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Oppy Wins Paris Brest Paris

PBP Was My Greatest Triumph

By Hubert “Oppy” Opperman
From Checkpoint 48 – Winter 2011

There still remained one grand event for which to prepare—the ancient and honourable Paris–Brest–Paris of 726 miles non-stop. It is an event of unique attraction—the rarest of all classics. A decade passes between each event—it bears the seal of exclusivity, being confined to those of proved long distance, fortitude and current ability, while its 726 miles non-stop promotes it to a ranking of its own in public esteem, exceeding even the fantastic prestige of the Tour de France when they clash on the same season’s calendar.

This is the second half of an article written by Oppy in 1948 for the now defunct Sports Novels magazine, given to me by a cyclist friend, Graeme Cadman. The first section was a description of Oppy’s races in France in the lead-up to the 1931 PBP. As most readers of Checkpoint are more likely to be interested in his account of PBP, and for the sake of brevity, the first section has been omitted. 
Peter Searle

1931 Opperman breakaway in Paris Brest Paris

It was a curious fact that everyone in France seemed to sense my innermost thoughts concerning this big event. When I pedalled my last bouquet carrying lap of the “Tour” at the Parc des Prinos, I heard calls “Never mind this one Oppy—wait for Paris–Brest.” To my surprise my name was placed on the head of the entry list and No.1 went automatically on to my back and my bike. Yet I could not give myself a chance to win when I saw the long list of formidable names which blazed from the headlines in threatening challenge, as the starting day drew near. “Nik” Frantz loomed overpoweringly from his two wins in the Tour, Belgian Van Rysselberghe had the “Derby of the Road” non-stop 375 miles from Bordeaux to Paris, and France fielded “locomotive” Marcel Bidot, road champion of the year, backed by the record-breaking mountaineer Benoit-Faure. Belgians Bonduel-Jolly-Demuysere-Louyet and Decroix had impressive wins for the season, while Italy’s Pancera was respected throughout Europe for his endurance in long, hard contests. Moulded in the fierce competitive crucible of their national sport, they had developed a Spartan-like creed of aggressive attack and loyal team cooperation throughout their long, arduous years of achievement.

I cancelled all contracts and slipped away from Paris with four weeks to go. From the peaceful fishing village of Batz in Brittany I patrolled the roads between Brest and Paris, until my wheels knew every bite in every grade along the rolling highway and every turn and narrowing twist through the cobblestoned towns and cities. It was some consolation when we waited under the dripping trees at St. Cloud on September 1st, 1931, to feel that no opponent could have a clearer mental blue-print of the route than myself.

At 1 pm we speeded onto gale lashed roads and 28 pairs of wheels began inscribing the history of the 5th Paris–Brest–Paris. As rain spat from low-level clouds, riders braked, dismounted and hurriedly fought into their silk coatcapes, sprinting anxiously into the group shelter of the steadily moving bunch. With backs bent to the howling wind and heads angled to beating hail, personal rivalry united into a community pacing front against the implacable assaults from the elements. At night the glistening asphalt road filched light from the following cars, and, in a long strung out line we freewheeled apprehensively down curving hills into inky gloom, cosmopolitan curses ripped into the air and scraping feet trailed, waiting for the headlight gleams to approach closer and dissolve fears of the unseen. “It’s a hard enough trade,” growled a Belgian, “without practising to be a cat.”

In the morose 3 am slough of depression, when one sourly wonders whether it is all worthwhile, Bidot ranged alongside with an antidote. “One good Belgian is finished,” he chuckled. “Demuysere has abandoned.” This news was like telling the tortoise that the hare has been caught in a trap. The “lion of Flanders” was a terrible threat, and to this day I can only surmise that he allowed a temporary “flatness” to worry him out before he had actually reached the limit of his resources.

At Brest the wind was dropping—just when we needed its return help as the field commenced to climb from sea level into the return journey. Louyet looked dangerous. He had sprinted recklessly but with disturbing speed into the “Controle” and was munching happily as he rode easily up the tramlined rise. I recollected uneasily that this cocky young man was in the form which had gathered a hard-fought win in the Tour of Belgium.

The second night closed down and gripped all with an intense desire for sleep. Frantz yawned and yawed into me. I grabbed him just in time and steered him into the centre of the road. Others swayed into the grass and crashed into wakefulness while I banged my head alternatively with each hand, gulped black coffee, and broke into melodious songs every few minutes. Sydney-Melbourne[1] was my shield and buckler in those wrestling hours with Morpheus. I alone knew by experience that one could emerge through the dreadful weighted hours and shake off the shackles of sleep as though they had never been fastened. Time and again I tried to slip away, but the raucous warning from cars, like the cackling geese of Rome, jerked the teams into a wakeful chase, and overtaken I would then relax again into the sleep resisting struggle. We replaced our capes. Bodies denuded of weight by the demands of the pedals, had lost their heat, and every spare sweater was piled beneath the airproof covers. The straining half-shut eyes registered grotesque shapes on cloudy brains, rushing shadows became persons and involuntary warning yells warned figures which dissolved at the moment of collision. Bruce[2] with a dozen vacuum flasks alternated hot soups, tea, coffee, warm grilled chops and chicken. “Ah, Oppy,” wistfully said one rider as I gulped beautifully scalded liquid, “If you become the best rider it is because you have the best manager,” and I agreed without reservation.

