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Echoes' Cycling Biography #3: Sir Hubert Opperman
« on: September 01, 2013, 18:03 »
Early years

Opperman was born to a farming family in Rochester, Australia (Victoria State, 180km from Melbourne). He first had several jobs as a miner, a woodcutter, a butcher. In that he’s by no means different from his contemporaries in Europe.

In 1921 he would finish third in a high regarded race in the region, which gave him a job in a cycle bike shop – the Malvern Star Cycles – in Malvern, suburb of Melbourne. The owner of the shop is Bruce Small, who was probably impressed by Oppy’s performance and his human qualities. He then went on to become Australian Road champion in 1924 at age 20, which launched his career (adding three more titles in 1926, 1927 & 1929).

First trip to Europe in 1928

Opperman knew from sporting magazine about all the great events that took place in Europe at that time and it was his ambition to compete in them. Two Australian newspapers – The Melbourne Herald and the Globe Sporting – and a New-Zealander one – The Sun – gathered funds to finance the journey and create an Australasian teams that could race several road events in Europe. His teammates were the Australians: Ernie Bainbridge and Percy Osborne and the New-Zealander Harry Watson (first New-Zealander to race to the Tour of France). However on his arrival in France, the young Franco-American journalist René de Latour (later working for L’Équipe, and director of the Tour de l’Avenir) would say:

A marked difference between Oppy and his team-mates was that they did not all regard the journey to Europe in the same light. While the others looked on it more as a trip in which to collect a few souvenirs to take home, to the eager Oppy it was a wonderful chance to reach the top in international competition... His arrival in France had been announced with some scepticism: Un beau mentir qui vient de loin is a French saying. (A good liar comes from a distance.) His outstanding wins in Australia did not mean anything to the French riders, and even less to the Belgians.
'Whom did he beat over there, anyway?' they would say. 'Let's see him on the road, then we'll know. We've yet to see any classy Australian road rider.'

(de Latour, René, This Aussie Was a Bonza, Sporting Cyclist, UK, undated)

The journey on the liner lasted for 5 weeks (according to Pierre Chany – La fabuleuse histoire du cyclisme) so that Oppy did not want to waste his time and he could be seen (and photographed) training on rollers on the ocean liner (confirming his determination as noticed by Latour)


He was actually noticed René de Latour at the Six-Days of Paris at the Vel d’Hiv, though not racing there, which situates his arrival between April 9 and 15, ruling out a start at the first classics. Among the racers in those Six was another Australian: Reginald McNamara whom he befriended with. At age 40 McNamara was a big name in track cycling (19 Six-Days and a pursuit specialist too) and was still among the best even though he retired from these Six in 1928. However McNamara never hit the big time on the road.

In 1914 though – 14 years before our four Australasians – five Aussies already made an expedition to Europe in order to compete at road events. Their names were Ivor ‘Snowy’ Munro, Don Kirkham, Fred Keefe, Charles Snell and Charles Percey. They would race (and finish!) some the best classics of the time: Milan-Sanremo, Paris-Roubaix, Paris-Tours and the Tour of France. Kirkham did their best performance reaching 9th place at Milan-Sanremo.

It’s Opperman’s to be the first Aussie to win a major race.


The Aussie’s first race in Europe is goint to be Paris-Rennes. A historical perspective is required here. A first edition of that race was held in 1902 but it remained the only edition until 1927. From 1927 to 1939 the VC Rennais, sponsored by Ouest-Éclair (now Ouest-France) would develop a race that certainly qualified as a classic. It’s safe to say it had back then the prestige of a race like Ghent-Wevelgem today. Every year a top field was present with often a real champion winning it. The race that Opperman is racing was thus the second edition of its revival but it suffered from the competition of the Circuit de Paris, which was held the same day (May 17) and was known as the classic with the best prize money at that time (said Émile Masson jr, in Mon père et moi, francs Masson du cyclisme belge), hence only 32 competitors but among them were champions such as Nicolas Frantz or Gaston Rebry.

The race was a bit more than 320km long. It’s long compared to present-day races but short compared to races from the previous decade.

Oppy’s Wiki page relays a report from that race: The 32 riders assembled at a small Parisian café at midnight. On the street outside, torrential rain alternated with freezing hailstorms. When called outside for the 2am start, the riders kept warm by running on the spot and flapping their arms. The Australians amused the others with a game of leapfrog followed by a sparring match between Watson and Bainbridge.

On May 19 the Melbourne-based newspaper The Argus gave a very short account of the race saying that Frantz won in a 12h 37’15” and that Oppy finished 8th. Let’s add that neo-pro Gaston Rebry finished 3rd and the man in form, Romain Bellenger who had won Paris-Lille four days earlier, finished 5th.


Ten days later Opperman would start a more prestigious classic, namely Paris-Brussels (over 400km by that time).

Paris-Brussels was one of the most prestigious classics before WWI and up until 1920. In 1921 a clash between the race organizers and the main cycle factory kept most of the big stars from the race and in the following years the field would mainly be Belgian oriented with one or two lone Luxembourger – Frantz – or … Australians. So in 1928 Frantz (2nd) and Opperman (3rd) were the two only non-Belgians in the top10. Yet these Belgians of the top10 weren’t nobodies: Maurice Dewaele (6th), Frans Bonduel (8th, though he was a 19 y.o. neo-pro), Staf Van Slembrouck (9th) and Aimé Déolet (10th).

In his ‘Het Rijke Vlaamsche Wielerleven’ (1943) Karel Van Wijnendaele says:
It’s true that Ronsse won Paris-Brussels [in 1928] but for the sake of truth it must be confessed that the field of that race was not among the strongest. The makers steered clear of it and the best riders didn’t come to start.
Ronsse to
[Pierre] Pierrard [coach from La Française] : ‘I still haven’t won a single race this year and I risk not being selected for the Worlds. Let me race Paris-Brussels and I win it.’
Pierrard finally let himself convinced and let Ronsse start, who won ‘on one leg’

Yet the ‘makers’ were at least represented by Alcyon and Nikolas Frantz, so KvW’s analysis seems a bit weird, a priori.

Oppy, Frantz and Ronsse battled it out in the 3-man sprint. Oppy about Ronsse: “This Ronsse is not a cyclist, he’s a motorbike!” (Nijssen & Aartsbergen – De grootste wielerkampioenen – Rainbow Pocket, 2010)

Wronged by Desgrange’s system

In the 1920’s cycling somewhat modernized compared to the period before WWI and more and more often you saw the peloton having leisurely rides in the flat stages of the Tour of France. Desgrange’s megalomania and bombast incited him to invent rules in order to avoid such boring rides and that’s how he invented the first team time trials (in 1927), before the individual ones were ever invented. In 1928, 4 stages were raced in the form of such TTT’s. Desgrange called it the separated start system. Obviously this favoured the collectively stronger teams like Alcyon. Alcyon was not quantitatively bigger than any other teams. They were with the 6 of them while others raced with the 9 or 10 of them but they were of course more numerous than the Australians who raced with the 4 of them and they had more talent altogether with alongside Nicolas Frantz, André Leducq, Gaston Rebry or Maurice Dewaele. Oppy couldn’t get much help from Osborne, Bainbridge and Watson in order to compete with these guys. Due to this system he finished 18th. Desgrange would retain that system in 1929 favouring another Alcyon rider, Maurice Dewaele at the expense of a guy like Victor Fontan who lost a lot in such TTT for those three years. Even in the thirties the system would be maintained. Not the best period of the Tour of France.

Six-Days of Buffalo as prep for the Bol d’Or

The Buffalo velodrome was built in 1893 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Paris, after William “Buffalo Bill” Cody whose circus performed on the grounds of it. It was also known for regularly organizing the Bol d’Or from 1894 to 1913. A second Buffalo was built in 1922 and continued organizing the Bol d’Or until 1928 (with a few exception).

In 1928 the director realized that the audience was getting bored by long endurance races like the Bol d’Or and besides the top riders were gradually less and less interested (and revenues were going down), as Chany noticed. On the road, we notice the same. In 1927 only 11 brave men started Bordeaux-Paris, formerly the queen of the classics, it became a sub-top one. Hence the director of Buffalo decided to organize his own Six-Days event, for such races were much more popular. Hence there would be two Six-Days in Paris in one year, after the one in the Vel d’Hiv where Opperman met with McNamara. The sphere clashes between the Vel d’Hiv, which was an indoor track, with a stinking air and the outdoor track of Buffalo, in a deserted Paris, where the audience consisted more of cycling connoisseurs.
These Sixes were held between August 13 and 19, which 12 days before the Bol d’Or. Oppy’s partner was François Urago, a rider who was known for his good performances in road races around his native Riviera (Cannes GP, Nice-Annot-Nice, etc.). They would finish 3rd after two obscure pairs while the big names were behind them: Debaets, Leducq, Brunero or Van Kempen.

Epic Bol d’Or win

The Bol d’Or was a 24h race that was thus held on the Buffalo velodrome. A detailed description of this Bol d’Or win was brought to us by Pierre Chany (op.cit.) and by Hervé Paturle and Guillaume Rebière (in Un siècle de cyclisme, Calmann Levy 2004). Opperman said before the start that he would win by wearing out his opponents. Those who would try to attacking him early would eventually run out of gas and leave the race before the end. That is exactly how it unfolded. Only 5 riders of the 12 starters would finish. The start at 11pm. Oppy asked his soigneurs to prepare a warm water tub for 6 o’clock. Which means in 7 hours? Not at all said Oppy. “I intend to stop at 6… PM, which means in 19 hours!” He’ll stand by it and his stop would only last for 2’27”, no more.
The most active rider of the first night part was the Italian Gaetano Belloni (Paturle & Rebière). He was a big name in Italian road racing (multiple winner of Milan-Sanremo, the Tour of Lombardy and of Italy). But he would not survive the next morning, thereby illustrating what Oppy said before the race. It is interesting to compare Belloni’s ride with those of other campionissimi the year before. According to Chany, “In 1927, Binda, Girardengo and Oscar Egg abandoned very quixckly, leaving [Honoré] Barthélémy a clear field. It was then rumored that the organizer only contracted them in order to entertain the audience for the first part of the race.” An analysis that led Chany to the conclusion above mentioned about the lack of interest in this endurance races. Could Belloni have been contracted for the same reason?
Opperman decided to accelerate at the moment Belloni retired asked his pacemakers to pace him at a speed of 40km/h. His opponents would stop more and more often while he kept riding, being regularly supplied with bidons, until 6pm. Oppy covered a distance of 950.060km in 24h.

Luck however wasn’t not on his side, as his Wiki page says: Both his bikes had been sabotaged by the chains being filed so they failed.[1] His manager had to find a replacement, his interpreter's bicycle which had heavy mudguards and wheels and upturned handlebars. Opperman rode the bike for 17 hours without dismounting. He was 17 laps of the track behind the leader but after 10 hours rose to second place to Achille Souchard, who had twice been national road champion. Opperman punctured after 23½ hours and got off his bike for the first time since the broken chain. "He had met Nature's lesser calls as he pedalled, to the roar of the indelicate crowd", said a report.[1]

After the race, Oppy was suggested to get back on his bike because such a chance to break the 1, 000km record would not occur again, he was ahead of the timetable for the record. According to his Wiki page he was tired and was persuaded by his pacemakers to continue. According to Chany, and to Paturle & Rebière, his pacemakers were even more exhausted than him but accepted out of loyalty, this additional hour of effort. Opperman cycled 1h19’ more to break the record.

It seems a mystery though that in the 1925 Barthélémy won the Bol d’Or covering the distance of 1035.114km in 24 hours, raced that time in Bordeaux. Normally he should thus own the record (?).

1928 would be the last edition of the Bol d’Or at Buffalo and it was meant to be the overall last edition of the race until the revival attempt of 1950. It seems stunning that Opperman covered a longer distance than Fiorenzo Magni, when the latter won that edition (867.609km).

Cycling at that time was less and less a matter of extreme endurance. Opperman beat a exclusive specialist of such races in that Bol d’Or: André Mouton, who finished 3rd the year before. Only the #4, Félix Sellier can be said to have made a decent career as a roadie (three-time Paris-Brussels champion and Paris-Roubaix winner). The other two being Marcel Huot (3rd) and Oppy’s Six-Days partner Urago (5th). Bellenger, Barthélémy, Belloni and Souchard had all retired.

However Oppy would get back to Australia, being adulated by the French crowd. The readers of Desgrange’s newspaper L’Auto would even vote him as Europe’s most popular athlete ahead of tennis musketeer Henri Cochet.

1930: French stars in Australia

This chapter is sourced from Paturle & Rebière (op.cit.) and from this blog: . Two Frenchmen were invited by Opperman to take part in two races in his own country, in November 1930. These were Joseph Mauclair who won a stage at the Tour of France in 1928 and was 6th in the Paris-Rennes that Oppy raced and the other one was Jean Bidot. ‘The Strategist’ – as he was called - won the Circuit de Paris the day Oppy raced Paris-Rennes and finished second to his brother Marcel at the French Nationals in 1929.
The two Frenchmen were invited by Hubert and contracted by Bruce Small, the owner of Malvern Star Cycle. They were scheduled to race the Sydney to Melbourne stage race (5 stages for 1200km) and then the Tour of Tasmania with Oppy. Mauclair also raced “many track carnivals around Australia and no doubt, Bruce Small, marketing man extraordinaire played a big part in his promotion.» (quote from the above mentioned blog). Oppy won Stage 1 (Sydney to Goulburn) ahead of Richard Lamb (who was a decent sprinter) and Bidot but in Stage 2 (Goulburn to Wagga) Mauclair took a 9’30 lead ahead of the peloton and took a lead in the GC that he will hold through. Bidot outsprinted Oppy in the bunch sprint. In Stage 3 (Wagga to Albury) Frankie Thomas outsprinted Lamb and Bidot. Stage 4 entered the Victoria state (Albury to Shepparton via Rutherglen and Barnawartha) and would see an Australian sweap: Ossie Nicholson ahead of Frankie Thomas and Richard Lamb but in the final stage heading to Melbourne Opperman got a win ahead of teammate Thomas and Bidot, which secured his second place in the GC ahead of Bidot.

At the Tour of Tasmania Opperman took his revenge from Mauclair. Mauclair took a flying start though winning stage 1 (Launceston to Burnie) with more than a minute lead ahead of Bidot who outsprinted Oppy, Edwards and Ossie Nicholson. In Stage 2 (Burnie to Launceston) Bidot won ahead of Mauclair and they had a 5’07 lead ahead of Oppy who finished 3rd. But in the final stage (Launceston-Hobart North), Oppy made a tremendous come-back with a 5’33” lead ahead of Mauclair to grab the GC lead. Nicholson was 3rd in that stage 9’15 later outsprinting Bidot. (source:

1931: Spring campaign in Europe

In 1931 Oppy was ready to race some spring classics. He came to Europe with Richard ‘Fatty’ Lamb, Ossie Nicholson and Frankie Thomas. He won a small single-day race: Lyon-Genève-Lyon and a small stage race: the Circuit du Bourbonnais.

On April 24 he would race the Circuit du Morbihan in Brittany. The Circuit du Morbihan was a two-stage race with a very decent field and an excellent prep for Bordeaux-Paris. In the first stage (200km from Lorient to Vanne) Bonduel outsprinted Rebry and Opperman finished 7th, 11 minutes behind and in the second stage (198km back to Lorient) Van Rysselberghe outsprinted Frantz, the Austrian Bulla and Bonduel. Oppy won the sprint of the chase group 1’ behind ahead of the old Francis Pélissier and Rebry. Fatty Lamb finished 10th, 2’ behind. In the GC, Oppy was an excellent 6th, 15’ behind Bonduel (who probably gained time bonuses, in passing). Most of these riders would be present at Bordeaux-Paris on May 30.

“Hot favourite” for Bordeaux-Paris

The Sunday Times (Perth) published a very small article on May 31 (Australian date) as preview to Bordeaux-Paris, which said that Desgrange’s newspaper L’Auto made a vote among 10 sporting journalists: 6 predicted a win for Opperman and four for Charles Pélissier (or was it Francis? Since Charles was no specialist). Opperman had in the meantime made a name for himself in what the Italians name the “Gran Fondo”, which means those hyper-long classic races, in Australia and Britain. However this biography shall focus on the competition between him and the Continental Euros, because that’s where cycling was popular. And talking of popularity, this classic will prove how popular he was in France. The Daily News’ (also Perth) headline on June 2 was ‘Wonderful Reception’, reception at the Parc des Princes, which they situated in Bordeaux (sic), though it’s always been in Paris. “They treated me like one of themselves.””I rode through two files of people for 375 miles. It was very exhilarating and a wonderful experience. It was the hardest race of my life.”
Actually the race was Belgian dominated: Van Rysselberghe won (a good racer, career shortened by a heavy crash, which KvW ignored) ahead of Gijssels (Romain) and Bonduel.
As a matter of fact, this was a Bordeaux-Paris new look. As mentioned above, since the year 1927, the race has had a very poor field, quantitatively speaking (the calendar is now heavier and heavier and riders no longer have time to specifically prepare for such long races). In order to give it a new boost and make it more acceptable for the riders the organizers decided that the last stretch of it from Orléans to Paris should be motor-paced, while until then the riders could benefit from pacemakers on bikes. An article from the Brisbane Courrier on May 22 said this new system should favour Opperman who was a lone hand rider. But Operman is known for his endurance. So it’s rather safe to say this rule is helping the other riders since the race duration is shortened. In any case, Opperman finished 6th.

Fernand Mithouard also told Van Wijnendaele (about the motorpacing): “Those motorbike could sing so grim and unmerciful the song of the heaviest work. You were forced to imperturbably listen and beware because […] the hardest […] work [was] the tensed look on the rear wheel that we could lose for a single second otherwise we’d collide and crash.”

First Australian Classic Win

After finishing 12th at the Tour of France Oppy went on to race Paris-Brest-Paris. That race is a 1186km non-stop race, almost as old as Bordeaux-Paris but raced every 10 years, hence many top riders of 1931 found it was worth preparing for it (Frantz, Bonduel, M.Bidot, Dewaele, Van Rysselberghe, Mauclair, Demuysere were among the contenders). Its popularity easily equaled that of the Tour of France (Seray, 2011) and its hardness definitely outclassed it.

The race was then organized by L’auto, but Desgrange left the management to his young colleague Jacques Goddet (aged 26) who set up some particular ruling.

First the riders had the right to gear shifting (contrary to Tour of France riders) but very few could afford it. Oppy was not among them. Strangely enough the famous factory Alleluia Wolber that equipped him could not afford this device that had existed for 20 years. Frantz and Bidot did have one.

Also the ruling prohibited any pacemakers. That way the peloton was forced to remain packed together until the last hours, in other words to work like a modern peloton, much to Goddet’s disappointment as he put it: “Then there were only 26 riders left, all packed together, even partners. So Frantz was Opperman’s pacemaker, Opperman was Bidot’s and Bidot was Dewaele’s. No pacemaker said the ruling !”

They started at 1pm on September 4 The first ten hours were ridden under rain and yet the overall celerity was faster than planned, according to Goddet. They banked on a 24km/h speed but 32km were covered in the first hour. However in the last hour of the night the rain stopped but a heavy face wind started blowing and now the riders were behind schedule. On the way back the wind was in their favour and the pace was much faster. In the early morning Frantz started attacking and in Alençon (7.40am on Sep. 6): Frantz, Neuhard, Bidot, Louyet, Joly, Ghyssels (Leander) and Dewaele. Opperman and Decroix were stopped by a mechanical but will catch them back in Mortagne (9.05am).

Oppy attacked for the first time with 100km to go but Marcel Bidot easily caught him. With 67km to go, Bidot takes a 2’ lead but with 50km from finish, Bidot punctures and his charismatic team director, Ludovic Feuillet (from the prestigious Alcyon team) was not there. When Feuillet finally came, he gave him a light tyre but his pump was empty. Feuillet then gave him his pump, which also was empty. The third one wasn’t great but he finally pumped his tyre and the chase group had passed by for 2’.

Oppy attacked again just after passing Bidot but Bidot caught the chasing group back and they’re with the four of them to chase Oppy: Bidot, Louyet, Pancera (former 2nd at the Tour of Italy) and Decroix. Bidot accused Gaston Degy – Oppy’s team director – of an attempt at financial arrangement, which he said he refused. Bidot was the main force in the chasing group and caught Oppy back after Versailles, but Oppy did not catch Bidot and it seemed to be over. Only the three wheelsuckers in Bidot’s wheel were still not cooperative and Bidot stopped his effort, for Oppy’s greatest pleasure.

Oppy beats them all in the sprint in Buffalo. Bidot was 5th. Frantz was 7th. Oppy was honest enough to admit Bidot deserved to win: “Without his puncture he would have won it alone.”

Yet the first Australian victory in a classic is now a fact. Surely it begot some others but that would be … 52 years later …

(This chapter is based on “Paris-Brest-Paris: 120 ans, 1200 kilomètres” by Jacques Seray, Jacques Seray éditions, 2011)

1934: Aggressive ride in Paris-Tours

Opperman was traced back on the Continent in 1934. On April 29 he rode Paris-Tours (which was a spring classic at that time). It should be remembered that in that period Paris-Tours could be considered a ‘monumental’ classic, for the inter-war period was characterized by a marked isolationism, regarding to field. Mostly the Italian classics by 1920’s had lost their internalization of the pre WWI period, while the Belgian races had not yet reached classic status – certainly not the Ardennes one. Only the French races were really international for the whole period.

In 1934 Paris-Tours covered a distance of 246km. It really started in Paris (today it rather starts in Chartres or St-Arnould en Yvelines) so that the riders had to eat the the hilly part of the Chevreuse Valley around Versailles, with – for that edition – the Côte de Picardie (for that reason, the organizers decided to change direction between 1974 and 1988). The first 40km were thus hilly while the rest was billiard flat, which already in those days, was a problem. 116 riders started.

L’Express du Midi had a headline “un depart au sprint” (a sprinting start). In Versailles – after the Côte de Picardie – a bunch of 14 riders took form including Oppy and all top favourites, some of the best of the time: reigning World Champion Georges Speicher, Charles Pélissier, André Leducq, defending champion Jules Merviel, Jules/Giulio Rossi (Italian migrant, future Paris-Roubaix winner), Marcel Bidot and Léon Level and other more obscure riders such as Rigaud, Moretti, Ducazeau, etc. The rest follows 200m behind.

In Limours, some riders joined the lead groups but others had dropped. But Oppy was still in it along with Leducq, Merviel, Speicher and Pélissier from the earlier breakaway, riders like Marcaillou joined them and the group still consisted of 13 men. The first 31 kilometers were covered in 45’, which is very fast for that time.

The group would be caught by a chase bunch of 24 men about an hour later on the approach of Ablis. The race then proceeded but without Oppy in the lead. He ended in a 19-man bunch 1’55” behind the winner Gustave Danneels (winning the first of 3 wins, still a record). He was classified 10th ex-aequo with 15 other riders (as was often the case in those days with no computers or finish-photo) but the peloton was fighting for 6th place, sprint won by Leducq. World Champion Speicher finished behind though, 27th at 2’17”. Those champions clearly paid the prize for their crazy start but they raced with style.

On August 11 Oppy was still in Europe and raced a criterium in Namur with 50 riders including top guys like Speicher, Bulla, Van Kempen, Cañardo, Trueba, F. Vervaecke, the German Büse and the American Ottevaire. The poster for this event can be found in La petite reine en Wallonie (published by La Maison de la Mémoire du Cyclisme).

1934: Centenary 1000 – Other Euro stars in Australia and first abandon in a race

On August 20 1934 Opperman announced (in the Argus) his return to Australia and his participation at the Centenary Thousand Race in the Victoria state, seven-stage race of 1,000 miles (1670km) designed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of Melbourne. Again two Frenchmen would be a part of it: Fernand Mithouard and Paul Choque. A poster on the forum of relayed a comment by Mithouard’s son Bernard that his father was invited by Opperman. Since old thread are not archived on this forum, this statement needs verification but it’s very much plausible. Mithouard was a big name, he won Bordeaux-Paris and was 4th in the Nations GP in 1933. Paul Choque was a youngster who had won the Circuit de Paris in 1933 and was regarded by Opperman “as one of the best of the younger riders in Europe.” (op. cit.) The article by The Argus also announced the presence of an Italian rider by the name Antonio Negrini (former Tour of Lombardy winner) but he seemed to have pulled out of it and been replaced by Nino Borsari.

His story is remarkable in that he returned to Australia in 1939 and was stuck there (WWII) and spent the rest of his life in Melbourne. Cyclingnews made his obituary in 1996 and relayed Ron Carter’s comment: “As he was a sprint specialist, many of the locals and other overseas riders believed he lacked the endurance to last more than the first day of the gruelling tour. But he performed superbly. One of the race stages was a climb to the summit of Mount Hotham in the Alps. Not only did he reach the top first, well ahead of any other rider, he was there even before the officials." As a matter of fact Nino Borsari was also 2nd to campionissimo Guerra in Milan-Modena that year (that race was some sort of a Gran Fondo).

The three Europeans left Toulon on August 24 and were scheduled to arrive in Melbourne on September 23, where Oppy welcomed them on the wharf (and served as interpreter). 107 riders would start the race.

The results of the race are hard to understand because it was a handicap race in which riders are separated into scratches according to their value. In any case it seems that the race would end in a disaster for Choque in the third stage at Ballarat: broken collarbone, cut head and broken collarbone and was taken to the local hospital (“after showing flashes of his great capabilities” says the Sunday Times of Oct. 28).

The 4th stage from Bendigo to Wangaratta was won by the other Frenchman Fernand Mithouard, who was leading the GC after that with a 1’ lead ahead of Opperman (rare stage free of mishaps). The 5th stage led the riders from Wangaratta over the Victorian Alps to Omeo but due to a severe blizzard and flooded roads, it had to be cancelled when the riders were climbing Mount Buffalo (69 years before Milan-Sanremo 2013, a race was already stopped after a start !). Therefore the 6th stage would start from Mount Buffalo and not Omeo to Sale (348km instead of 245). That one was a carnage. Mithouard retired after experiencing two punctures and a broken wheel and was “resentful at the alleged tactics of some local riders. He declares that the mishap to Choque was deliberate” (Sunday Times). Borsari had one severe crash and a puncture but he ended the race. Opperman fell three times and had three punctures. He finished the stage, wigth five stitches in his hands, 27’ behind Lamb who had the fastest time.

