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The Human Motor: Sir Hubert Opperman and endurance cycling in Australia

Daniel Oakman and Kirsten Wehner, National Museum of Australia, 21 March 2013

KIRSTEN WEHNER: Hello everybody and welcome to the National Museum of Australia. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Kirsten Wehner. I am the head curator of the Museum’s People and the Environment program. It’s my privilege today to be able to step up and introduce Dr Daniel Oakman to you. He is going to give the talk today. I will begin, as I customarily do, by asking people to turn off their mobile phones, if you happen to have one.

Daniel is a senior curator in the Museum’s People and the Environment program and has a longstanding interest in Australia’s cycling history. I have to say he is also an avid and experienced cyclist himself, one who regularly intimidates me as an enthusiastic but fairly incompetent bike rider when he comes in to tell me about his routes and races completed. I mention this because, as we will discover today, one of the interesting things that Daniel brings to his research into Australia’s cycling history is his ability to bring to it both an excellent analytical eye, the eye of the scholar, and also the practitioner and enthusiast’s sense of experience and what it is to be a cyclist.

Advertising poster, Malvern Star: The cycle of Opperman

Daniel’s talk today focuses on the life and career of Sir Hubert Opperman, or Oppy as he was known, exploring how Oppy’s exploits reshaped Australia’s understanding of the body’s capacity for endurance and also our sense of the continent over which his great rides were completed. This work is an important contribution to the Museum’s and indeed the People and the Environment program’s developing research program examining how different forms and experiences of energy, transport and movement shape our lives, societies and environments.

The National Museum has a longstanding commitment to original research and one way through which this is currently supported is through a fellowship program enabling Museum staff such as curators to step out of their usual relatively hectic positions to spend some time in the Museum’s Research Centre really concentrating on a research project. Daniel’s talk today arises out of a fellowship he recently completed in the Research Centre. I want to let you know it is the first of a series of talks to be presented by Research Centre fellows so I would encourage you to look out for news of those in the future.

Daniel’s work today on Australia’s cycling history will also bear fruit in the future in other ways, notably a touring exhibition that is currently in development that will look at the history of the bike in Australia. This exhibition is scheduled for release in the middle of next year so just put that on your calendars as well. There will be more about that on our website soon, and we will keep you posted.

I want to let you know that we are recording today’s session, including the Q&A afterwards. If you have a question, please wait for the microphone to come to you so that we can hear it on the recording. I will let you know that you then asking a question is in effect giving your consent for us to record it and to publish it on the website. So if you are meant to be at work and you have just snuck out and not told your boss, now is your opportunity to make a run for the door. But since you are all going to stay, I am sure, it gives me great pleasure to introduce Daniel to you and to welcome him to the podium. [applause]

DANIEL OAKMAN: Thanks, Kirsten, for the introduction. I wanted to begin by saying that, usually when I mention that I am interested in Hubert Opperman, people start to think that I am talking about Robert Oppenheimer, who was one of the inventors of the nuclear bomb. So if you are here for that talk, this may seem slightly irrelevant. As talented as Oppy was, I don’t think he had anything to do with nuclear physics, but there will be a point in this talk where I will talk about thermodynamic physics, I promise you.

Today I didn’t want to give you just a general overview of Opperman’s life; rather I wanted to focus on an important decade and that decade was from 1928 to 1938. It was an important decade for Opperman but it was also a really fascinating decade for endurance cycling in general. Just quickly for those of you less familiar with Opperman’s career, he was a champion cyclist in the decades between the First and Second World Wars. After the Second World War he went on to become a minister in the Menzies and Holt Liberal governments and, in fact, played a key role in the demise of the white Australia policy, which is a little known fact in the history of that policy. After he resigned from parliament, he then became the Australian Ambassador to Malta so you can see he had an extraordinarily varied and diverse life. He died in 1996.

For me, he was really the first Australian to make an impression on the European cycling scene. He won a string of endurance races in Europe and Australia. He was born in Rochester in north-western Victoria in 1904. His father, who was a butcher by trade but somewhat restless by nature, moved the family around the country while he was searching for work and prospecting for gold. But eventually, to give Oppy some stability, he was taken in by his grandmother who lived in Melton on the western outskirts of Melbourne, and this is where he first learned to ride a bike. [1 ‘Allez Oppy!’, Hindsight program, ABC Radio National, broadcast 6 August 2006 http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/hindsight/allez-oppy/3318906]

Once he left school he began working for the Post-Master General’s office, apparently racing trams as he delivered the mail and developing his cycling skills. He soon began winning races at the junior level and working his way up the various ranks. But after placing in a major cycling race when he was just 19, he attracted the attention of Malvern Star bicycles, and in particular the manager of Malvern Star, Bruce Small. We will hear quite a lot about him in this talk today, because he was really the other half of Oppy’s story.

