Geoff Duke, 1923-2015

During the 1950s, Geoff Duke (left) won six Grand Prix world titles, plus six Isle of Man TT races.

Geoff Duke, winner of three 1950s world championships for Norton and three for Gilera, has died after an enviably long life at age 92.

Duke had the good fortune to ride for Norton just as it adopted the advanced and supple McCandless chassis to carry the rugged 350 and 500cc “Manx” dohc single-cylinder engines. Before the 1950 season, the new bikes were exhaustively tested at the MIRA proving ground, the French Montlhery oval, and the Isle of Man.

With smooth, fluid hydraulic damping in place of jerky dry friction dampers, and with weight forward in stability-enhancing fashion, the new “Featherbed” chassis could pass the previous “garden gate” factory Norton on the outside in corners.

Duke was being paid 10 pounds a week for his work in the factory and nothing extra for being a factory rider, as well. In the 1950 Grand Prix season, Norton’s archrival was Italian maker Gilera, whose four-cylinder bikes had at least a 10-horsepower advantage over Duke’s Norton. Yet Duke easily pulled away again and again, and would have been champion that year had his tires not come apart at crucial races. In 1951, Duke triumphed over Gilera in the 500cc class.

What do top riders do when confronted with superior power and acceleration? They use what Freddie Spencer and Jorge Lorenzo used in their respective eras: corner speed. And the Norton, its mechanical grip enhanced by longer suspension travel and smoother damping, was just the bike for that style.

Duke’s riding style was “with the bike,” his body centered over the machine, leaning as it leaned. In later years, he became known for his view that the later knee-down, body-to-the-inside riding style was “a fad that will pass.”

Former 250cc World Champion Kel Carruthers points out that Duke’s style was, in fact, progressive in his time—a necessary step from past to future—for before him the admired style was to lean the machine, not the upper body.

When Norton’s financial state prevented developing its own 500cc four, Duke went to Gilera, where, in addition to winning three 500cc titles, he helped to modernize its chassis as Norton’s had been.

Duke, like other truly creative riders, developed a style that realized the new capabilities of technology emerging in his time.

During the 1950s, Geoff Duke (left) won six Grand Prix world titles, plus six Isle of Man TT races.

Geoff Duke, winner of three 1950s world championships for Norton and three for Gilera, has died after an enviably long life at age 92.

Duke had the good fortune to ride for Norton just as it adopted the advanced and supple McCandless chassis to carry the rugged 350 and 500cc “Manx” dohc single-cylinder engines. Before the 1950 season, the new bikes were exhaustively tested at the MIRA proving ground, the French Montlhery oval, and the Isle of Man.

With smooth, fluid hydraulic damping in place of jerky dry friction dampers, and with weight forward in stability-enhancing fashion, the new “Featherbed” chassis could pass the previous “garden gate” factory Norton on the outside in corners.

Duke was being paid 10 pounds a week for his work in the factory and nothing extra for being a factory rider, as well. In the 1950 Grand Prix season, Norton’s archrival was Italian maker Gilera, whose four-cylinder bikes had at least a 10-horsepower advantage over Duke’s Norton. Yet Duke easily pulled away again and again, and would have been champion that year had his tires not come apart at crucial races. In 1951, Duke triumphed over Gilera in the 500cc class.

What do top riders do when confronted with superior power and acceleration? They use what Freddie Spencer and Jorge Lorenzo used in their respective eras: corner speed. And the Norton, its mechanical grip enhanced by longer suspension travel and smoother damping, was just the bike for that style.

Duke’s riding style was “with the bike,” his body centered over the machine, leaning as it leaned. In later years, he became known for his view that the later knee-down, body-to-the-inside riding style was “a fad that will pass.”

Former 250cc World Champion Kel Carruthers points out that Duke’s style was, in fact, progressive in his time—a necessary step from past to future—for before him the admired style was to lean the machine, not the upper body.

When Norton’s financial state prevented developing its own 500cc four, Duke went to Gilera, where, in addition to winning three 500cc titles, he helped to modernize its chassis as Norton’s had been.

Duke, like other truly creative riders, developed a style that realized the new capabilities of technology emerging in his time.

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