Rider Of The Week looks at the career of a famous rider and highlights how successful they’ve been. Geoff Duke was a multiple Grand Prix world champion who rose to fame during the 1949 Manx Grand Prix. During the Junior race, he came second after falling off his bike, but he went on to win the Senior race with a record lap. Duke demonstrated his tenacity in several races and he had the heart of a champion.
Duke was born on March 29th 1923 in St Helens, Lancashire. He appreciated motorbikes from a young age, partly due to his brother owning a 1921 250cc New Imperial. Duke’s first bike was a 1923 belt-drive Raleigh that he used while working for the Post Office as an engineer.
During WW2, Duke worked as a dispatch rider and then moved on to Norton, where he became a member of the trials team.
Duke debuted in the 1948 Junior Isle of Man Grand Prix and he rode a 350cc Norton. Despite his engine failing, Duke impressed the audience. He bounced back in 1949 by beating Les Graham in the 350cc final at Haddenham. He went on to win the 350cc and 500cc world championships for Norton in 1951.
Following his three world championship victories for Norton, Duke moved on to Italian motorbike manufacturer Gilera in 1953. This was at a time when the British public’s attitude towards foreign countries was hostile and some saw Duke’s transition as unpatriotic. It didn’t stop Duke from making the most of the opportunity and he won three 500cc world championships in a row.
While he was the highest paid racer of his era, Duke looked out for his fellow competitors. For example, he supported the 500cc world championship riders’ strike for more start money. A lot of people were struggling to eat due to the cost of travelling around Europe while the race organisers pocketed the cash. As a result, the FIM suspended him for six months, putting a stop to his 1956 world championship campaign.
Duke eventually retired from racing in 1959 and moved to the Isle of Man.
After moving to the Isle of Man, Duke became a well known entrepreneur. He owned several businesses, including a hotel and shipping company. Duke played an important role in setting up the Manx Line that introduced a roll-on-roll-off ferry service to the island.
Duke maintained an interest in riding throughout his retirement, and he believed he was part of the golden age of motorcycle racing. “I raced in the best period. The circuits varied so much that no two were anything like each other. And while the racing was highly competitive, all the riders were very friendly and mixed in the paddock happily together.”
Duke passed away at the age of 92 in 2015, having lived a long and successful life.