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Geoff Duke: First Gentleman of Racing

Geoff Duke

Six-time world champion and six-time TT winner Geoff Duke passed away May 1, 2015, at his home in the Isle of Man, at the age of 92. Duke was the first global superstar of Grand Prix racing as the first rider to win two World Championships in the same year, winning the 1951 350cc and 500cc world crowns on Norton Manx singles, and the first to win three successive World Championships, the 1953-1955 world titles on 4-cylinder Gileras.

In the early 1950s, Duke became a household name in Europe thanks to his good looks, stylish riding, polite manner, and especially his underdog success defeating the 4-cylinder Gilera and MV Agusta multis aboard the much less powerful but better handling Norton singles. Ironically, thanks partly to the resentment by Norton’s directors that Duke would be earning more than them if they paid him what he was worth, Duke transferred to the Gilera team — for twice the salary he was earning at Norton. He swiftly transformed Gilera’s fast but unruly fours into unbeatable machinery that took him to three 500cc world crowns.

Duke was also the first rider to wear one-piece racing leathers, after he enlisted his local tailor to make a lighter and more efficient outfit to replace the heavy and baggy two-piece race suits used up to then. He won the 1950 Senior TT wearing these leathers on his first ride for the Norton factory team, with many riders following suit at the end of that season.

Duke’s Gilera career was punctuated by the six-month ban imposed on him by the Federation of International Motorcycling (FIM) at the start of 1956, after he and Gilera teammate Reg Armstrong supported the threat of a rider’s strike at the 1955 Dutch TT at Assen where, in spite of huge crowds in excess of 100,000 fans, the organizers paid the hard-pressed privateers forming the now famous “Continental Circus” a pittance. Although a new regulation came into effect at the end of the season compelling organizers to pay riders a much higher cash sum than before, Duke’s reward was to be suspended from racing for the first half of the following season, leaving him unable to defend his 500cc world title. Imagine the FIM suspending Marc Márquez or Valentino Rossi for such a period — and for such a reason — today!

Geoff Duke was the supreme racer of his generation. Impeccably behaved and always polite, to foreign enthusiasts he was the quintessential Englishman. His love of Italy and its people was reciprocated in full, and his contribution to the sport as it struggled to gain acceptance in the postwar era cannot be overestimated, for he more than anyone else was responsible for putting two-wheeled road racing on the global map. MC