Kevin Thompson’s – Titanic Ripping Yarns
During the course of it’s history Australian cycle sport has unearthed and embraced a motley band of talented racers – animated characters, capable of captivating and entertaining accomplishments, both in racing and business. Michael Palin and Terry Jones’ ‘Ripping Yarns’, a 70′s comedy series took it’s cues straight out of the pages of the Boy’s Own Paper. Kevin Thompson is one of Australia’s animated cycling characters who’s lived his life as one big ripping yarn, a yarn itself firmly rooted in tales from the Boys Own Annual, imbued with a continental twist.
John Whip once said if you put Kevin Thompson, Rod Nicholas, John Caskey and Robert Cobcroft in a small car, then sent the quartet on a trip from Brisbane to Melbourne, you could place bets on who’d bail out first and who would last the distance by talking the ears off the others. I always reckoned the eventual survivors all the way to Melbourne would be Rod and Kevin, then this week meeting with Kevin to discuss his life, I’m pretty certain he’d win Whip’s challenge.
Ron Shepherd in his 1999 paper on the cyclist Aussie Nicholson wrote about racing in the 1930′s “Listening to old cyclists, their common characteristic is a passionate recollection of races and incidents”. Aged seventy seven Kevin has a wonderful memory for people he’s met, gear he’s sold, and he certainly has a great and passionate recollection of races and incidents. Perhaps it’s the sheer number of times these events have been recounted, that they are now projected as vivid and fresh as the day they were first enacted. Kevin’s tales about life conform to a worldwide vision littered with names like Coppi, Bartali, Merckx, Simpson, Mockridge, Opperman and Anquetil, he’s met most of the people in his stories and if he hasn’t there’s always a cracker of a yarn to accompany any mention of their name.
Kevin hurls words down a multitude of tangents, seemingly all at once, requiring patience to unravel and reconstruct the picture of his life. Reward is in the story that unfolds. It’s Kevin’s individuality that sets him apart, as an entrepreneur who’s drive, vision and insight has always seen him lead at the cutting edge.
Well after the wood shed incident, Kevin’s first major step to becoming a cycling entrepreneur was in December 1946, when Kevin received his first bike at Christmas. The following year receipt of a book would cast the die for who Kevin would become for the rest of his life. At Christmas 1947 just two months before his thirteenth birthday, Kevin was given a copy of the 1947 Boys Own Annual. Inside that Boys Own Annual was a story written by Hubert Opperman himself, recounting his adventures as a cyclist. Most importantly Opperman’s accounts included his journey as a racing cyclist in Europe. From then on Kevin was hooked on the Continental racing style and for the rest of his life determined to help reluctant Aussies take up this form of racing. Kevin soon took to riding his bicycle all over Sydney, he’d arrive home after a day out on the bike, having ridden to the Northern Beaches or Parramatta, places on the outskirts of his city where his parents had never been in their entire lives. Apart from bike riding Kevin played rugby and Green Shield cricket in the St George area as well as riding his bike to Cronulla to go surfing. Kevin said, “Even when I was fourteen I had a four speed bike, that had a forty eight chain ring and 14, 16, 18, 20, really heavy bike with 27″ wheels and I rode 220 kilometres all the way down to Lake Conjola on that.”
Aged fifteen Kevin took part in his first amateur race. By the time he was twenty he’d raced in his first pro race which ran from the Bankstown baths to Picton. Kevin was more focused though on the joys of life and business, not entirely on racing. Talking about his racing friends Kevin said, “Well I raced against them when they were fit, they all were very involved in the racing and a lot of them didn’t do much else, wheras I was never a hundred percent involved in it, I did it more for fun and for the business. If I’d trained a thousand kilometres a week I’d have won a lot of races, but I didn’t think that was all that important.” and this “Another time – a thing about spinning, we were going down a hill outside of Narrabeen called tumble down dick one year we were about eighteen, I was still an amateur …… khaki shorts, roll neck jersey, mudguards, bag over the shoulder – 68 fixed .. 68 fixed right – we’d go out and do 250 k’s, going down this hill, these guys could ride bikes, it was the guy called Moore who was the state champion, you’d lean on each other … we were going pretty fast down this hill and this guy on a Harley comes past, he says hey you, you blokes are going pretty fast, you’re going at fifty mile an hour… just recently I was doing some calculations we were doing 200 revs a minute..”