Oppy then went to work for Bruce working in his shop as a salesman, but Bruce also allowed him a lot of opportunities to continue his training. For most of the 1920s, he was the national road cycling champion and developed a virtually unbeatable reputation. But I don’t really want to talk about those particular races; I want to jump right into when he was just 24 and he first went to France, and that particular year which was a definitive one in his life.

I have a couple of pictures so you can get a bit of a sense of what Oppy looked like - that is something else I will address a bit later on. [image shown]

One of my favourite anecdotes about Oppy is when he travelled by ship to Europe early in 1928. In those days it was a seven-week boat ride, and an athlete stood to lose a lot of conditioning over a seven-week boat ride. So Oppy took his rollers on board the ship and would pedal away for most days. According to one story Oppy was pedalling away furiously, and a fellow passenger, a lady, came up to him and said, ‘What on earth are you doing?’ People didn’t know he had quite an impish sense of humour - he said, ‘Actually I am providing electricity for the ship.’ She said, ‘Well carry on, you are doing a fine job. Keep up the good work.’

He arrived in France and competed in the Tour de France and distinguished himself in that race. But I really want to skip to a race that he did after that, which was called the Bol d’Or or the Golden Bowl. This race was undertaken on an outdoor velodrome in Paris and it ran for 24 hours, so it was a non-stop race running for 24 hours and whoever could complete the most laps was the winner. Understandably, Opperman wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about taking this on, but again his manager convinced him that this would be the right race for Opperman’s particular talents.

Each competitor was allowed to have two or three pacers which they rode behind, and that obviously meant they could travel faster and ride further over the distance. [image shown] This is not a picture of the Golden Bowl event but just to give you a sense of how a rider could be paced around a track and benefit from the aerodynamics provided by riding in the shelter of a person in front of them. This is actually what is called motor pacing, which was yet another event that Opperman excelled at. That is Opperman back there with that rather strange cannon ball looking like helmet he is wearing.

Anyway, back to the Golden Bowl, the race actually started at 11 pm at night, and the early hours of this were quite confusing. Oppy first noticed that his steering column was shifting wildly every time he went around the banked corners, then suddenly his chain broke so he rolled to the centre of the track and picked up his spare bike, thinking nothing more. Anyway, when he went to exert even more force on the pedals trying to regain his place in the race, that chain also snapped. A second chain break in an event like this is almost unheard of, so Oppy was now bike less. He scrambled for another machine and jumped on a friend’s roadster. This was a heavy touring bike with mud-guards, a lamp and worst of all it had very low gears so he was unable to sustain the kinds of speeds that the other riders were achieving.

By now the news had spread throughout the crowd that Opperman’s chains had been sabotaged. They had been filed through until so thin that they would snap under the extra force. Now losing one lap in every six, the crowd had suddenly found its hero. ‘Allez Oppy’, they chanted, when Oppy went past and then poured a storm of hate over his saboteurs every time they lapped him. After a reasonable amount of time, his track machine had been repaired and he remounted that machine, but then pleaded with his pacers to try to make up the 17 laps that he had now lost - the task, they thought, was impossible.

So he yelled to his manager, Bruce Small, to find some more willing pacers. In those days money talked, and you could simply buy some talented riders to come back onto the track if they had given up with other teams. This worked, and Opperman was able to claw back his position. After 10 hours he was still four laps behind first position but, by now, after ten hours of racing, his bladder demanded attention. Having worked so hard to regain his position, he simply refused to leave the track, so he suddenly called to his pacemakers to slow down. They were slightly bemused by this until they heard the crowd roar, and then they saw a long stream of golden urine flying from the back of Opperman’s wheel and into the faces of his opponents. It occurs to me that the name of this event seems slightly more appropriate than I first thought.

As it turned out, Bruce Small had suggested that Oppy adopt his road practice of not stopping to go to the toilet at all. He had taken this advice to heart, and in the days before this particular race he had practised this technique on a fixed wheel machine on some quiet roads around Paris. Those of you who understand the difference between a road bike and a track bike, on a track bike the gear is fixed so the pedals are always turning as you go forward, which makes this feat even more remarkable. By now Opperman’s contest had won the crowd’s heart. ‘Allez Oppy, allez Oppy’, they chanted, as he finally overtook the French riders to be in first place.

