It’s coming up to 20 years since Robbie McEwan, Cadel Evans, Stuart O’Grady and their chums, built on the spadework of Phil Anderson and Allan Pieper back in the 1980s and made Australia a force to be reckoned with in the Tour de France.
But Australian involvement in Le Grand Boucle goes back much, much further than that.
While no British rider dared enter the Tour until Charlie Holland and Bill Burl braved the Channel crossing in 1937 (they were joined by the Canadian Pierre Gachon) and no racers made it over the Atlantic from the USA until 1981, cyclists from the far away Antipodes were altogether gutsier and more adventurous.
While British sporting indifference to what the rest of Europe was up to was not confined to cycling – British national football teams would turn down the invitation to take part in the first three World Cups and when the European Champions’ Cup (forerunner of the Champions’ League) began in the 1950s the English Football League forbade its teams from entering – Britain’s riders were also handicapped by the ban on mass start road racing that had been introduced in the 1890s and would stand for upward of sixty years.
Events such as the Tour de France were foreign to British riders in every sense of the word.
In Australia, no such legal constraints existed. There was a thriving professional road circuit that included the world’s second-oldest one-day race, the Warrnambool to Melbourne Classic, a 266km slog along the Victorian coast that had first taken place in 1895, just three years after the inaugural Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Other highlights of the Australian racing calendar included the 222km Goulbourn to Sydney Classic and the Tour of Tasmania.
It is a measure of how strong and well-supported Australian professional cycling was that the 1927 Dunlop Grand Prix, a one-off stage race around Victoria, offered the biggest first prize (£250) of any bike race on the planet.
The first Aussies –and the first native English-speakers – to try their luck in the Tour de France were Duncan “Don” Kirkham and Iddo ‘Snowy’ Munro who entered the 1914 race in the colours of Phebus-Dunlop.
Kirkham and Munro had travelled to Europe that spring with fellow Australian pros Charlie Snell, George Bell, Charles Piercey and Fred Keefe.
The six had signed up initially to ride for the Paris-based Gladiator-Clement team and competed in a number of one-day races, Kirkham finishing second in Paris-Nancy.
The other Australians were not considered good enough for the Tour and the Aussie pair’s only teammate was Frenchman Georges Passerieu, winner of the 1907 edition of Paris-Roubaix,
His nickname, L’Anglais du Paris (The Englishman from Paris) was a reference to the fact he had been born in London. Passerieu had come second in the 1906 Tour. This time he did not finish.
Racing in a stellar peloton that contained seven previous Tour winners and four riders who would go on to win (that total of eleven is a record), the duo from Victoria acquitted themselves admirably over the 15 tortuous and torturous stages.
The nuggety Kirkham finished 17th and fair-haired Munro 20th. Both were nigh on half-a-day behind the winner, the brilliant Belgian Philippe “The Bassett Hound” Thys, yet they had every reason to feel proud of themselves.
From a starting field of close to 200 riders, only 54 made it to the finish. For a couple of neophytes with no experience of European stage racing –or indeed Europe – it was an amazing achievement just to have survived.
Kirkham was a classy competitor who also finished in the top ten in that year’s Milan-San Remo. He had the talent, strength and durability to have made a real impact in continental racing. Unfortunately the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand earlier that summer and the events it set in train scuppered any thoughts of further European exploits.
Kirkham would still have a remote influence on the Tour de France, however. In the early 1920s, by now retired and running a dairy farm, he’d offer tactical advice to a young rider who could justifiably claim to be the best Anglophone road cyclist until the emergence of Tommy Simpson.
Hubert Opperman was born in the small town of Rochester, Victoria ten years before Kirkham and Munro’s French odyssey. His Anglo-German father was an itinerant butcher, lumberjack and gold miner and the boy Opperman eventually found stability by going to live with his grandmother in the Melbourne suburb of Melton. By the age of 15 he was working as a bicycle messenger boy for the post office.
Two years later, he entered his first race, a local criterium. Competing against experienced men who were older, bigger and better equipped, across dirt roads that filled the competitor’s noses and eyes with dust, the slightly-built Opperman showed his trademark mix of tenacity, bloody-mindedness and stamina to finish third.
Watching was one of the race sponsors, Bruce Small. A dapper, charismatic teetotaller with the boundless energy of a sheepdog, Small owned a local bike shop and manufacturer, Malvern Star.
The pair hit it off immediately and struck up a partnership that would see Opperman become one of the most celebrated sporting figures in Australia and Small go from hand-making a dozen lightweight racing bikes a week to owning six factories and supplying 1000 dealerships across the country.
Working as a salesman for Malvern Star gave Opperman chance to train properly and the results quickly flowed. Riding a Malvern Star bicycle the skinny youngster would win the Australian road title four times (still a record), all the nation’s big one day races multiple times as well as scooping up that mighty first prize in the Dunlop Grand Prix.
By then Small and Opperman were already looking elsewhere. In 1927, with the help of a couple of newspapers in Australia and New Zealand, they raised funds to send an Australasian team to Europe.
In 1928 the team of Opperman, fellow Aussies, Ernie Bainbridge and Percy Osborn and Kiwi Harry Watson set off on the month-long voyage to France. They kept fit by cycling on rollers on the main deck, telling curious fellow passengers that they were generating the electricity to power the ship’s lights.
Shortly after arrival, the four men rode in the Paris-Rennes one day race. Oppy impressed by coming 8th. The team then moved on to one of the lost classics, Paris-Brussels, a hard slog through northern France characterised by monotonous, bludgeoning headwinds.
Oppy was again on top form gaining his nation its first classics podium finish: third place behind Fleming George Ronsse and Nicolas Frantz of Luxembourg – both great riders, as Frantz was about to prove.