Kevin still excelled as a rider and raced off scratch in professional handicaps like the Goulburn to Sydney, when he was in his early twenties, he gave this insight into the mindset of racing cyclist’s, “So I got on the bike a week after a six day race at Wiley Park in 1963, on a 76 fixed track bike.. one brake.., went with a mate down around Shell Harbour and Woollongong about a hundred and fifty k’s, and we came up Bald Hill, I rode up sprinting up it in the seat on the 76 gear. It proves one point that almost anybody who’s a fairly good bike rider can ride very well if they do a lot of training, but there’s a big difference comes in with the mentality, but it’s a big difference between being able to do it over and over and keep your mind on it.”
Whichever way Kevin’s heart lay with racing and business, fate intervened with a crash, an incident that had physical effects to this day. “A car hit me, I was going down Arncliffe Hill, I had the shop then and I’m riding on a bike with mudguards and steel rims and it’s raining, I’m going down the hill, hardly any traffic and this idiot does a U turn in front of me and in the rain I couldn’t pull up quick enough so ran straight into the side of the car. It’s only in the last year with a lot of treatment it’s getting better. So don’t believe it won’t stay with you. All the crashes McEwen has had imagine what he’ll be like at 53.”
Kevin was always pre-destined to become an entrepreneur. Kevin said,“Whatever you experience in your life, essentially who you are doesn’t change! “ Aged sixteen in 1951 he’d been associated with the St George Pro Club and John Goodman. Goodman was a wharf labourer who also sold cars and organised races. The connection for Kevin with Goodman was pivotal, Goodman sold bike gear from his shed. Kevin remembers, “guys in the club didn’t know how to get anything, Melbourne was the heart of it”. Goodman gave Kevin all of his connections with wholesalers. Kevin being a natural entrepreneur didn’t require help to glean the most from Goodman’s contacts, he started selling bike parts to anyone who couldn’t source them. From Kevin’s first dealings with Goodman he re-invested his earnings into shares in Goodman’s car yard. Later Kevin opened his first shop 200 metres down the road from the old Sports Arena in Surrey Hills, financed by his dad who bought Kevin’s shares in the car yard from Goodman then gave Kevin the cash to start his new venture.
Between 1958 and 1966, Kevin ran the shop at Surrey Hills, also supplying the trade as a wholesaler. Long term relationships were built with shops, like Melbourne’s Hillman Cycles. The continental connection came in during that period when Kevin began importing singles amongst other things from Europe, which were up to that time usually manufactured here in Australia. During this period Kevin also forged a close relationship with Gino Bambagiotti who had the shop next to his Surrey Hills bike store, Bambagiotti came to Australia for six day racing in 1938 and stayed. Kevin said, “In 1954 Gino went to the Tour de France I think that year John Beasley and Russell Mockridge rode and Gino Bambagiotti (Bamba) was looking after Mockridge, anyway Gino brought back 200 TA water bottles, nobody had seen them in Australia, the connection was my father was a customs agent, my father had a long connection with Gino. That was before I had the shop.”
Gerald Georges has been close to Kevin since 1963, here’s one account of Kevin’s connections with Gino and Gerald. “I met Jacques Anquetil, the winner of the Tour de France, he came out to New Caledonia to race with Tom Simpson and a few others. At that time my friend Gerald was in New Caledonia, together with me and Gino we sent Peter Panton, Kerry Hill and Bob Ryan – they brought back a lot of stuff from New Caledonia including Stablinsky’s world championship jersey, so what did I do I sold it. I met Tom Simpson, we had a chat, Simpson said ‘You know when I was a junior I used to ride round with a handlebar change on my handlebars like Fausto Coppi, it wasn’t connected to the gears, I rode a fixed wheel because I was pretending to be Coppi.”
Later on Gerald went to Europe and drove Anquetil around to all the races after the tour, to all the criteriums and track meetings, so he knew him pretty well. He said the guy was bombed out of his head with drugs and he died at 53 with cancer. Anquetil wasn’t married he had this doctor who used to give him the good gear and the doctor was married to this gorgeous blonde …. whom I met at the airport…subsequently the doctors wife shacked up with Anquetil and she had a daughter already by the doctor, so Anquetil slept with the daughter and they produced a baby it was quite a scandal, the daughter wrote a book about it five years ago about the whole story.
