Hubert Opperman

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Sir Hubert Ferdinand Opperman
29 May 1904 – 18 April 1996

Hubert Opperman is a legend of Australian cycling, who earned the nickname “Oppy”. He had an incredible 21 year career where he won  a record four Australian Road Championships.  With more than 50 major road races and hundreds of track events in Australia and Europe.  Breaking dozens of world records in the process. Opperman continued riding all the way up until his 90th birthday until his wife convinced him to stop.

Hubert Opperman at St Joseph College. Image; State Library of NSW

Hubert Opperman travelled to Europe during the late 20’s and early 30’s where he achieved much of his fame.  

Bol d’Or 24 hour classic

Hubert Opperman’s has done many amazing rides.  His most legendary ride was in the The Bol D’or (Bowl of Gold).  This was a prestigious French 24 hour event which he participated in 1928.  This was held at the Vélodrome Buffalo in Paris.  Early on into the ride Oppy took the race lead until his chain on his Malvern Star snapped about an hour into the ride. He rolled to the centre of the track where his manager quickly gave him his spare bike.  Soon the chain soon broke on that one too. Sabotage was suspected.  

They figured that the chains may have been filed down which caused them to break.

Oppy’s manager had to scramble to find another bike for him to race on.  They were able to use Oppy’s French interpreter’s bike. This was a heavy touring bike and as race bikes go was a piece of shit! It had heavy mudguards and wheels.  A lamp was attached and the handlebars were upturned which made riding it awkward.  Worse of all was that it had very low gears.  So he was unable to sustain the kinds of speeds that other riders were achieving.  This didn’t deter Oppy from giving his heart and soul to give his mechanic time to fix the chain.  By this stage Oppy had lost over an hour to this tragedy and was 20 laps behind the leaders.  Things were looking grim.

He was not happy at all about being sabotaged.  Which fuelled him to pull something special out and rode 17 hours straight.  Smashing out an incredible 950 km’s and not only won.  But won by a staggering 30 minutes in front of a 50,000 strong crowd who were screaming out “Allez Oppy”.  The legend was born.

The French fell in love with his spirit and tenacity on the bike.  In 1928 he was voted Europe’s most popular sportsman in a poll of more than 500,000 readers from the French sporting journal L’Auto.

24 hour unpaced world record ride, Sports Arena. Image; State Library of NSW

Paris-Brest-Paris tour

The Paris-Brest-Paris tour is one of the oldest bicycling events and was first run in 1891. Paris-Brest was an “épreuve,” a test of the bicycle’s reliability. It is a long-distance cycling event which was once a very prestigious event.

Oppy raced in the 1931 edition which was 1,162 km in length.  The weather was horrible with riders encountering gales and heavy rain throughout the first day. Opperman later recalled: ‘I was wretched with fatigue….For hours I fought against the insidious onset of sleep. I whistled and shouted; I strove to think of anything so that Morpheus would not clutch me too fiercely…it was agony.’  On the second morning, five men including Oppy had managed to break away. Oppy made several attacks until one finally succeeded.  With 56 km to go was hoping to win the race solo. He managed to get a 3 minute advantage at one stage but his lead slowly dwindled down and he was caught with 5 km to go.  Sitting back in the bunch as they approached the Velodrome Buffalo. Oppy’s manager, Bruce Small, had been screaming from the car:

Oppy, ride like the devil!

Oppy sprinted 200 metres from the line and held enough momentum to win by two lengths. There were forty thousand spectators screaming adulation. Opperman was the first non-European to win the Paris-Brest-Paris race.  Setting a course record of 49 hours & 23 minutes in the process.  This cemented his reputation as being one of the greatest endurance athletes of his time.

24 hour unpaced world record ride, Sports Arena. Image; State Library of NSW

Tour de France

Hubert Opperman participated in two editions of the Tour de in 1928 and 1931.

He managed to finish in 18th place in the 1928 tour under difficult circumstances. Oppy was already at a disadvantage against many of the strong European teams.  Australia only fielded 4 riders that year, where most of the other teams were able to field 10. It was a tough race and there was a high attrition rate with only 39 riders out of the original 169 riders finishing that year’s event.  Opperman said that the Tour was the hardest ride he’s ever done and nothing ever compared after.  He could easily match the pace on the flats, but it was the Alps that brought him undone.  He had no experience climbing at altitude.  Remarking at how poor the road conditions were and without local knowledge all he could do was watch as riders flew off down the road.