Before Rennes, 240 miles from Paris, a hand gripped my shoulder. It was Bonduel the Belgian. “De Baere, Oppy,” he said softly, “speak to De Baere at Rennes,” and then he got off his bike and sat on the side of the road. That made me think. De Baere was a Belgian innkeeper from Batz who had decided to follow the race, but why Bonduel wanted me to talk with him sounded as mysterious as being asked to phone the Surete. However, in the three minutes at Rennes, De Baere told me the important if unwelcome reason. Bonduel, after abandoning had told De Baere that the Alcyon and Lucifer teams had decided to combine against me. De Baere spoke English so Bonduel had explained in Flemish to him just who to watch, and while I grabbed a foodbag in the brief three-minute stop, I absorbed the translated story. From here I could no longer count upon the rivalry of these two strong teams to wear one another down. They would chase me if I “jumped”, and not share any pacing if I was pursuing any member to their squad.

At 60 miles to go 14 riders were still in a group, but at Bretuil in the 46th hour, we wearily commenced to meet the rise out of the town. Then when the grade began to hurt every pair of road-strained legs, Frantz and Dewaele, faces contorted with effort, smashed the line and thrust away. Out of my saddle, see-sawing on the handlebars and digging deep into the pedals, I somehow managed to get them. For 300 yards we kept jamming until the sweetest music I have ever heard was “Niks” choking “Chase him Maurice,” and De Waele’s despairing, “I am finished.” Soon I had three minutes advance with 50 miles to make the Buffalo Velodrome. But Continental victories are never achieved so easily; it is always a bitter fight to the finish. Already a coalition had been formed with a pursuing quartette of Pancera-Bidot-Louyet and Decroix. Pacing frantically and lashed to furious endeavour by the knowledge that until I was overtaken, only second place was the best for them, they gradually gouged into the three minutes.

Over seven hundred miles had passed under the saddle, and with the race in the 48th hour it was still 25 miles an hour along the flat, and 40 down rattling cobbly slopes. Bruce was racing backwards and forwards in a high speed car, face tense with anxiety and fingers signalling the whittling of the lead. “Go faster, Oppy,” he implored, “they’ll be on you,” but push down on the pedals and pull up on the straps as I would, I couldn’t get any more pace. The three minutes dwindled to two, then one, and as I plugged past the Palace of Versailles it was down to 30 seconds. My hope was the atrocious, spine-jarring cobblestones three miles from the track, where pacing was of little value and one man would become as effective as four. They knew this, too, and straining still harder, they gathered me in just 200 yearned-for yards before we bounced and clattered over the grey-coloured surface. They were tired, desperately so, sagging with fatigue and steering unsteadily from the strain of their last tremendous sprint. There was only one chance left, to pin them down in the misery of their exhaustion. Under the impetus of disappointment at being overhauled I darted from right to left, leading deliberately into the roughest sections, and with calculating delight in their discomfiture. It was war, and zig-zag bicycle battle raged until we emerged on the track from the tunnel entrance.

From the long list of European cycling classics has come many a drama of the finishing line, and tense last seconds packed with the atomic blast of sporting reaction which can lift surging thousands to their feet to watch the spinning wheels unroll success and failure before their eyes. But of them all the sifting critics will always rank those final breath-catching moments of this “Paris–Brest” as the top line reminiscence of hectic ends to cycling road combat. With the connoisseur’s taste for ageing wine, their memories linger more and more appreciatively on that last five-man fight for supremacy as the years glide down the slipway of time.

For me that last lap will never fade. As the packed Velodrome rose with a spontaneous roar, we dipped deep into our reservoirs of energy to fling the bikes into the last bid for victory. Decroix led Louyet as the faintly heard bell signalled the final lap. Bidot jockeyed into a desirable third position—Pancera watched from fourth, and taking no chances of a fall I trailed last. The tempo quickened, Decroix was at top speed with 400 yards to cover. At 300 yards Louyet left his wheel and went past, and it appeared that Belgium must win, when Pancera shifted madly and rushed alongside. As he did, it gave me my chance and from three high on the steep bank I had a marvellous swoop into the straight to a 10 lengths win, and the pinnacle competitive victory of my life.

First published in Sports Novels (June, 1948)

Oppy dominated Australian professional cycling during the 1920s and 1930s. Among his major achievements were records in such marathons as Fremantle–Sydney, Kalgoorlie–Perth, Adelaide–Sydney, Sydney–Brisbane and, in Europe, his wins in the PBP and the classic 24-hour Bol d’Or and setting a new Land’s End–John o’ Groats record. As well, he twice participated in the Tour de France, both times as Australia’s captain.

At the end of his 21-year career, at age 36, he broke or established 101 State, Australian and World records in an incredible 24 hours of non-stop cycling at the old Sydney velodrome.

Oppy was the Patron of Audax Australia until his death in 1996.


[1] In preparation for PBP Oppy tested his ability to ride through two consecutive nights during his 1929 attempt at the Sydney–Melbourne record. In Pedals, Politics and People he said, “It gave an opporunity to feel the reaction of continued pedalling into another night and became a main factor in the attempt.” He set the record at 39 hours 42 minutes.

[2] Bruce Small was Oppy’s manager and life-long friend, and owner of the Malvern Star Company.

[3] The photo is from page 11 of J.B. Wadley’s 1972 collection Old Roads and New, in the chapter on cycling journalist Rene de Latour. Latour was a friend of, and frequently translator for Oppy. There is no photo credit for this image and no source indicated. The caption below is Wadley’s:

“Three years later [after Oppy’s 1st major road race in Europe – Paris-Brussels, he placed 3rd] and now an established and popular star after couragous rides in the Tour de France, “Oppy” breaks away in the closing stages of the decennial Paris-Brest-Paris 750 miles marathon. He will be caught by a small group but [is] still strong enough to out sprint them on the final straight of the Velodrome Buffalo.”

[4] Students of French may want to look at this article from Le Miroir des Sports.