As you know, we are always up for a chat about cycling, and the Tour de France and Giro Rosa make sure the bicyclette has our full attention. Conversations are not just about the present but the past and the future of the sport. And how the present and future are built on the past. We take delight in reminding people that cycling is not newly popular but is coming back, having been a really big deal in Oz until the car mad planning and marketing really kicked in from the 1960's.
Alongside reading of 1,000 sovereigns for first place in the Austral wheelrace at the MCG in 1900 (yes thats the MCG, and 1,000 sovereigns is about $1.4m today), you only have to read of Hubert Opperman and look at the photographs of his era to realise the scale of the sport.
Most probably know somewhat of Oppy and those of more advanced years were lucky enough to either meet him or hear the stories of those who grew up with his exploits and status as a peer and equally renowned athlete as Bradman (some guy who played some sport that uses some sort of ball and stick thing).
A Rochester boy born in 1904, Oppy was a natural from the get go. He began winning cycling races at the junior level and working his way up the various ranks. His talent attracted the attention of Malvern Star bicycles, and in particular the manager of Malvern Star, Bruce Small. For most of the 1920s, Oppy was the national road cycling champion before the Mecca of cycling, France, called him over. He was 24 years old when he left Australia for the first time in 1928 to compete in the Tour de France.
He was solid at the Tour, but it was his ride a month later at the Bol d’Or (Golden Bowl) that cemented his reputation. Facing sabotage from rivals, Oppy defused to give in and won the crowd over with his courage and determination as they chanted his name to eventual victory. Oppy had ridden 900km in 24 hours, but rode on to reach 1000km to create a new record.
Before leaving France, Oppy was voted the most popular sportsman in Europe in a readers’ poll conducted by the sports paper L’Auto, ahead of tennis champion Henri Cochet. For French cycling fans and the sporting press he was a ‘new cycling marvel’. They dubbed him ‘le phenomene’.
Oppy also adopted the signature beret in France and over the decade ahead, his talent and panache made him an icon. He was as determined off the bike as on and post his cycling career was a longtime federal MP and High Commissioner. Truly a marvellous man.
Australia forgot Oppy for a while as the car cult waxed, but as the bike has returned to centre stage here, his stature and exploits return to their rightful place and he stands as one of our icons. The French never forgot, and Oppy was feted and invited back regularly.
Naturally, at the ripe age of 92, Oppy passed way while riding his stationery bike. He probably would have still whipped us all. Vive 'le phenomene'.
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