Every once once in a while you come across a news item that puts some wind under your sails and this was one of those stories. Sadly, the story is told again at this time because one of the main characters has passed at 80 years young after losing a bout with pneumona.
Australian cyclist Lionel Cox passed on March 7th, leaving behind his son Bradley, grandchildren Kelly-Anne, Kirsty, Brett and Lionel Junior, and one heck of a great story regarding his first time out on a tandem bicycle… in the 2000 meter Tandem Sprint event at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games.
Yes, there was a time when the Olympics featured the truly exciting, sometimes dangerous but always crowd-pleasing tandem bicycle track events. However, tandem track events were dropped from the Olympic movement after the 1972 Munich games and sometime around 1995 even the UCI and USA Cycling stopped sanctioning the tandem sprint events. There are still track tandems and track tandem events, although competitions are typically limited to the sanctioned Paralympic Games and unsanctioned demonstration series such as the annual Tandemmonium at the Trexlertown, PA, velodrome.
Anyway, as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald, other news sources and more recently Matthew Price’s Broom Wagon Blog from Cycling Central, Lionel Cox — who worked at a Sydney fruit & veggie market and paid his way to the Olympics via a raffle at the market — came to fame with fellow Aussie cyclist Russell Mockridge at the ’52 Helsinki games in both individual cycling events and, pretty much on a whim and at the last minute, a tandem track event.
As the story goes, the Aussies had no trainer, no coach and no mechanic and Mr. Mockridge were given an old, disassembled track tandem by a member of the British cycling team as they all boarded an airplane in London on their way to Helsinki. Cox and Mockridge who had never ridden together or trained on a tandem hastily assembled it in a storeroom underneath the Olympic Village just before the start of the event. In fact, it’s believed Mr. Cox had never ridden in the front OR back seat of a tandem before saddling up behind Mockridge for the 2000 Meter Tandem Sprint where they won the Gold medal by holding off South Africa in the final by inches.
Yes, you read that correctly. At a time when the Olympic movement precluded compensated / professional athletes from competing (yes, it’s true… Olympic events used to be an amateurs-only competitions), a pair of Australia’s top cyclists who had never ridden a tandem together won the gold medal in the 2000 meter Olympic Tandem Sprint using a cobbled-together old tandem given to them by another country’s track team. It marked Australia’s most successful day at the Olympic velodrome, after Mr. Mockridge’s earlier win in the kilometre time trial and Mr. Cox’s taking silver in the 1000m sprint by half a wheel to world amateur champion Enzo Sacchi. As always, this just goes to show that it’s not about the bike (or tandem).
As reported in the Sydney paper, years after the event Mr. Cox was heard to say,
“Blokes who’ve trained on tandems for years wouldn’t have done what we did, but we gave it a go. We had one kick and a ride, and we jelled.”
Messers Cox and Mockridge were named in AOC historian Harry Gordon’s list of Australia’s 100 greatest Olympians and Lionel Cox remained committed to the Olympic movement and as recently as two years ago, he still turned up two nights a week at Sydney’s Tempe velodrome to coach young riders. At all levels of the sport, he was one of the country’s greats. Russell Mockridge went on to become an Anglican priest.