OBITUARY: Sir Hubert Opperman

Hubert Opperman was an Australian legend who rode to fame in an era when cycling was a sport that captured the imagination of nations. "Oppy", as he became fondly known to his countrymen, achieved the same hero status in cycling as Don Bradman in cricket and Dawn Fraser in swimming.

When he died at 91, fittingly while pedalling his exercise bicycle at home near Melbourne, some of the 100 world cycling records which he broke or set during a 20-year career from the 1920s still stood. His life was the stuff that films are made of, and a script written with his collaboration is already doing the rounds of Australian producers.

Opperman's was a classic story of a modest country boy striking it big on the world stage by persevering and overcoming the odds. He was born in a small northern town in the state of Victoria and grew up in Melbourne, where his father managed a butcher's shop. At 15, he went to work as a messenger and news-spotter for the Herald, then one of Melbourne's most prosperous newspapers, and later as a telegram delivery boy. Both jobs introduced him to bicycles, and soon he started winning racing competitions in his home city.

The real turning-point, as he later acknowledged, came when he met Bruce Small, a former Salvation Army officer who had opened a cycle accessories shop in the Melbourne suburb of Malvern. The entrepreneurial Small began making his own bicycles and selling them under the name Malvern Star, a brand which eventually dominated the Australian market.

The pair struck a bargain. Together they would take on the world: the promising Opperman would ride only Malvern Star bikes and Small would manage his career. Accompanied by Small and Mavys, the childhood sweetheart he married in 1928, Opperman left for Europe, the scene of his most dazzling series of successes.

The most dramatic of these was the 1928 Bol d'Or, a race designed to see who could ride the greatest distance non-stop for 24 hours around the Mont-rouge Velodrome near Paris. This is where the Opperman legend really began. He took an early race lead, but the chain on his Malvern Star snapped after about an hour. Small was quickly to hand with a replacement bike, but the chain soon broke on that one too. The Australian duo claimed later that they were victims of sabotage. With the rest of the field surging ahead, the frustrated Opperman was obliged to jump on his French interpreter's ill-suited bike to stay in the race. By the time Small had fixed the first Malvern Star, the race leaders were almost 20 laps in front. Back on his home-town cycle, Opperman pulled off an astonishing feat by winning the race. The French cheered him, and later voted him the most popular athlete of the year in a newspaper poll.

From there Opperman went on to win the gruelling 1931 Paris-Brest-Paris event, then the world's longest non-stop race at 1,160km. Three years later, he cut four hours, 21 minutes from the record in the race from Land's End to John o' Groats. After more headline-making victories in Europe, he returned to Australia, where he was carried shoulder-high through Melbourne streets. He cut five days from the record of cycling 3,000km across Australia from Fremantle in Western Australia to Sydney.

Opperman joined the Australian air force during the Second World War. By then, his sporting days had already come to an end. In their later years, both Bruce Small and Opperman entered politics and were knighted. Small moved to the Gold Coast, in Queensland, where he became a property developer and, later, mayor by campaigning under the slogan "Think Big, Vote Small". A bronze statue of Small still stands in a plaza among a forest of high-rise buildings fronting the ocean.

Opperman's second career was rather less ostentatious than that of his old partner. But, in its own way, it was just as significant as Opperman's earlier achievements. The conservative Liberal Party recruited Opperman for a federal constituency in Victoria, which he won at the 1949 election and held for almost 20 years. As Minister for Immigration in the early Sixties, Opperman is credited with taking the first steps to dismantle the White Australia policy, under which Australia discriminated against non-whites as potential immigrants. He did so by allowing a Chinese resident to apply for citizenship after five years, the period which then applied to Europeans. Non- Europeans at that time had to wait 15 years. Opperman's changes were eventually applied universally.

The Australian government has offered a state funeral for Opperman. Dunc Gray, one of "Oppy's" last surviving cycling contemporaries, probably spoke for the rest of Australia when he said: "He was a scholar and a gentleman and a damn good sport. He was a politician for a while, but we won't hold that against him."

Hubert Ferdinand Opperman, cyclist and politician: born Rochester, Victoria 29 May 1904; OBE 1952; Kt 1968; married 1928 Mavys Craig (one son, and one daughter deceased); died Melbourne 18 April 1996.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Austen Lloyd: Practice / HR Manager - Somerset

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A rare and exciting opportunity for a Practice...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company provides global satellite communi...

Austen Lloyd: Practice / HR Manager - Somerset

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A rare and exciting opportunity for a Practice...

Ashdown Group: HR Executive

£20000 - £23000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: An exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen