Allez Oppy, le phénomène

As published by the The Footy Almanac, 19 March 2012

Track cycling may not get the coverage of yore, with road racing riding the crest of a popular wave, but Australia once boasted a hero of the boards every bit as extraordinary as Cadel Evans. 

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.

On the steep Melbourne Motordrome track Opperman continued breaking world records, covering 100 miles in 90 minutes in 1930 and in another feted performance, 1000 miles in 28hrs 55 mins. He also broke the world record for the dangerous five mile motor paced event.

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”.

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