Thor was lightning on bike

July 19, 2017

John Thorsen on his bike in Traralgon with Olympic coach John Hine in 1975 preparing for the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

John Thorsen was a 2000 Sydney Olympics torchbearer on the flame’s journey through Shepparton.

Champion cyclist John Thorsen was Shepparton’s second Olympian before he was forced into retirement at just 22 after a car knocked him off his bike during a training ride.

Greater Shepparton Sports Hall of Fame

From a young age, a competitive attitude was evident in John Thorsen’s character.

Riding to school from the age of 10, Thorsen developed talent on the bike.

‘‘I could beat my cousin, so I joined Shepparton Bike Club ... and in my first race over half a mile in Violet Town, I came first,’’ Thorsen said.

‘‘As any kid would be, I was stoked.’’

From these humbling beginnings, Thorsen would go on to become the second Shepparton sportsperson to represent Australia at the Olympics.

Thorsen said cycling ran in the family.

‘‘I got into cycling with my cousin Daryl,’’ he said.

‘‘Both our fathers rode in Kyneton, Dad was all right, but he had to work on the farm, so didn’t take his talent anywhere.’’

Thorsen showed promise from the moment he joined the club, winning a number of races locally, performing well at regional carnivals and then winning under-14 and 16 state and national titles.

But cycling was not the only sport he excelled at, with Thorsen saying he thought he was actually better at Australian Rules football.

‘‘I captained (future triple Carlton premiership star) Jimmy Buckley when I was in primary school, but my father loved cycling, so I stuck with it,’’ he said.

‘‘I loved it and trained harder than anyone else because I enjoyed it so much ... (plus) I got trips around Australia, so that motivated me.’’

Thorsen was chosen to represent his country overseas in 1974 and tasted immediate success, winning the Dutch and English junior road championships.

‘‘It was a big year and I should’ve stayed over there because I was living with these Dutch masseuses, who were looking after professional football team Ajax at the time,’’ he said.

Two years later, aged 18, Thorsen was selected for the Montreal Olympics, joining boxer Max Carlos to become Shepparton’s second Olympian.

‘‘At the (Olympic) trials I had the best time over all the sections,’’ he said.

Thorsen competed in a team event as a member of the 4000m pursuit team that also included Geoff Skaines, Kevin Nichols and Stephen Goodall.

‘‘We had two weeks training in Toowoomba, but Montreal was just a quarter of the size of the track we trained on, so it was difficult to adapt,’’ Thorsen said.

‘‘The track was really steep, so we just missed out on the final eight.’’

The four rode the best time an Australian team had ever ridden in the event, despite the result.

In 1977, Thorsen took some time away from the sport, working at St Paul’s School for the Blind as a handyman.

The following year, he returned to cycling and won the 1978 Devonport Wheelrace and the Bendigo Madison, with Malcolm Hill.

But sadly, his comeback was short-lived and his career would end at 22 after an unfortunate accident.

‘‘I was coming back from Dookie on the bike when a woman came through a stop sign,’’ Thorsen said.

‘‘I got hit at over 100km/h on the corner of Old Dookie Rd and Boundary Rd and to be honest I’m lucky to be alive.’’

At that stage in his career, Thorsen was the fittest he had been and was riding more than 140km daily.

‘‘My strong body helped me survive ... I was thrown into a table drain and I was pulled out by a passing farmer, who was pulling leeches off me,’’ he said.

‘‘My thigh was completely shattered.’’

It was a sad ending to Thorsen’s short career, one that had seen much achievement.

‘‘I was unbeaten in Victoria and had just about won everything else,’’ Thorsen said.

‘‘I just loved riding ... turning pro was awesome and winning money and partying was my life.’’

It took more than two years before Thorsen got back on the bike for his first ride and he describes it as one of the scariest moments of his life.

But while his competitive cycling career was over, Thorsen continued to contribute to the sport, spending many hours coaching young riders in years to come.

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