With just 30 minutes to ride Oppy was the clear winner. He had covered almost 950 kilometres and, just to save you doing the calculation, that is riding at over 40 kilometres an hour for the best part of 24 hours. But his manager saw another opportunity presenting itself. His chase had put him ahead not just of his competitors in that race but on schedule to beat the coveted 1,000 km record. An exhausted Opperman at first refused, but Small had arranged some fresh pacers from the other teams who had abandoned the 24-hour event to help him cover the required 35 miles - presumably these were riders had Oppy hadn’t peed on. Small explained to Oppy that if he did the 1,000 km record he would feel no more tired than he would if he didn’t, and not for the last time Oppy would give in to this irrefutable logic. So he strapped his feet to the pedals and rode for another hour and a half, all to the rapturous applause and chanting of the crowd.

Having beaten the best continental cyclists, the sporting journal L’Auto celebrated Opperman as a brilliant champion, a new cycling marvel, and he was subsequently voted Europe’s Sportsman of the Year, the only Australian to achieve this honour. But his performance in the Bol d’Or confirmed what the sporting press had suspected throughout that year’s Tour de France: that Opperman was a rare and spectacularly gifted cyclist. The French press dubbed him ‘le phenomene’, the phenomenon. As I said, this year really changed him forever as an athlete and as a public figure. Indeed, these are the tales that he would tell for the rest of his life.

He returned to Australia sporting the beret, and this would become very much his trademark, his signature item of clothing. The Museum is lucky to have two of Oppy’s berets. You can see he continued to wear it right up until his senior years. [images shown] Actually when the Museum acquired these berets - it was just a year before he died - he sent a letter to us saying that in fact he brought 30 back from France, because he was so overwhelmed with the reception in France and his identification with the cycling culture in that country that he forever wanted an item of clothing that would remind him of that event. Oppy went back to France in 1931 where he was again quite successful in the Tour de France.

The part of his career I want to now look at was really his endurance riding which really came to the fore in the 1930s. His manager really faced a challenge here of how to bring spectators into much closer proximity to his champion. Those close to endurance cyclists often bore witness to the intense mental and physical drama that played out against opponents in a race but also against their own bodies. But from a distance the seemingly repetitive and unskilled nature of the sport could appear dull. Furthermore, without the action taking place in an enclosed space where the event could be experienced in its entirety, spectators could not see how a record attempt or a long road race might unfold.

Small endeavoured to generate a sense of immediacy and urgency into Opperman’s record attempts - a statistic in a newspaper was simply not enough. The cycling adventurers of earlier years such as Francis Birtles and Arthur Richardson had no support vehicles. Their reports and interpretation of their adventures had to wait until either the ride was completed or they reached an urban centre where they might find an interested reporter. More often than not, readers waited days to read a report or an article written by the rider themselves or waited years for the publication of a book. Small returned after the Tours de France determined to reproduce that intense physical and psychological drama that had captivated European spectators for decades. So he copied many of the stylistic and theatrical techniques used to promote the tour to promote Opperman’s distance records. It would transform the way Australian audiences experienced and understood the life of the endurance cyclist.

I am going to do a little digression to tell you about Bruce Small. As you can probably tell, he was quite a magnetic character. Once he sold his shares in Malvern Star in the 1960s, he actually became the mayor of the Gold Coast. [Image shown] You can see he is dressed quite appropriately for it in that particular photo. Although he didn’t invent the phenomenon of the meter maids, he gave it a significant boost. You can see a couple of the lovely meter maids there [image shown] - a tradition that is still with us, I believe, on the Gold Coast. He did get involved in a whole lot of investigations with the tax department, but I will leave that for now.

One of Opperman’s early records really set the pattern for almost a decade of record setting in terms of the way it was presented to the public. The Kalgoorlie to Perth journey of some 600 kilometres was a familiar route for many in Western Australia linking the mining region to the city. But by segmenting this journey, Small structured Opperman’s performance into a theatrical event. The division of each record attempt into these identifiable and reportable stages allowed tension and suspense to be woven into an epic narrative that was generated often by writers who were invited to come along on the event.

But most dramatically of all, by Opperman himself who spoke on radio as well as the assembled crowds before, during and after his rides. Listeners also keenly waited for hourly radio updates and for the broadcasts from Opperman whenever he reached a studio along the route. Radio played an enormous role here in enhancing the collective experience of these events, especially as people gathered around them to listen and to learn when Opperman was going to pass through their particular town so they could get to the roadside and catch a glimpse of him.

