Allez Oppy, le phénomène

The first week of April will see the World Track Cycling Championships commence at Hisense Arena in Melbourne.  It may not get the coverage of yore – road cycling is riding the crest of a popular wave – but Australia once boasted a hero of the boards every bit as extraordinary as Cadel. 

By common consensus, in the pantheon of Australian sport, no one touches The Don.  Similarly, Phar Lap also served as an antedote to the Great Depression.

But there is another, and you won’t find a welter of repetitive encyclopaedic tomes documenting every minutiae of his life.  Just a lone autobiography, and there are precious few of the faded old hardbacks left to be found on loan, or adding to the dust of a filthy neglected attic.

Despite the fact that considerably more people will mount a bicycle than wield a willow in their lifetimes, Hubert Opperman’s colossal accumulation of miles never quite captured the nation’s imagination as did Sir Donald George’s accretion of runs. One Opperman performance in particular defies comprehension. The degree of difficulty might be equated to The Don facing Larwood with his trusty childhood cricket stump.

The Bol d’Or Classic (not to be confused with the current motorcycle event) was a 24-hour motor paced endurance race held on a 500m velodrome in Paris from 1894 until 1950. The name Bol d’Or reflected the gilded bronze bowl claimed only six times by non-Frenchmen. In a move Dick Dastardly from Wacky Races fame would be proud, a saboteur saw to it that both Opperman’s cycles failed him by filing the chains down to within an inch of their life. For much of the first hour, manager and life long confidant Bruce Small searched desperately for a means to get the idle Oppy restarted.

In the end, a bicycle belonging to Hubert’s interpreter was the last and only resort. This was no racing bike; a freewheel, low gear, lamp, mudguards, and wrongly upturned handlebars. A wicker basket would have completed the absurd picture. Already 10 laps down, Oppy rapidly lost further ground until his track machine was repaired. His pacers gave up on him. “Mal chance, Oppy, it is finished for you” they told him.

To even bother trying to compete, let alone harbour crazy notions of winning would be regarded as ridiculous by today’s exacting standards of preparation and mechanical perfection. Convincing the pacers to get back on board was a small yet crucial victory facilitated by the resolute Small. Undeterred and inspired by the challenge, the indefatigable Opperman powered on for 17 hours without dismounting.

The crowd roared when suddenly a puddle gleamed on the velodrome boards – Oppy would later admit that sweat wasn’t his only fluid emission. Gradually Opperman reeled in the field – the monotonous 12 to 17 hours period inducing a trance-like state. Sensing something special in the humid summer air, an estimated 50,000 French gathered, chanting “allez, allez, allez, Opperman” (go Opperman) until the gun signalled the end of his torture.

Yet still the crowd and his manager wanted more!

With the 1000km record beckoning he was cajoled into racing another hour and 17 minutes, a tour de force backed by the strains of that chant.

In typically idiosyncratic Gallic fashion, the race was discontinued subsequent to Oppy’s coup, only to reappear for a last hurrah 22 years later.

It’s little wonder such track events went the way of the telegrams Opperman delivered as a boy. The sheer monotony for riders and mere mortal spectators alike is difficult to comprehend. The courageous feat earned Oppy the mantle of European Sportsman of the Year for 1928, a title voted on by the 500,000 readers of L’Auto (a prehistoric sports daily).

Opperman returned home to rapturous welcome, thousands of Melbournians lining the streets. Certainly feted at home, his star would have shone even brighter had he been a gun footballer or cricketer.

When the going got tough, Oppy was in his element. In the midst of his record breaking 4425km Fremantle – Sydney feat in 1936 (where he rode 18 hours a day for 13 days), Oppy shouldered his bike, trudging through desert sand for 10 miles.

The French’s admiration for Aussie courage was born in the battlefields of the Somme, and in their hearts and minds Opperman would perpetuate the ANZAC legend. Moreover, cyclists being sporting gods on the continent anyway, the inconceivable Bol d’Or victory brought adulation that is rarely afforded sportspersons from abroad, save perhaps Bradman in India.

Born in Rochester, Opperman’s life on wheels began at age 8 and ended at 91 when he died of a heart attack – where else but on his exercise bike!  Opperman’s capacity to beat the odds and break records knew no boundaries.

The French public simply nicknamed him “The Phenomenon”.

Quick as a flash; within a few inches of his pacer, Opperman breaks another long distance record at the treacherous old Melbourne Motordrome (site of AAMI Park).

About Jeff Dowsing

Washed up former Inside Sport and Sunday Age Sport freelancer. Now just giving my stuff away to good homes. Not to worry, still have my health and day job. Published & unpublished works fester on my blog Write Line Fever.


  1. Peter Baulderstone says

    Great stuff, Jeff. I read up on Oppy when Cadel won the TDF. I had glossed over the challenges he overcame to win the Bol d’Or. Extraordinary. The story that stayed with me was about the 1928 TDF when 4 riders (Aus/NZ) went over, led by Oppy. They planned to recruit local domestiques to give them a full team of 10, but all the locals who agreed to help were ‘blackballed’ and pulled out. They rode as a team of 4 against teams of 10. Time and again Oppy was left isolated on the mountains by half way through a stage. He finished 18th but won the grudging admiration of his French adversaries.
    I wonder how Bradman, Morris, Miller and Lindwall might have done as a team of 4 in 1948? Probably would have still won if they were given 7 competent fielders!
    Only trouble with Oppy was he became the Member for Corio!!

  2. John Butler says

    Jeff, a great story well told. Thanks.

    I’m dusting off the bike after this.

  3. No worries JB, ta. And thanks for the TDF info Peter – Oppy was either born 50 years too early or in the wrong hemisphere to reap what he deserved from his freakishness.

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