There was another chap there (at the airport) who initiated the Paris Nice race about 1933, Jean Leulliot. During the war occupation France was divided into two, the occupied area and the free area which was run by Marshal Henri Petain and they actually ran a miniature Tour de France in the middle of the war. The 1942 Circuit de France. In the unoccupied area which was controlled by the Vichy government and contray to Charles de Gaule, they ran races down there. Even in the occupation they still ran races in Paris like the Boucle de la Seine, they had races even when the Germans were there, they still kept it going, they had races in Belgium like the tour of Flanders.”
A large contingency of pro riders rode on Kevin Thompson bikes, he’d engaged a frame builder who worked at General Accessories to build the frames for his shop. If you wanted a continental frame, Kevin imported Frejus frames which were painted in only one colour each season, usually inspired by a European team like that of Anquetil, no choices. Here’s one of Kevin’s recollections about a powder blue Anqeutil team colour, which could typically inspire a colour choice for the year, “There was one guy Johnny Maclean, when he was seventeen he was the junior professional champion on the track and when he was eighteen he got a bike from me, I built this beautiful bike it was done in that blue colour like Anquetil’s team colour, a powder blue, all campag they were worth over a hundred pound and he didn’t have any money. I gave him the bike because he said he’d pay for it. In the Nyngan to Dubbo race he broke away he was clear on his own at fifty kilometres and he won it and he got a hundred pound prize money and paid me straight away for the bike.”
In 1966 came a major change and Kevin partnered briefly with Atom Imports, as usual Kevin’s energy resulted in massive increases to the company’s fortunes, this ended abruptly in 1969 and since then Kevin has lived in Queensland. Between 1969 and 1974 Kevin ran many business ventures, one was importing fish and he was involved with a successful mail order business, as well as leveraging his business through buying and selling real estate. In 1974 a new boom came to cycling and Kevin started back in bikes, opening his shop and wholesaling business again from Commercial Road in Fortitude Valley. Back to the frame building and by the late 70′s he had Joe Cosgrove building Kevin Thompson frames, as well as importing vast numbers of Daccordi’s into the country. Kevin’s son is now the driving force behind the business, which has undergone many transformations since the seventies. In his usual style, Kevin is still involved, when I called him last week he’d driven a thousand k’s that day without tiring, not bad for a seventy seven year old – his energy and passion ever present.
Kevin also organised races, managed teams and riders, loaned bikes, organised bikes for riders and generously supported cycle sport any way he could. Here’s an account of a couple of bike races and Kevin’s involvement, “They had a handicap at Cootamundra a hundred mile race, one year it was seventy five miles. My mate Peter Panton rode my bike because my knee was all smashed up, he rode off scratch, dropped the scratch bunch and got within two minutes of a group of about sixty riders. There was one young kid from Lithgow riding a bike that he’d got from me, he was sixteen and he led out the sprint against sixty riders and beat them all- at sixteen! He was an apprentice butcher or something getting paid four pound a week and he won a hundred pound. In the pro racing it was a free for all.” Here’s another story involving Peter Panton, “One year after I’d smashed my knee I did a 170km race with Peter Panton, Alec Fulcher and Kerry Hoole, they were off scratch and I was off the five minute chopping block. They all rode my bikes. They caught us after about 100km, Panton came past and he was sitting on the front with a 50 x 15 and I was hanging with a thirteen, a lot of us just got spat out the back he was going so fast. Panton could pedal so well he just came past, he won, Bill Long used to call him Peter the Perfect Pedaller. He (Panton) won the Mercury tour in 1960, I managed the team and Kerry Hoole was in it. On one stage from Bernie to Launceston he broke away with 60′ ks to go and did it like a time trial, he put two and half minutes into them and won the stage. (Panton’s story as told by Kevin is deserving of it’s own KT inspired Ripping Yarn, look out for it in an upcoming post, it’s a cracker.) We did something tricky we put on a 52 ring and 175 cranks, 50 was normally the biggest 50-13, eventually Keith Oliver even used up to a 55.”
Later in life Kevin had a passion for spreading the word about Cyclo-Sportif events, organising events in Queensland, one in conjunction with Lawrie Cranley, proof of Kevin’s vision well before the sport was ready. Although Kevin’s Cyclo-Sportif events were successful, it’s taken until the current boom and recognition of cycle sport for these Gran Fondo style events to take off in Australia.
Kevin’s recollections of his life are as extensive as his life is long, one ripping yarn after another. This account provides a small window into a life lived as an adventure with no regrets. Look out here for more in future installments.