The Malvern Star and Oppy, heroes of the cycling world
As the field swept into Geelong from Melbourne last Sunday for the first of eleven laps that decided the World Road Race Championship, they passed one of the few reminders of the man who put Australian cycling on the world stage three-quarters of a century ago.
A neon sign advertises ‘Oppy’s Bistro’ at a hotel in Norlane, a reference to the man who represented the electorate in the Australian Parliament for 18 years after retiring as the nation’s greatest cyclist.
It is appropriate that the name of Hubert Opperman remains associated with a commercial venture. He was a professional throughout his long cycling career. Together with his friend and business partner, Bruce Small, Oppy had made Malvern Star the choice of bicycle for hundreds of thousands of Australians in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.
Born in Rochester in 1904, where a statue commemorates his life, Hubert Opperman became a household name in Australia and France for his endurance on two wheels. In a career spanning almost 30 years, he became the greatest endurance cyclist in the world.
His achievements included world 24-hour records, and 1,000 mile records, as well as the fastest rides across Australia and from one end of Britain to the other.
He was at the height of his prowess in the early 1930s. After finishing 18th in his first Tour in 1928, he was placed sixth after 16 stages of the 1931 edition when afflicted by dysentery in the Alps. He finished the 17th stage from Grenoble over Galibier in 44th placing, dropping to 18th in the General Classification. Despite the setback, Oppy picked up six places in the last seven stages. It stood as the best result by an Australian in the Tour until Phil Anderson’s fifth in 1982.
Earlier that year, Opperman had won the 24 hour Bol D’or on a rough concrete velodrome at Monterouge. Riding at one stage for 17 hours straight, he wore down the best riders in the world to cover 585 miles (936 kilometres) in the day. With the crowd chanting “Allez, allez, allez Opperman” he rode for another hour and 19 minutes to also create a new world 1,000 kilometres (625 miles) record. The newspaper, L’Auto, described him as “an Australian marvel, with the heart of a lion.” The paper’s 500,000 readers voted him Europe’s most popular sportsman.
Paris-Brest-Paris is a gruelling 726 mile (1,161 kilometre) race from the French capital to Brittany and back. After 49 hours and 20 minutes of riding, five riders including Oppy, raced onto the Buffolo velodrome in 1931, barely metres between them. “I knew that to go too early was to ‘die’ in the long run to the line,” Oppy wrote in his autobiography, Pedals, politics and people. “Then I felt Pancera (another rider) fade, and my mind shrieked ‘sprint!’ The nightmare of capture changed to an incredible dream run from the track slope down its never-ending straight, past the courageous Louyet and into the pinnacle competitive victory of my life. The excitement was delirious, the emotion overwhelming.” Riding without teammates, he had overcome the might of European cycling in what was then the most prestigious endurance race in the world.
Returning to Australia, Opperman broke the world motor-paced 24-hour and 1,000 mile records, riding the latter in 28 hours and 55 minutes.
Opperman’s one entry in the World Championships was in 1935 when he was preparing for a race from Land’s End to John O’Groats – the entire length of Britain.
At the age of 31, he was dissatisfied with his form prior to the British race. “My muscles athletically old now needed extra pedalling punishment that only a Continental race could give,” he wrote. “The alternating speed in fragmenting bunches, the gap-breaking sprints, the strain of survival on the hills, and the quick recuperation on a pacing wheel, were an essential finishing school for their complete cycling education.”
Before more than 300,000 people at Floreffe in Belgium, he finished a credible eighth with the second bunch in the World Road Race. The 135 miles of racing had topped off his preparation for the subsequent long distance events in Britain.
For an athlete who had ridden from Melbourne to the Queensland border for training, the race against the clock across Australia from Perth to Sydney remained a challenge upon returning to Australia. Unlike the miles of sealed highway today, the Nullarbor was then a soft, sandy track over which Oppy had to carry his bike in places. Undaunted, he completed the 2,750 miles (4,400 kilometres) in 13 days, 10 hours and 11 minutes. He also rode from Albany to Perth two hours faster than the train, causing much embarrassment for railway officials. His subsequent Adelaide to Sydney 1,000 mile record stood until 1975.
The association with Bruce Small lasted a lifetime. It was built on friendship and a commercial partnership. After serving in the airforce during the war, Oppy returned to the Malvern Star business. He continued to mentor up-and-coming riders like Russell Mockridge, and Jack Hoobin, who won the World amateur road race in Belgium in 1950.
An unexpected speaking engagement led to a meeting with Richard Casey, who had been the Federal Member of Parliament for Corio until his appointment as wartime Ambassador to the US in 1940. Casey suggested that Opperman stand for Parliament in the seat of Corio, then held by the Minister for Postwar Reconstruction, John Dedman. Oppy became one of the ‘forty-niners’, the group that swept Menzies to power. He represented the seat until retiring in 1967, having been Minister for Shipping and Transport, and Minister for Immigration along the way. He was subsequently the Australian Ambassador to Malta and was knighted.
At the age of 90, his loving wife, Mavys, banned him from riding on the roads anymore. He died while on an exercise bike in 1996, aged 91, 78 years after had had started work as a postal messenger in Melbourne.
Following Don Kirkman and Ivor Munro, the first two Australians to ride the Tour de France in 1914, Hubert Opperman pioneered the arrival of English-speaking riders on the continent. The success of modern riders like Phil Anderson, Robbie McEwen, Stuart O’Grady and Cadel Evans owes much to the trailblazing feats of Oppy.
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