De Latour wrote: “It is the sight of the poor lonely Opperman being caught day after day by the various teams of 10 super-athletes”.

In 1931 Australia teamed up with Switzerland to form a much stronger team. Even though Oppy suffered several accidents and experienced dysentery during the tour he came 12th overall.

Opperman at Bondi 1936. Image; State Library of NSW

World War II

With the outbreak of World War II.  Hubert Opperman enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force and served between 1940 -1945.  Rising to the rank of flight lieutenant. He raced briefly after the war but retired from racing in 1947 and moved onto politics. He joined the Liberal Party and in 1949 was elected to the Victorian electorate of Corio in Geelong.  Serving in parliament for 17 years. After his retirement from politics in 1967 he was appointed as Australia’s first High Commissioner to Malta.  And was knighted in 1968. In his retirement, Oppy published his autobiography “Pedals, Politics and People”.  Opperman was recognised by his achievements being inducted into the Sporting Hall of Fame.

Hubert Opperman crossing the Nullarbor Desert

Sir Hubert Opperman passed away a month before his 92nd Birthday whilst riding his exercise bike.  His son Ian Opperman said: “They reckon he had a smile on his face. It’s how he would have wanted to die. In the saddle.”

Image courtesy of State Library of Victoria

Hubert Opperman died a true cycling legend!

Here is but a small list of Hubert Opperman’s amazing achievements:

  • He is the only rider to have won the Australian National Road race title four times
  • He won the Warrnambool to Melbourne Classic on three occasions
  • In 1927 he won the Dunlop Grand Prix which is a 1,111 km race over four stages
  • 18th overall at the 1928 Tour de France
  • 1928 won the Bol d’Or 24 hour classic
  • He won the Goulburn to Sydney Classic on three occasions
  • 12th overall at the 1931 Tour de France
  • In 1931 won the 1931 Paris-Brest-Paris tour (1,162 km) setting a then record time of 49 hours & 23 minutes
  • Completed 1,000km’s in 24 hours at the Melbourne Motordrome in 1932
  • In 1935 he won a 24 hour ride called “The Cycling Ashes” in England, which coincided with the 1935 cricket ‘Ashes’ series’.
  • Hubert was given the honor of being the first cyclist to ride over the newly opened Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1933
  • In 1940 Opperman set 100 distance records in a 24-hour race at Sydney. Many of these were not broken until decades later.
  • In 2000 he was honoured by leading the Sydney 2000 Olympic cycling team through the Sydney Harbour Tunnel
Opperman at Peters Factory, Redfern. Image; State Library of NSW

The Sir Hubert Opperman Trophy

Since 1958.  The best all-round performing cyclist each year has been presented with a trophy for the Australian Cyclist of the Year. This is awarded to the cyclist who not only has an excellent performance during the year.  But also displays a high level of sportsmanship and is an ambassador for the sport of cycling. Previous winners include Robbie McCewan, Simon Gerrans & Tour de France winner Cadel Evans.

Australian Sporting Hall of Fame

Sir Hubert Opperman was Inducted into The Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1985 . As an Athlete Member for his contribution to the sport of cycling and was Elevated to “Legend of Australian Sport” in 1993.

Cycling Australia’s Tour de France squad of the century

 Sir Hubert Opperman was not only included in this prestigious squad.  But was named team captain in recognition of all of his cycling achievements

 Fleche Opperman

 Audax Australia runs an annual event called the Fleche Opperman All Day Trial aka “the Oppy”. This is a 24-hour team time trial for teams of three to five bicycles. To finish each time must ride at least 360km and finish at a designated location in each state.

Online Sources:

WOW Wiki:
Wikipedia:
Museum of Victoria:
Sports Australia Hall of Fame:
Obituary:
Cycling Australia:
The people and Environment Blog:
National Museum of Australia:
Fox Sports:
Audax Australia:
Sydney Morning Herald:

 

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