Hubert Ferdinand Opperman, who was 91, held more than 100 distance cycling records, including the Australian Road Cycling titles in 1924, 11926, 1927 and 1929. Oppy, as he was know to the crowds, was voted Europe's most popular sportsman in 1928. More than 500,000 readers of the French sporting journal L'Auto had chosen the Australian ahead of there own national tennis champion Henri Cochet. Unquestionably one of the greatest cyclists the world has ever seen, Oppy's lifetime achievements spanned horizons far wider than his sporting fame.
He became a Menzies and Holt government minister, variously holding the Shipping and Transport and Immigration portfolios from 1963 to 1967. Sir Hubert Opperman was also Australia's first high Commissioner to Malta, representing the nation there for five years until 1972. Add to that his role as a long serving councillor for the Association of the Blind, patron of the Sportsmen's Association of Australia, and a Victorian president of the Prior of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem; and a letter writer extraordinaire, as the sender of serious and humorous Oppygrams ("registered for urgent and friendly transmission").
A state schoolboy from a humble background, Oppy began his working life as a Herald copyboy, and learned his cycling skills later as a Post Office messenger. Oppy's friend and biographer Clayton Sinclair said last night the story of the cycling legend reduces Chariots of Fire to embers. Sinclair, who has been planning a movie of Oppy's life for five years, said the script was now being written and that every page so far was alive with drama. "At no time has it been necessary to play with the truth,: said Sinclair. "The heroism of the man leaps from every page."
Hubert Opperman rode a bicycle from the age of eight until his wife Mavys, fearing for his health and safety, finally forced him off the road in 1994 on his 90th birthday. When he died of a heart attack, just after 6pm on Thursday, he was on his exercise bike.
On the day he gave up riding, he presented his old Malvern Star bicycle to a museum in his birthplace of Rochester. That same afternoon, an before a crowd of thousands, he watched as the folk of that small community near the Victorian/NSW border unveiled a lifesize bronze statue in his honor. Barely concealing his emotions, he told the crowd: "Every man has a lurking wish to be thought considerable in his own country. I am not immune to this feeling and you have made me feel considerable today."
Oppy believed his greatest triumph was the 1928 Bol d'Or 24-hour classic, raced on a 500m velodrome in Paris. Oppy was ready for his foreign rivals but, as he later acknowledged, quite ill-prepared for the saboteurs determined to stop the talented young Australian. He had two racing bicycles, and the chains on both had been filed down to within a fraction of breaking. He was, for the first hour, effectively out of the race, standing about with nothing to do, while his manager and racing patron, Bruce Small, sweated on getting his young star back into the race. In the end Sir Hubert had to make do with a machine borrowed from his interpreter - heavy wheels, mudguards, and wrongly upturned handlebars.
He rode 17 hours without dismounting, telling friends afterwards that the puddles on the velodrome boards were not entirely due to his sweat. He won by 30 minutes, crossing the finishing line with 50,000 Frenchmen screaming: "allez Oppy". Tens of thousands lined the streets of Melbourne to welcome home a hero. Standing in the crowd was his grandmother, Wilhelmina Opperman, who had earlier lectured her grandson about getting a proper job.
Oppy was 17 when he won his first major race in 1921, receiving a racing bike donated by Bruce Small's Malvern Star cycles, then a tiny shopfront and rear workroom at Malvern. So impressed with Sir Hubert was Small that he also gave the rider a job, and thus began a partnership which was to make Oppy a legend.
Sorry to the man wearing the homburg
You don't see black homburg hats any more. They were part of a minister's uniform for great occasions. And this was a great occasion. It was the State Thanksgiving Service for the life of Dame Pattie Menzies and Sir Hubert Opperman was there because he was a minister in the Menzies government. He wore his homburg because it was the thing to do. Sir Robert would have expected it. "They were glorious days," said Oppy, "glorious days."
