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.
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