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Opperman, Sir Hubert Ferdinand (Oppy) (1904–1996)

by Daniel Oakman

This article was published online in 2020

Sir Hubert Ferdinand Opperman (1904–1996), cyclist, politician, and diplomat, was born on 29 May 1904 at Rochester, Victoria, eldest of five children of Victorian-born parents, Adolphus Ferdinand Samuel Opperman, miner, and his wife Bertha, née Reddie. The family moved briefly to Western Australia, before returning to country Victoria, where they followed a peripatetic life. Known as ‘Oppy,’ Hubert attended schools at Baillieston, Ten Mile, and Benalla. At Melton he learned to ride a bicycle and made weekend deliveries for the local butcher. When his father enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in World War I, the family moved to Ballendella, and Hubert was sent to Melbourne, under the care of his paternal grandmother, Wilhelmina Opperman. Continuing his education at Glen Iris, he completed the Merit certificate aged fourteen. He worked briefly for the Herald newspaper, before joining the Postmaster-General’s Department as a telegraph messenger. Having returned from the war, his father, who had been a talented cyclist, bought Hubert his first bicycle and encouraged him to take an interest in competitive cycling.

When he was fifteen, Opperman started racing with the Oakleigh West Cycling Club, and later joined the Malvern Cycling Club. In 1921 he met the proprietor of Malvern Star Cycles, (Sir) Bruce Small, who at the time was building a stable of talented young riders to race and promote his bicycles. Small became his coach, mentor, and father-figure. Having left the public service to become a professional cyclist, Opperman worked part time in Small’s shop and met some of the best riders in the country. They included Duncan ‘Don’ Kirkham and Iddo ‘Snowy’ Munro, who had raced in the Tour de France.

Standing five feet seven inches (170 cm) tall and weighing ten stone three pounds (65 kg), Opperman struggled initially against larger, more powerful competitors. Yet his lighter physique and flair for endurance gave him an advantage when riding steep terrain. His first major victory was in 1922 in the prestigious Launceston to Hobart race. He quickly became one of the most recognised and respected sportsmen in the country. Abstemious (he neither drank nor smoked), disciplined, and unpretentious, he was seen as a paragon of athletic virtue. In 1924 he became the youngest rider to win the annual Australasian National Road Cycling Championship. He won again in 1926, 1927, and 1929. In the Goulburn to Sydney Classic, he twice won from scratch (1924 and 1929).

On 14 January 1928, at a civil ceremony in Melbourne, Opperman married Mavys Paterson Craig, a typist and stenographer, before sailing to France as captain of the Australian team in the Tour de France. Riding with determination, he finished the gruelling contest in eighteenth place. A few months later, he won the Bol d’Or (Golden Bowl), a track event where riders were paced by tandems for twenty-four hours non-stop. At the conclusion of the race, he rode on alone for an extra seventy-nine minutes to beat the world record for cycling 1,000 kilometres. Readers of the sports paper L’Auto voted him the most meritorious cycling champion in France. The paper enthused: ‘Hubert Opperman, the sublime son of Australia, is one who should be considered as the symbol of all that is best in cycling virtues’ (Mercury 1928, 8). He was so moved by the reception he had received from the French people that he started wearing berets; for the rest of his life he was rarely seen without one.

In 1931 Opperman raced in the Tour de France as a member of a combined Australian-Swiss team. In another dogged performance, he overcame dysentery and crashes to finish twelfth. The founder of the Tour, Henri Desgrange, likened Opperman to a kangaroo, ‘the only animal which does not get its tail between its legs’ (Sporting Globe 1931, 11). Later that year, Opperman became the world's greatest endurance cyclist when he won the non-stop Paris-Brest-Paris race (1,162 km), breaking all previous records, in a time of forty-nine hours twenty-three minutes. He considered this the greatest victory of his career.

Opperman also mastered the dangerous sport where a cyclist rode around a velodrome in the slipstream of a powerful motorcycle. In 1930, at the Melbourne Motordrome, he broke the world record for riding one hundred miles (161 km), covering the distance in one hundred minutes. Two years later he set another motor-pacing world record by riding one thousand miles (1,609 km) in just under twenty-nine hours. He also held a number of British cycling titles, including the coveted Land’s End to John o’Groats record (1934). His efforts earned him the inaugural (1934) Bidlake memorial prize and in 1935 a page in the Golden Book of Cycling, an illuminated manuscript created to honour the most outstanding cycling deeds undertaken in Britain. In 1936 Opperman became a director of the public company, Allied Bruce Small Ltd.

For most of the 1930s Opperman dedicated himself to solo record setting in Australia, riding unpaced between major cities and towns. Small used radio broadcasts and newspaper coverage to turn each attempt into a spectacle that captured national attention. Opperman’s overland attainments culminated in 1937 with his ride of more than two thousand seven hundred miles (4,300 km) from Fremantle to Sydney. This took him just thirteen days and ten hours, and sixty thousand spectators gathered at Martin Place to welcome him at the finish. He proved especially adept at riding for twenty-four hours without rest, holding records in every cycling discipline (unpaced road, unpaced track, motor paced, and tandem paced). In 1939 he extended the twenty-four hour unpaced road record distance to 506 miles (814 km), a record that stood for thirty years. In his last record-breaking ride before World War II, he set more than one hundred records in a twenty-four-hour solo cycling marathon at the Sydney Sports Arena velodrome.

