By Owen Mulholland
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Written in the late 1980s....
By the time this magazine is in your hands the early season will be upon us once again. The majority of pros still flock to the Mediterranean shores of Spain, France and Italy. Usually the weather is no worse than chilly and wet, a great contrast to the frozen barrens of northern Europe.
Today the top levels of the sport aren’t quite so focused on the continent. Greg LeMond and the 7-Eleven team usually work out the early season kinks in California. This trend is quite new, however. Until just a few years ago a young rider who wanted to make an impression on the pro scene was virtually required to get in on the late winter races abroad.
Nor was the scene quite as structured a generation or more ago. Just about anyone could ride the pre-season races, and scouts were there to sign up those who showed promising potential. Remember, up to World War II, anyone could ride in the Tour de France as a self-sponsored individual.
It was into this clubby world that an Australian bombshell dropped at the beginning of February, 1955. His name was Russell Mockridge, an Australian with no little reputation on the track. In 1951 he had won a silver medal in the World Sprint Championships, and the following year he had taken a double gold in the Olympic kilo and tandem races. Then he had disappeared back home again and not been thought of since. Down-under he had become a roadie, and down there that meant a scratch rider.
Australian races used to be almost exclusively handicapped. From one kilometer to nearly 300 kilometers, every race had a staggered start with the top seeds off last. While such racing cut down the need for strategy, it certainly stressed fitness. Mockridge, one of the greatest all-round cycling athletes of all time, proved to be a winner whatever the formula.
With nothing more to prove back home, he once again arrived on the continent fresh from a full season of handicap racing. His first stop was Ghent where he tried to cash in on the winter track season. Talent he had, but an agent he hadn’t. The races were only intermittent and the successes even more so. He was glad to escape to Nice, even if it meant riding there! He ran out of money with two days to go and was in full bonk when he arrived at the Simplex sponsored training camp.
Charles Pélissier, the head of the camp and the sole survivor of the three famous Pélissier brothers, couldn’t believe his eyes. Heavy wheels, fenders, a light, saddlebags - Pélissier stared as though at a mirage.
“A guy like this wants to race against Bobet?” He thought. While Pélissier rolled his eyes, the mechanic, Sanchez, did what he could. He stripped off the tourist trappings, found new wheels, and was about to change the gearing. “What chainwheels do you want?” he asked the Australian. The response stunned him. “Oh, put on whatever you think best. I’ve never ridden in the mountains before.”
Those who observed all this probably figured Mockridge was just another crazy foreigner who obviously hadn’t a clue as to what real racing was all about. But who did observe him? He was lost in the shuffle of scores of young hopes at the camp. Come that Saturday morning with 180 tough kilometers awaiting them, few gave a thought to the somewhat Laurent Fignonesque character (Russell even wore wire-rimmed glasses) in plain clothes (Well, not quite plain. He wore a short sleeve silk track jersey in the 45-degree temperature.) at the back of the pack.
Meanwhile, Mockridge knew his form was good, but was it good enough t to stand up to the big reputations? On the start line of the Grand Prix de Monaco that morning he couldn’t help but be impressed by those around him. There was Louison Bobet in his world championship jersey. Not far away was Charly Gaul, the Luxembourg climbing star who would go on to win two Giros and a Tour. And then there was old Jean Robic, the living legend of the ’47 Tour, still telling anecdotes to anyone who would listen.
For the first 150 kilometers the course was mercifully flat. However fast, the majority grit their teeth and clung to the wheel just in front. But those rude efforts were to be paid for in the final 30 kilometers, for here were all the climbs, most notably the nasty Mont des Mules.
As expected, the peloton exploded. Once the road pointed up there was no more faking it. Shortly, only five were left in front, including, you guessed it, the bespectacled foreigner, Russell Mockridge. He didn’t waste his energy attacking. Others were only too keen to do that. What surprised observers was the ease with which Mockridge came back every time. A Gil or Salviatto or a Molinéris would burst away, out of the saddle, violently flinging his bike. Each time, hands on top, sitting down, the Aussie would cruise back. Bobet, far from his best form this early in the season, was nevertheless reported to be “stupefied” by this performance. Nor was it just on the up. After every descent, the lead group had a hard chase to fetch him back.
Yet the real performance hadn’t begun. With one kilometer to go Mockridge misread a course marshal’s motion and turned off the course. The rest (now eight), hardly believing their luck (for word of the guy’s sprinting abilities had gotten around), wasted no time in capitalizing on the situation. From 70 meters back Russell closed the gap in 300 meters. Meanwhile, two others were 20 meters ahead. Who closed that chasm? Mockridge, of course! The junction was made with 200 meters to go. Finally, he showed his mortal makeup and was unable to contest the last dash to the line, having to settle for seventh place.
Mockridge would not go hungry again that season. He would even go on to win the prestigious Tour de la Vaucluse and finish the Tour de France. But the note he sounded at the beginning of the year would not often be matched again, and by the end of the year, more demoralized than anything else, he returned home. Even for a man of Mockridge’s talent it was difficult to stay au point as a foreigner in a strange land throughout a long season.
Much as we might lament the passing of those more casual days that allowed newcomers to try themselves against the best, I doubt you would find the likes of the current crop of pros lamenting the loss of the good old days. They are all very tough, but they’d just as soon prove it without simultaneously competing with hunger, loneliness, and poor equipment.
Russell Mockridge won twelve consecutive Australian championships. In 1955, riding on Charly Gaul’s Luxembourg-Mixte team, he finished 64th in the Tour de France. Mockridge was killed in 1958 at the age of 30 when he collided with a bus during a race in Melbourne, Australia.