At eighty years of age, one would be forgiven for thinking track cycling legend Tommy Shardelow would be firmly ensconced in his armchair with a cup of tea.
But when Cyclingnews called him up, the energetic octogenarian was putting in a full day at the office and proving he’s still got the stamina that earned him double Olympic glory.
“I’m retiring at the end of the month,” admits Shardelow, who has been working for almost 65 years. “My wife Margaret says it’s about time I spent some time at home.”
By comparison his competitive cycling career spanned a mere 26 years, but in that time he claimed two Olympic silver medals, won bronze at the British Empire Games, broke numerous world records and earned 25 national titles.
Born in Johannesburg on November 11, 1931, on Armistice Day, a young Shardelow attended school in Durban, where he proved himself a natural athlete by winning the Victor Ludorum trophy twice.
His entry into the world of cycling at age 15 was quite by chance. “I was a Scout and had to walk 100 miles to get a Rover’s badge, or ride 300. So I thought, gee, I’m not walking!”
After leaving his scoutmaster and fellow Rovers in the dust, Shardelow realised that this was another sport in which he could excel.
Later, while living in Johannesburg, he would ride past the local cycling club in Malvern every day. One morning he was stopped on the road by a group of its members.
“They said, ‘Where do you think you’re going? You’ve been riding up and down here for six months, you’d better join us.'” “So I did. I joined Troyeville Cycling Club and stayed there for 20 years.”
Shardelow says he did not cover himself in glory at his first track outing. “I came stone last because I didn’t know what the hell was happening. The bell went and the guys all rode away from me, but I soon picked it up.”
So well, in fact, that he won his first junior national championship in 1947, while serving his apprenticeship as an electrician. “I won two junior titles in ’48 and in 1950 I won all six titles at the SA championships.”
After riding to a photo finish in an invitation sprint against 1948 Olympic and world sprint champion Mario Ghella, the impressed Italian brought the young amateur over to race in his home country.
Although racing on the international circuit gave Shardelow good experience and saw him compete in the 1950 world championships, it also exposed him to the dark side of the sport.
“The guys were even drugging in those days. The English manager came up to me and asked if I was taking anything. I said no and asked why.
“He said, ‘Well, you know you’re not going any further’. I said that’s fine then, I’m not interested.”
The prediction proved unfounded as Shardelow went on to take second in the 4 000m team pursuit at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. He and Ray Robinson also won silver in the 2 000m tandem sprint.
“Ray and I broke the Olympic record in the first round and rode inside the world record in the second.”
The duo went as favourites to the games in Melbourne four years later. However, due to a communication mix-up, they did not realise that one of the heats was an elimination round and were knocked out.
“That’s how life goes, I suppose. I always say I’ve got a hell of a lot of luck but it’s all bad.”
At the peak of his career, South Africa was isolated from world sport due to its apartheid policies. Although Shardelow went on to break a number of world records, he regrets being denied the opportunity to test himself further overseas.
In 1973, he retired after winning the 1 000m sprint at the first all-inclusive South African Multi-National Games, where he beat national “Non-European” sprint champion Sepele Ngwenya.
After being transferred to Cape Town, Shardelow continued to ride socially but finally gave it up a few years ago.
“For 40 years, I did 40km every day of my life because that’s what the track rider needs. You can be as active as you like but if you don’t do saddle miles, you can forget it.”
What makes Shardelow’s achievements all the more remarkable is that he was always an amateur, balancing cycling with family commitments and a career as a sales representative and manager for various companies.
With retirement finally looming, the father of three, grandfather of five and great-grandfather of two shows no sign of slowing down.
“I’ll find something to do. My son’s got a good business and he needs help from time to time. So I might even do that – as long as I don’t have to spend a lot of time away from home!”