The death of a sporting hero we never immortalised
It was on this day in 1958 that Russell Mockridge, one of Australia’s most talented cyclists, was hit by a bus in Oakleigh and killed when just three kilometres into the annual Tour of Gippsland.
Mockridge’s remarkable career began in Geelong where he rode regularly on the roads that will host the World Championships next week. In a cycling career that has all the features of an enthralling movie, the quiet youngster from Newtown rose from obscurity to a world class competitor in the space of just two years.
While the Mockridge story ended in tragedy, it had a fairytale beginning. Like many teenagers, Mockridge, and his brother Graham, rode their bikes around Geelong, ferreting in the Ceres hills and racing to their parents beach house at Torquay.
Reading the results of local races in the Geelong Advertiser, the teenage Mockridge wondered whether he could be competitive. In his first 24 mile race from Geelong to Drysdale and return, Mockridge, caught the outmarker before the turn, and then powered away to the finish, only to find no one present. Surprised race officials arrived minutes later with the scratch bunch to find that the unknown 17 year old had finished already.
So prodigious was Mockridge’s raw talent that after winning his first four club races, Jack Baker, a champion cyclist from the 1930s, asked Russell’s parents if he could prepare the young rider for the 1948 London Olympics.
A handful of races later, in which Mockridge had to learn rapidly the tactics of drafting, chasing, and sprinting, he won the 1947 Australian road race championship at Centennial Park, Sydney. That summer, he began training on a velodrome for the first time, quickly demonstrating his versatility.
Mockridge cycled more than 600 kilometres a week in preparation for the London Olympics, including a ride from Melbourne to Sydney with former champion, Hubert Opperman. But bad luck negated the preparation when he punctured twice in London. In the days before team cars with mechanics ready to change a wheel in seconds, riders had to make their own repairs. Mockridge’s notorious lack of mechanical skills hampered his efforts, losing valuable time. Although he caught the bunch, he had expended much effort to do so, and finished 28th.
His first outing in the World Road Race in Holland was a further shock. “I was ‘dropped’ for the first time,” he wrote later. “Never before had I been forced to leave the main bunch for any reason other than mechanical trouble.” Overlapped, he eventually finished 30th.
Mockridge returned to Australia unsure about his future. An intense rivalry with the other track star of the era, Sid Patterson, developed, with Mockridge eventually defeating him in the 1,000 metres sprint final at the Auckland Empire Games, after having won the track time trial.
Despite the success, the painfully shy, bespectacled Mockridge looked for something beyond cycling. He completed matriculation and entered Melbourne University, with an interest in eventually becoming an Anglican Priest. After much soul-searching, he accepted an invitation to ride in the 1951 World Track Championships in Milan. He was out-manoeuvred by two Italians in the three man final. Two weeks later, he showed his class by defeating them in a sprint final in Turin.
With his interest in cycling renewed, Mockridge dropped out of university. Preparing for the Helsinki Olympics, he learnt of a £750 bond required of Australian competitors. The bond, which was equal to the cost of a house then, became payable to the sports authorities if an athlete turned professional within two years of the Games. As Mockridge intended to ride as a professional after the games, he baulked at the bond, considering that amateur competitors paid their own way to events, including the Olympics. Eventually Hubert Opperman, then the Member for Corio in the Australian Parliament, and the mayor of Geelong, Cr Bervin Purnell, negotiated a one year bond which the City of Geelong would pay if Mockridge turned professional.
In the meantime, Mockridge won the prestigious amateur Grand Prix de Paris. The victory allowed him the rare opportunity of riding the professional version the following day. As it was a charity event, the strict demarcation between amateurs and professionals was overlooked. Mockridge stunned the cycling world, defeating two world champions, Reg Harris and Jan Derksen. Following Mockridge’s humiliation of the professionals, the practice of inviting the amateur winner to race them was discontinued, robbing him of the chance of repeating the track double the following year.
His fortune continued at Helsinki, winning the tandem sprint and the 1,000 metres time-trial in record time to become Australia’s first dual Olympic gold medallist. Mockridge had only ridden a tandem once before, and his partner, Lionel Cox, never. They built-up a second hand bike from England to compete in the event.