Despite his conditions Oppy was still keen to start the next day and finish the tour but after 50km he would say “I can’t go on.” It was the first time he ever withdrew from a race said the Sunday Times. It seems that in addition to his arms/hands injury he had a badly swollen knee.

Under normal dry conditions, the mountainous stage of the Centenary “1000″ was a “tough” one, embracing as it did long severe climbs over Mt. Buffalo and Mt. Hotham, but unfortunately ‘the worst October weather conditions for 64 years had to be faced by the contestants and blinding rain storms, howling gales, and morasses of mud had to be fought through by the riders. Their task was a cruel one, made worse by the fact that owing to the field of riders being weather-bound at Mt. Buffalo for 24 hours, the itinerary had to be re-arranged, necessitating one stage of 216 miles having to be covered in one day, of which over 90 miles was across the Australian Alps. Four inches of rain and snow on Mt. Hoth am intensified the difficulties and smashed the hopes and machines of champions and tyres alike. (The Gippsland Times, Thursday, November 8, 1934).

1935: First Australians at the World Championship

Opperman would get back in Europe in 1935 for the World Championship, held in Floreffe close to Namur, Belgium. Two other Australians got with him: Ern Milliken and Wally F ‘Hetchy’ Stuart. Both rode the Centenary 1000 but did not start the last stage. Milliken nearly froze to death on Mt Buffalo following a puncture during the blizzard.(Sunday Times)

30 riders representing 10 nations started (attendance: 100,000 people, race ended on 5.30pm and on 10pm the traffic was still so heavy that many cars could only just leave the circuit and the town, says Van Wijnendaele). 216km have to be covered: 16 laps of 13.5km with the Côte de Buzet, a climb that is known today as the ‘Ferme de Robionoy’ (1.8km – av. grad.: 5.6% - max grad.: 12% - classified as 289th hardest climb by the Cotacol classification).

Four riders found themselves in the lead in the second lap: Maurice Archambaud (who’d quickly puncture and be caught), Gustave Danneels, the Swiss Leo Amberg and the Luxembourger Leo Amberg.

In the 3rd lap, Jean Aerts, who dominated this race, joined the three remainders of the lead group, along with Giuseppe Olmo. In the 5th, the lead group had a 2’18 lead ahead of the chase group consisting of Oppy … and his two countrymen Stuart and Milliken, with also Speicher, the Swiss Paul Egli and Dutchman Cees Heeren. But big names like René Le Grevès, Archambaud, Guerra, Rebry (who punctured), Bulla, Cañardo or Middelkamp are behind, some far behind. Milliken and Egli dropped from the group in the following lap, with a gap that is stabilized with the lead. Milliken would retire in the 8th with a puncture. In the 7th lap, the Spaniard Montero came back to Oppy’s group, just like Aldo Bini, Le Grevès and the Luxembourger Mersch but they’re now 3’25” from the lead. Stuart is on the verge to drop at 3’28 (he retired in the 10th). Yet in the 9th lap, unexpectedly, the Opperman group joined the lead one and Montero attacks, first followed by Speicher but later on the Frenchman would not be able to follow and would even retire, Aerts however made the jump to the Spaniard in the 10th lap and the two wouldn’t be seen again. After Speicher’s abandon, seven riders would form the chase group: Opperman, Amberg, Bini, Danneels, Mersch, Mathias Clemens and Le Grevès. Danneels who had countered any attack from his group mates in favour of Aerts, attacked himself (with 2 laps to go) to get 3rd place. Opperman couldn’t react. He finished 8th. (source: L’express du Midi – August 19 1935) But the Australian will do better next time … 74 years later …

Post Cycling Career

In 1940 Opperman made a brilliant achievement that impressed the minds – the 4625km from Fremantle to Sydney (Australia from West to East). It was a raid that he made on his own, in which he had to ‘cyclocross’ a little bit as he recalled:
"At one point, by the light of the car behind me, I could see a large snake in the wheel ruts, and I couldn't stop. All I could do was land the bike on top of it, hard. I suppose I must have killed it. Then, at Nanwarra Sands, I had to pick up the bike and carry it for 10 miles in the soft sand. We learned that I could gain time by sleeping for only 10 minutes at a time, something I have never forgotten." (Wiki page)

The outbreak of WWII stopped his career and he engaged in the Royal Australian Air Force. He’ll end the war at the rank of lieutenant. According to the website Le petit braquet, he briefly resume competition after the end of the war, thus at 41/42 years of age before definitely hang up his bike in 1947.

Unfortunately he got into politics and became an MP in 1949, appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1953, Government’s whip in 1955, Minister for Shipping and Transport in 1960, Minister of Immigration between 1963 and 1966.

But most importantly Oppy never lost his passion for cycling. In 1971 he could be seen in Paris for the start and the finish of Paris-Brest-Paris, which in the meantime had become a strictly cyclotourist race, held every 5 years (afterwards every 4 years). He would also make the move to Brest. He could be seen discussing of the good old days with Marcel Bidot who in the meantime had become a successful national team director and congratulating the winner Herman De Munck (who would go on to win the next three editions). He was surprised (or not?) that De Munck as a cyclotourist raced more than3 hours faster than him. Jacques Seray reminded his readers that Opperman raced on a single-geared bike provided by Alleluia Wolber and had a 13kg bike with wooden rim. Bikes in the 1970’s weighed about 9.75kg and obviously all of them were equipped with gear-shifting. Let’s add that the roads were all asphalted.

Opperman was also the president of the Australian Audaxes (until his death). An audax is a long endurance race for cyclotourists, whose speed is controlled, 20 to 22.5km/h, sometimes 25. A Paris-Brest-Paris Audax exists and still is raced every five years, as opposed to the cyclotourist event.

In 1991 he made a second guest appearance at Paris-Brest-Paris, for the 100th anniversary and kept on cycling in his nineties but his wife was worried for his health and asked him to stop road cycling. He then stayed at Salford Park Retirement Village in Wantirna, Victoria where there was a ‘No Cycling’ sign. Yet he couldn’t help riding his exercise bike on which he had a heart attack in 1996 at age 91 and 11 months. Nothing short of a symbol.


Karel Van Wijnendaele – Het Rijke Vlaamsche Wielerleven – Snoeck-Ducaju 1943
Aart Aartsbergen & Peter Nijssen - Kampioenen twijfelen niet. Geschiedenis van de wielersport in 100 portretten (De Arbeiderspers 2004)
Pierre Chany – La fabuleuse histoire du cyclisme (La Martinière 1997)
Hervé Paturle & Guillaume Rebière – Un siècle de cyclisme (Calmann Levy 2004)
Jacques Seray - Paris-Brest-Paris: 120 ans, 1200 kilomètres (Jacques Seray 2011)

Internet links : (consulted in 2012/3, also source for Wiki Page)

About Paris-Rennes:

About Sydney to Melbourne:

About Bordeaux-Paris:

About Paris-Tours (in French):

About the Centenary 1000:

About the World Championship: (in French)


The Côte de Buzet profile (as it is at present) - the main climb from the 1935 World Championship in Floreffe:

Opperman on the liner during his journey to Europe in 1928 (from Le petit braquet)

Peloton of the 1931 Circuit du Morbihan, Opperman being a participant:

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  • "Paris-Roubaix is the biggest cycling race in the world, bigger than the Tour de France, bigger than any other bike race" (Sir Bradley Wiggins)

    Francois the Postman

    • National Champion
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    Great read, right up my street. Keep at it!
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  • Echoes

    • Road Captain
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    Thanks François. Really encouraging to continue. time consuming but just 5 minutes a day, is fine.

    I'd also like to thank Dim for 'featuring' all my thread, always with great pictures. I really didn't expect that.

    Also I have to say I'm really fond about that link that I post in this thread:

    Article from the Townsville Daily Bulletin from 1935 about the Worlds at Floreffe. It's very moving to see that in a town that isn't really big (currently 100k inh.), lost in Nothern Queensland, really far from the other Australian big cities, and far from Opperman's region as well, you have an article about him racing, 20km from the town where I have grown up. I mean I know Floreffe very well, and it's really hilly. 
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  • just some guy

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    Not really to do with oppy but is pictured here with the rider.

    The forget story of Russell Morckridge

    Good read
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  • Of course, if this turns out someday to be the industry standard integrated handlebar-computer-braking solution then I'll eat my kevlar-reinforced aerodynamic hat.

    Larri Nov 12, 2014


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