only 60 out of 150 entrants to finish in Paris.
The return to Australia was to see him dominate the professional cycling scene for the next three years. In 1956, he won the notoriously tough 260 km Melbourne to Warrnambool road race in the record time of 5 hours 47 minutes, 5 seconds. The time stood as a record for nearly 25 years.
In 1957 he finished the "Warrny" in the fastest time and won the Sun Tour and the Tour of Tasmania. Mockridge's domination of Australian road cycling at the time had resulted in the Sun Tour being run as a handicap race; the first and only time this has happened in the 50 year history of this important race. On the last day, Mockridge and fellow scratchman George Goodwin, managed to close the gap on the middlemarkers. Together, in one of the most thrilling finishes in the tour's history, they raced to the line where Mockridge emerged the winner, with a slender margin. Performances like this make us speculate on the results that may have emerged if Russ had lived to compete in the 1960's, when champion WA rider Barry Waddell, won 5 Sun Tours from 5 starts in the years 1964-68 (Barry Waddell a champion in his own right, is also deserving of a permanent place in the memory of Australian cycling).
A further match race with the Italian world title holder, Enzo Sacchi took place at the Olympic velodrome in Melbourne during the 1957-58 track season. The judges gave Russell a narrow winning verdict. With the crowd still acclaiming, Russell dismounted, and, rushing over to the judges implored them to reverse the decision for, in his opinion, Sacchi had won by a bare inch. Sacchi left Australia under the firm conviction that Mockridge was the finest sportsman he had ever raced against in any part of the world.
1958 saw Russell win his third consecutive Australian 125 mile professional championship and the national 1000 metre pursuit and 5 mile titles.
The 225 km Tour of Gippsland started in Melbourne on the 13th of September 1958. Approximately 2.1 miles from the start, at the Dandenong Rd / Clayton Rd intersection, a bus driver drove out into the on-coming scratch bunch. Aged 30, Russell Mockridge a man described as "Australia's greatest all-round cyclist for all time", was dead. Russell Mockridge's posthumous autobiography, "My World on Wheels" (completed by John Burrows), was printed in 1960. To those who own or aspire to own a copy, it is a much valued book - for example I know that my brother Peter, prizes his copy. Over the years, it must be impossible to ascertain how many aspiring Australian riders have been influenced by this book - in particular, the quote -
"Before you can learn to win a race you have to learn to finish it".
On cold Canberra winter mornings, I sometimes think of that quote when I contemplate catching the bus to work - the bike always leaves the garage! At the very least, and if only to preserve the Mockridge memory and to make him known to a new generation of Australian cyclists, the book deserves a reprint.
In the years since his death, how many new junior champions in Australia have been praised as offering "the prospect of a new Mockridge"? I have lost count of the number of times I have heard variations on this theme. The Mockridge legend remains powerful in the Australian cycling persona: - in places such as Geelong, young riders out training in the Barabool Hills or out the back of the You Yangs, will proudly tell you, "this, is where Russell Mockridge used to train". Others will talk with similar pride of how they cherish the memory of having raced against him. Even so, Russ deserves more
Sid Patterson, Olympian, and winner of 332 cycling races including, 4 World Championships, 2 Austral Wheel Races, 3 Melbourne Cups on Wheels, 15 six-day races, and a much loved character of Australian cycling, both here and overseas, died last year. An area in the new Melbourne Velodrome is to be dedicated (as it should), to 'Patto'. The new velodrome in Melbourne is big. It is big enough to also accommodate Patto's one time adversary and team-mate. There is room for Russ. The commercial imperatives of modern sport may work against it, but in the absence of a fitting permanent memorial, the new Melbourne velodrome should be linked in some way with this inspirational cyclist and modest man. It remains to be seen, how committed cycling officialdom and government is, to achieving this simple task.