A year and a day after signing the Olympic bond, Mockridge turned professional. He married Irene Pritchard in London and moved to Ghent in Belgium. Dreams of success on the European road circuit were quickly crushed as he struggled for race starts and form against the best riders on the continent. He ended up riding his first six-day race on the track, as well as local short circuit races, just to survive.
It was a trying time for Russell, Irene and their infant child, Lindy. In his autobiography, My world on wheels (published after his death), he wrote: “For 15 months nothing had seemed to go well for us. We had been cold, lonely, depressed and almost constantly worried about our future. At times the temptation to give up and return to Australia had been almost unbearable. But even though I did not realise it at the time, I learnt much in Belgium. The rough, hard, grind of the cobble-strewn kermesse races had toughened and developed me as a road rider, and the constant setbacks and disappointments we had encountered had made me a much more determined person. I had come a long way since the days of my almost effortless wins in Australia. The glamour of the sprint track had no attraction for me now. The Paris Grand Prix and the Olympic Games seemed a long, long while ago, and I now looked forward to riding the great road classics.”
The struggle eventually resulted in improved performances and better races. Together with Roger Arnold and Sid Patterson, he won the Paris Six Day, the unofficial world championship for the event. Over a week of racing before tens of thousands of spectators, they completed 4,128 kilometres in 145 hours to defeat the best European teams by just one lap.
Mockridge finished 41st in the punishing Paris-Roubaix, having been with race leaders Coppi, Bobet and Koblet until the devastating cobblestone sections towards the end of the event. He then won the Tour du Vaucluse that included a climb over the monstrous Mont Ventoux. He was 14th in the Rome-Naples-Rome stage race. Significantly, he was placed second to World Champion, Louison Bobet, after six days in the Dauphine Libere, the traditional lead-up to the Tour de France, when he had to withdraw to fulfill track contracts.
Mockridge nearly missed the 1955 Tour. A few days before the start at Le Havre, he fell while training and gashed his leg badly. Cleared to join his Luxembourg team an hour before the start, he made it to the line to support the great climber, Charly Gaul, who finished third. Mockridge struggled through the three week event, eventually finishing 64th, four hours behind Bobet who claimed a then record third Tour. His description of the stage over Mont Ventoux in 50 degree heat, where riders slumped on the side of the road, and some having to be revived from near death, is a reminder of the extraordinary physical and mental effort of road cyclists. All of this work was for the £5 per day expense allowance that most riders received and the hope of better contracts and appearance money in the future.
The efforts in the Tour took their toll in the World Championship at Frascati, Italy, where he abandoned after being with the leaders for the first 190 kilometres.
Returning to Australia, he reflected on his time with the best riders in the world. “With them I had grown accustomed to pain and toil. Together we had baked under the Mediterranean sun, frozen in the slush and mud of Flanders, choked on the smoky air in the indoor velodromes, climbed over some of Europe’s highest mountains, and viewed some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world. . . . These men had been my brothers of the road. I hoped that we would race together again.”
Sadly, it was never to occur. Mockridge continued to star in Australia, winning the 1956 Sun Tour and taking the fastest time in the 260 kilometre Warrnambool to Melbourne twice. In the 1956 edition, he and Jim Taylor rode from scratch to set a record of 5 hours, 47 minutes and 5 seconds that stood for 24 years. It had been the fastest road race in the world.
Mockridge was preparing to return to Europe when the Oakleigh bus hit him and Taylor in 1958. He was killed instantly and Taylor suffered serious injuries.
Stars that die prematurely are often immortalized, but this was not the case with Mockridge. While his name lives on in cycling circles, there is no monument, no memorial to one of our finest athletes. Perhaps it is a consequence of the accident and the litigation that followed his death.
It also may be a reflection of his quiet, studious nature. Jim Taylor recalls that barely 30 words would pass between him and Mockridge in a day as they trained for hours together.
With the World Championships in Geelong in two weeks, it is fitting to recall the life of one of Australia’s greatest cyclists.
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