I helped Sir Hubert, then 91 and his wife Lady Mavys, across the street and hunted up the Commonwealth car driver to take them home. We took a picture of them for the next day's Herald Sun. But when it appeared, somehow the picture caption read: "Sir Hubert Opperman and his wife, Mary."
A letter arrived promptly in the mail. It was headed: "An 'OPPYGRAM' Reg. For Urgent and Friendly Transmission." "I thank you for mentioning us in your account of the Ceremony," wrote Sir Hubert. "But 'even Homer nodded' and I gently point out without reproach (as though you would care) that my wife's name for the record is a five-letter word. MAVYS, not the four-letter appellation 'Mary'." "Her life, domestic and public, is dotted with explanations of the different spelling. She claims it was handed down from Scottish forebears." "Ah well, Shakespeare in more modern times quoted: 'What's in a name?' All very well for 'Bill' living in his time at Stratford on Avon." "I'll guarantee a cheque signed 'Mary' would not last longer than a punctured tyre on a rim." "Sincerely in haste (what's new) "Oppy"
Sorry Oppy. Always protective of your wife, what a special person you were. Good luck on your Tour de Heaven.
Stature unobscured by time
So for all of us whom history and not memory must be the judge, it was good to hear another old knight of the realm speak up briefly, describing one of his own few remaining contemporaries as "a wonderful sportsman," as well as a good friend and a fine ambassador for Australia. Sir Donald Bradman does not dispense accolades lightly or often, so his tribute can be regarded as confirmation that "Oppy" was one of the greats.
It has often been said the Australia has had three sporting champions who have stood head and shoulders above all others, not only for their exceptional talent but for there ability to define a sense of identity for a young nation. There was the Don, billiards wizard Walter Lindrum and the mighty red racehorse, Phar Lap. They were all in their prime together during the '20s and '30s, the Depression years, when sporting triumphs were a much-needed fillip for morale.
So was Opperman. It is debatable whether he was in the stratospheric class of the others as a performer - who was, or is? - but he was certainly up there with them as an international identity and a source of inspiration for his countrymen. Sir Hubert had been a hero in Europe, where road racing of bikes has always been huge, and they never forgot him.
If 1931, he was named France's sportsman of the year after winning the famous Paris-Brest-Paris marathon, with two days and nights of continuous cycling. Only five years ago, he returned to the scene of that triumph to receive the Gold Medal of the City of Paris, one of France's highest awards. He held more than 100 records, and was a pioneer for Australian participation in the world's No. 1 bike race, the Tour de France, as well as forging a distinguished career in politics and diplomacy.
Oppy's funeral will be one of several such notable events involving Melbourne sporting identities in recent years. Doubtless, in the eulogies, someone will recall his favorite saying: "Within every man there lurks a secret desire to be regarded as considerable in his own place."
Oppy is regarded as considerable - with a capital C.
Leaders honor a humble hero
Premier Jeff Kennett said Sir Hubert was "one out of the box" and Australia would be the less without him. "He contributed like very few individuals to Australian life through careers in sport and politics and at a time when Australia was in its formative years," he said.
Fellow sporting great Sir Donald Bradman said: "I am very sad to learn of the death of Sir Hubert Opperman because he was a very good friend, a wonderful sportsman and a good ambassador for Australia."
Olympic swim champion Dawn Fraser said Sir Hubert was an unbelievable inspiration. "He was a man always willing to help the younger generation. He wrote letters to me and I've still got every one of them," she said.
Former Liberal minister Sir James Killen, who served with Sir Hubert in the Menzies and Holt governments, said his amazing cycling feats never changed him personally. "Opperman captured what to me is the greatest of all human qualities and he expressed it splendidly - he understood the greatest state of humility," he told ABC radio.
Opposition Leader Kim Beazley said he was saddened by the death of Sir Hubert, who would be remembered in several capacities, including as a great sportsman.
Coles Myer Ltd chief executive and former champion cyclist Peter Bartels said Sir Hubert was "a wonderful man... a gentleman in every respect."