Small timed this particular ride to finish in the centre of Perth on the weekend, and in this way he would ensure that the maximum number of people were there to witness the new record being set. When Opperman arrived, the crowds were so large that he had to be carried up a ladder to be a verandah above Small’s local office and here he gave a public address. Later in the evening he spoke over the national radio network from his hotel bed. This strategy, played out in event after event, helped keep Oppy’s name in the papers almost daily for over a decade.

Another of Oppy’s great rides was the two-week transcontinental record attempt in 1937. All the major newspapers reported his training rides, his physical condition and any minor mishaps that might come up to affect his speed. For his part, Opperman gave talks in theatres about his overseas races and his preparation for this event with slides and moving pictures. Just as he had done with the much shorter Kalgoorlie to Perth record, Small had constructed the route as another mobile stage through which a colossal struggle against the land could be acted out and relayed to the nation.

He arranged for a special correspondent from the Sydney Morning Herald to accompany the support crew for the entire distance. So like a serialised novel, the combination of regular print and national radio reports gave the event the immediacy and momentum that had not been typically associated with cycling events. For the reporters who followed, their own encounters and experiences of the land became fused with the record attempt themselves.

While Australian journalism lacked much of the lyricism of the European press, it conveyed a very particular understanding of the challenges faced by Opperman and a deeper uncertainty about the land in which the events took place. Australia might have lacked the high alpine passes that animated French cycle writing; instead, they had miles of the villainous sand and rocky wastes of the Nullarbor, the blistering uninhabited deserts, the icy hilltops in the south-east and the sun-dazzled highways as well as the prospect of meeting hostile natives.

This is actually a picture of Oppy that is rarely seen [image shown], and that is of him in considerable distress. Usually his reputation was a man with limitless energy, and this photograph to me looks like he was taken somewhat by surprise. It’s the only one of its kind that I have been able to find. It’s an interesting aberration. This was a much more common celebration of Opperman as an Australian superman [image shown] and is one of the more inspired images that I have seen. The little verse down the bottom says:

He covers Australia by means of a bicycle, with legs like a piston and nerves like an icicle. Out of the sunset and over the scenery, a knight upon wheels and a god in machinery!

It’s good stuff. Really for most of the inter-war years, journalists and broadcasters had all referred to Opperman as a human motor, a flying machine or a superman. But I think these were more than just literary flourishes, these phrases had their roots in the physiological sciences of the late nineteenth century and the culture of experimentation that grew around studies of human movement and athletic potential. Breakthroughs in thermodynamic physics – I told you we would get there - in the nineteenth century generated new understandings of energy, fatigue and the productive capacity of a working body, and in fact the universe itself.

The universal laws of energy applied equally to the movement of the planets, the forces of nature, the mechanical work of machines and of course the work of a body. The language of work also shifted to describe the labouring body as a productive organism capable of transforming universal natural energy into measurable outputs. The social reformers, scientists, engineers and hygienists who began popularising these ideas claimed that measuring and harvesting every source of energy would release a vast reservoir of latent power and produce a civilisation resistant to decay and disorder. These evocative metaphors of human beings as motors or dynamos reflected the newly-understood link between human physiology, science, industrial technology and progress. The cyclist became the perfect embodiment of these associations: a perfect fusion of human energy amplified by a simple machine.

It is obvious, I guess, that scientific interest then turned to the question of how to boost athletic performance beyond its known limits. Cyclists themselves took their sporting endeavours in these experiments to extreme levels less in the spirit of scientific experimentation, although that was part of it, but more in the spirit of competition. One of the most severe tests was the six-day cycle race, which was first run in Britain in 1878. This is where racers would compete for at least 20 hours a day for six days. A particularly famous American event occurred in the 1890s at Madison Square Garden. At this event riders were suffering delusions and hallucinations, and many of then crashed after total exhaustion. The extreme nature of this event drew condemnation in Australia and around the world. The Argus reported that riders went crazy on the track and ‘dropped unconscious from their machines’. One man even sustained a ‘paralytic stroke’. Equally unedifying were the mobs of curious spectators eager ‘to witness the endurance of the human animal under a certain form of torture’. The New York Times acknowledged the worthiness of this demonstration but thought that this ‘athletic contest in which the participants “go queer” in their heads and strain their powers until their faces become hideous with the tortures … is not sport, it is brutality’.