The Tour de France began a month later. Photos show the Australasian team decked out in team blazers and wide-brimmed trilby hats. Watson (nicknamed ‘The Mile Eater’), tall and rangy, looks dashing in a bow-tie, while the fresh-faced Osborne is distinctly chubby with a sly grin that suggests he’s just spotted a tray of meat pies. Bainbridge, the veteran of the group is a burly fellow with a rugged, freckled face and jug ears. He has a look in his eye that suggests he’d be handy in a pub fight.
The 1928 race was a monstrous 5,377 km, divided into 22 stages, the longest of which was 387km. Of 164 starters only 41 made it back to Paris. The remarkable Frantz lead from start to finish.
Riding Ravat bikes, dressed in dark green jerseys with a yellow band across the chest and biceps and bleached white caps, the Australasians were at a disadvantage from the start.
Most teams were made up of ten riders and there was only four of them. They had hoped British riders might join them but were disappointed. Things got still worse when saddle-sores forced the 37-year-old Bainbridge to abandon.
Even Opperman’s apparently unlimited energy was eroded by the well- practiced European teams. Watson and Osborne were never quite good enough to stick with him and on his own up front Oppy was easy prey to the opposition, who took it in turns to grind him down. Still, he managed to come a creditable 18th.
Osborn, who hailed from the unlikely-sounding Koo Wee Rup in Victoria finished 38th and the elegant New Zealander Harry Watson 28th. Watson would go on to win the New Zealand road title seven years on the trot. Regarded as a hardman even in the nation of the All Blacks, he’d recall the experience of riding the Tour as ‘a veritable nightmare’.
Following the Tour Oppy stayed on to compete in the infamously brutal Bol D’Or 24-hour race, held in the Buffalo Velodrome in Paris. With Small assisting him, he overcame a series of mysterious chain malfunctions – both men suspected skulduggery – that at one point left him 19 laps behind the leaders to win the race in spectacular fashion.
He completed his lap of honour to the sound of 50,000 adoring Parisians chanting “Allez Oppy, Allez!”
Le Petit Parisian called Opperman ‘a marvellous dynamo of human energy’. L’Auto, the French sports newspaper of Henri Desgrange nicknamed him “Le Phenomene” (The Phenomenon) and in a Christmas poll readers voted him Athlete of the Year.
It was an experience and an honour Oppy would never forget. On his return to Australia, he took to wearing a black beret, a sartorial acknowledgement of the bond he felt with the French public.
In Australia too, Opperman was feted as a hero. On his Malvern Star bicycle he undertook a series of solo endurance rides. At home, and later in the UK, he’d set 58 new world marks, a handful of which still stand today.
In 1931 the Australians again decided to sail to Europe and take part in the Tour. This time Oppy was accompanied by Richard “Fatty” Lamb, Ossie Nicholson and Frankie Thomas.
Lamb, from Melbourne, was the reigning Australian road champion. A meaty-faced bloke with dark curly hair and the build of a middleweight boxer he’d also ride professionally in the USA.
Tall and rangy, Frankie Thomas hailed from Bendigo and was another Malvern Star pro.
Tasmanian, Nicholson – whose given name was Oserick – was an endurance cyclist in the Opperman mould who’d already set a number of world distance records. He’d spent his early working life as a blacksmith. Short and muscular he was nicknamed ‘The Pocket Hercules”.
By now the Australians had given up on trying to persuade any British riders to join them in France and instead had formed an unlikely-sounding alliance with Switzerland. Oppy, Fatty, Ossie and Frankie were joined in the Swiss-Australia team by Jules Gillard, Roger Pipoz, double Swiss champion Georges Antenen and Alberto Buchi who’d win a bronze medal in that year’s World Championship Road Race.
The 1931 Tour was not as arduous and brutal as the 1928 edition, but it lasted longer and the 24 stages were broken by only three rest days.
On stage three Nicholson broke a crank, had to walk 18 miles to find another, and crossed the finish line outside the cut off time.
A similar fate befell Thomas, who suffered multiple punctures and a virulent attack of diarrhoea. Like Nicholson he gamely made it to the finish, but too late.
The Swiss riders Gillard and Antenen were also forced to abandon.
Oppy found himself in a good position early in the race but then went down with dysentery.
Displaying what one French newspaper described as “stamina that belied his slight physique” he fought bravely on to finish 12th overall, the highest position in the Tour by an Australian until Phil Anderson came 10th fifty years later and the best by an English-speaker until Tommy Simpson 6th place in 1962.
Lamb too had stomach problems but battled his way to Paris. He crossed the finish line in 35th and last place. He remains the only Australian ever to win the Lanterne Rouge.
The Australian-Swiss team finished a credible fourth, ahead of Italy.
After the Tour, Oppy won the epic 726-mile Paris-Brest-Paris – a one-day classic that took three days – beating out two former Tour de France winners Frantz and Belgium’s Maurice de Waele. Conditions were biblical with gale-force winds and lashing rain and the riders became so exhausted many of them fell asleep and crashed. Oppy considered it his greatest victory.
In 1935, after a spell of record-breaking around Britain, he travelled to Belgium to compete in the World Championship Road Race and finished a noteworthy 8th.
A humble and good-humoured man he’d later remark with typical self-deprecation, “In the 1930s myself, Don Bradman and the racehorse Phar Lap were the most famous sporting figures in Australia. Well, these days everyone remembers The Don and Phar Lap, but they’ve quite forgotten me”.
It wasn’t true, of course. When Cycling Australia selected an All-Time Australian Tour de France team in 2014 Oppy was named as its leader.
By then, sadly, the great pioneer was dead. He had a heart attack while peddling on his exercise bike. He was 91.
Images courtesy of National Museum of Australia, Creative Commons and Cycling Victoria Archive.