Sir Hubert Opperman: sport champ who never quit

by Geoff Easdown

There is a small group of Australian sportsmen who will be remembered as the immortals of world sport. Sir Hubert Opperman, who died at his Wantira home on Thursday night, was one of those legendary few. A measure of the Opperman fame was the rare Gold Medal of Paris given to him by the French 50 years after his Paris-Brest-Paris marathon win. Half a lifetime earlier, Oppy won that 1200km race in an astonishing 49 hours, a feat for which he was honored by Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac in France in 1991.
Hubert Ferdinand Opperman, who was 91, held more than 100 distance cycling records, including the Australian Road Cycling titles in 1924, 11926, 1927 and 1929. Oppy, as he was know to the crowds, was voted Europe's most popular sportsman in 1928. More than 500,000 readers of the French sporting journal L'Auto had chosen the Australian ahead of there own national tennis champion Henri Cochet. Unquestionably one of the greatest cyclists the world has ever seen, Oppy's lifetime achievements spanned horizons far wider than his sporting fame.
He became a Menzies and Holt government minister, variously holding the Shipping and Transport and Immigration portfolios from 1963 to 1967. Sir Hubert Opperman was also Australia's first high Commissioner to Malta, representing the nation there for five years until 1972. Add to that his role as a long serving councillor for the Association of the Blind, patron of the Sportsmen's Association of Australia, and a Victorian president of the Prior of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem; and a letter writer extraordinaire, as the sender of serious and humorous Oppygrams ("registered for urgent and friendly transmission").
A state schoolboy from a humble background, Oppy began his working life as a Herald copyboy, and learned his cycling skills later as a Post Office messenger. Oppy's friend and biographer Clayton Sinclair said last night the story of the cycling legend reduces Chariots of Fire to embers. Sinclair, who has been planning a movie of Oppy's life for five years, said the script was now being written and that every page so far was alive with drama. "At no time has it been necessary to play with the truth,: said Sinclair. "The heroism of the man leaps from every page."
Hubert Opperman rode a bicycle from the age of eight until his wife Mavys, fearing for his health and safety, finally forced him off the road in 1994 on his 90th birthday. When he died of a heart attack, just after 6pm on Thursday, he was on his exercise bike.
On the day he gave up riding, he presented his old Malvern Star bicycle to a museum in his birthplace of Rochester. That same afternoon, an before a crowd of thousands, he watched as the folk of that small community near the Victorian/NSW border unveiled a lifesize bronze statue in his honor. Barely concealing his emotions, he told the crowd: "Every man has a lurking wish to be thought considerable in his own country. I am not immune to this feeling and you have made me feel considerable today."
Oppy believed his greatest triumph was the 1928 Bol d'Or 24-hour classic, raced on a 500m velodrome in Paris. Oppy was ready for his foreign rivals but, as he later acknowledged, quite ill-prepared for the saboteurs determined to stop the talented young Australian. He had two racing bicycles, and the chains on both had been filed down to within a fraction of breaking. He was, for the first hour, effectively out of the race, standing about with nothing to do, while his manager and racing patron, Bruce Small, sweated on getting his young star back into the race. In the end Sir Hubert had to make do with a machine borrowed from his interpreter - heavy wheels, mudguards, and wrongly upturned handlebars.
He rode 17 hours without dismounting, telling friends afterwards that the puddles on the velodrome boards were not entirely due to his sweat. He won by 30 minutes, crossing the finishing line with 50,000 Frenchmen screaming: "allez Oppy". Tens of thousands lined the streets of Melbourne to welcome home a hero. Standing in the crowd was his grandmother, Wilhelmina Opperman, who had earlier lectured her grandson about getting a proper job.
Oppy was 17 when he won his first major race in 1921, receiving a racing bike donated by Bruce Small's Malvern Star cycles, then a tiny shopfront and rear workroom at Malvern. So impressed with Sir Hubert was Small that he also gave the rider a job, and thus began a partnership which was to make Oppy a legend.