Opperman’s ambition and fierce competitiveness were softened by a gregarious and down-to-earth manner, traits that endeared him to sports reporters and fans alike. He was generous with his advice, supported other athletes, and spoke candidly about his sporting life. Since the early 1930s, journalists and sports commentators had placed Opperman on the same exalted plane as other national idols such as the cricketer (Sir) Donald Bradman, the aviator Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, and the racehorse Phar Lap. By the end of the decade he had become a symbol of national fortitude, capacity, and defiance.

In World War II Opperman served in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), enlisting on 19 August 1940. He was employed initially as a drill instructor and physical trainer in Victoria. Commissioned in March 1942, he excelled as an administrative officer in units in Victoria and Queensland, rising to temporary flight lieutenant (1943). His RAAF appointment was terminated on 15 November 1945 and he went back to work with Allied Bruce Small Ltd. He returned briefly to competitive cycling, but drifted into sporting retirement without public fanfare or honours. Nevertheless, he continued to ride and support promising athletes, including his youngest brother, Bruce. In 1946 he made an unsuccessful bid to turn amateur in the hope that he might compete at the 1948 Olympic Games.

A member of the Liberal Party of Australia, Opperman narrowly won the seat of Corio from Labor’s John Dedman, the minister for post-war reconstruction, at the 1949 Federal election. Although Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies initially doubted Opperman’s capacity for politics, they developed a warm, lifelong friendship. Opperman made an early impression by organising a two-year program of sporting events to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1951, for which he was appointed OBE in 1953. Impressed by Opperman’s personal integrity and loyalty to the party, Menzies made him chief whip in 1955 and minister for shipping and transport in 1960. Opperman secured cabinet funding to construct a second vessel to sail between Tasmania and the mainland, and oversaw the introduction of uniform traffic laws, improvements to vehicle safety standards, and traffic education programs. Disturbed by the rising number of vehicle accident fatalities, he advocated the installation of seatbelts.

Having retained his seat at the 1963 election, Opperman took over the immigration portfolio, in which he secured some of the most significant reforms to immigration law since Federation. Changes to citizenship requirements and permanent residence status gave equality to all migrants. These policy changes sat awkwardly with his iron-fisted handling of the long-running Nancy Prasad deportation case. While he had few political enemies, a new generation of Liberal Party members believed that his time had passed as a member of parliament, and in 1966 Prime Minister Harold Holt appointed Opperman Australia’s first high commissioner to Malta. He proved an able and perceptive diplomat. His five-year term was quiet and productive, but it was shaped by a series of personal hardships, including a heart attack and the suicide of his daughter, Carole. Knighted in 1968, Sir Hubert said with characteristic modesty that he was ‘a lucky bloke from a lucky country’ who achieved more ‘as a pedaller than as a politician’ (NLA MS 3155).

After retiring in 1972, Opperman moved to the Melbourne beachside suburb of St Kilda, where he became something of a local identity, easily spotted cycling along the Esplanade wearing his beret, or heading to Elwood beach for a swim. With encouragement from Menzies, he spent three years writing his memoirs. As a younger man, his vivid prose had made him an entertaining writer for newspapers and sports journals, but Pedals, Politics and People (1977) was a disappointingly turgid chronicle of a remarkable life. In 1985 he settled in a quiet Rechabite retirement village at Wantirna. The same year he was admitted to the Australian Sporting Hall of Fame; his status was later raised to ‘Legend of Australian Sport.’ The Sir Hubert Opperman Trophy, colloquially known as the Oppy Medal, has been awarded annually to the country’s best all-round cyclist. In 1991 he travelled to Paris to celebrate the centenary of the Paris-Brest-Paris race. The mayor of Paris and future French president, Jacques Chirac, presented Opperman with the city’s highest honour: the Gold Medal of Paris. After suffering a heart attack while riding a stationary exercise bike, he died on 18 April 1996, survived by his wife and their son. Following a state funeral, he was cremated.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Fitzpatrick, Sandra. Hubert Opperman: A Cycling Sensation Called Oppy. Port Melbourne: Reed Library, 1996
  • Hepher, Jack, and John Drummond. Goulburn to Sydney: A Narrative of Ninety Years of a Cycling Classic 1902–1992. Queenstown, Tas.: Penghana Press, 2007
  • Mercury (Hobart). ‘Hubert Opperman.’ 24 October 1928, 8
  • National Library of Australia. MS 3155, Papers of Peter Heydon
  • National Library of Australia. MS 6429, Papers of H.F. Opperman
  • Oakman, Daniel. ‘The Human Motor: Hubert Opperman and Endurance Cycling in Interwar Australia.’ Australian Historical Studies 46, no. 2 (2015): 214–33
  • Oakman, Daniel. Oppy: The Life of Sir Hubert Opperman. Melbourne: Melbourne Books, 2018
  • Sporting Globe (Melbourne). ‘“Oppy” Kangaroo.’ 22 July 1931, 11
  • Tavan, Gwenda. The Long, Slow Death of White Australia. Melbourne: Scribe, 2005
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Daniel Oakman, 'Opperman, Sir Hubert Ferdinand (Oppy) (1904–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/opperman-sir-hubert-ferdinand-oppy-28107/text35821, published online 2020, accessed online 16 May 2021.

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