My point here is that endurance cycling proved the most compelling sporting experiment in which to test human capacity to operate a machine in a relatively controlled environment. It was still a real question about just how far the human body could be pushed by adopting a machine-like efficiency. Opperman himself often spoke of his riding as work or labour. Through training, he claimed that he looked to achieve an automatic pedalling action where his body would fuse with the bicycle. He remained fascinated by this process of moulding his mind and body into a ‘smooth working combination’, transforming his limbs into machine-like pistons so that the ‘muscular reply to the sensory demand [would be] as swift and ready as the actions of an unthinking robot’.

His ability to ride in a mechanically precise fashion gave him the appearance of possessing limitless energy. Cycling officials often reported and expressed their dismay at his cycling cadence and his machine-like appearance and felt that it was a display of almost unnatural endurance. In contrast to this though, Opperman was distinguished by, I guess, a contradictory dimension to his character in that he appeared to be a robotic automaton, immune to hardship and suffering, but this had not come at the expense of his essential humanity. This was a key concern of the period when it was feared that industrial efficiency and mechanisation would destroy the social fabric.

By contrast, Opperman engaged his public with eloquent speeches before, during and after his rides; he wrote reflective articles in journals and newspapers; and all these contributed to his reputation as the consummate athlete and the well-rounded sporting gentleman. In addition to this humanism, Oppy had clearly improved his socioeconomic condition by his physical strength and endurance rather than through his social network or education. This compounded his image as a classless hero, an emblem of a meritocracy based on physical capacity rather than wealth, money or political connection.

His particular image as this disciplined and wholesome athlete contrasts with the reputation of professional cyclists on the Continent. European sports novels in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century delighted in depicting talented bike racers as vulnerable people often falling prey to lustful women who were eager to satisfy their carnal desires with men of prodigious endurance. The unsubtle message, of course, was that it was only through commitment to the bicycle that you would secure a moral and virtuous life. Henri Desgrange, who was the founder of the Tour de France, wrote in one of these novels: ‘Your bicycle is your salvation. It will lead you to marriage, healthy, strong, vigorous and honest.’ That sounds slightly alarming, doesn’t it?

It is also worth mentioning the public response to Opperman’s body. It was curiousy asexual in contrast to these European novels and articles about cyclists in part because Opperman was married. He stood outside in many ways the typical athletic types that were prevalent in Australia. He was only about 5 ft 7 inches and around 65 kg at his racing weight. So by any definition he was not a large man. Most reports of his rides made comment about his size because it was simply astonishing to people that this little fellow could generate this amount of power. Of course, one of the dominant images of Australian athleticism was the surf lifesaver, and clearly Opperman did not fit this physical mould. He in fact for me represented an alternative type of masculinity, one that emphasised efficiency over brawn, and stamina and mental tenacity over explosive strength.

Just as an aside to this, his solo efforts drew particular attention in the 1930s, particularly as concerns about Nazism and the militaristic overtones in Germany after the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Often it was reported that part of Opperman’s appeal and his success was due to his individualism, so he was held up as an example of individual talent rather than being kind of anonymous with the military overtones of these kinds of images.

We are starting to see how Opperman’s particular talent, his particular physical prowess, came at precisely the right time – at a time of some crisis in Australian history. In the late 1920s and 1930s there was a general climate of economic dislocation and national crisis. There was very much a sense of a society recovering from the First World War searching for a kind of physical and spiritual regeneration. Falling birth rates, the widowing of thousands of women after the war, many who didn’t remarry, all triggered concerns about the nation’s fertility. The presence of deformed and limbless returned soldiers also increased the cultural value of physically gifted athletes like Opperman and our lifesavers here.

There was a general quest for industrial efficiency but also a concern about what that industrial efficiency might mean. The images which were coming up in photography and art brought a lot of these ideas together, so there was a real interest in what might happen with the combination of human labour and machines and whether that might disrupt the capacity of society to sustain itself.

Many communities were also still recovering from the outbursts of household violence, drunkenness and other social dislocations caused by the war. Opperman’s teetotalism, which was often illustrated with him drinking milk or having healthy ice-cream, came with a particularly potent symbolism. Again, it was all part of this wholesome virtuous athlete and he easily became a powerful symbol of national aspiration.

I think there was also something deeper at work here, and I want to talk a little bit about Oppy and the way he challenged the way Australians perceived themselves and their continent. Throughout history every form of propulsion has changed understandings of distance and time because of the particular way each technology has moved the human body through space. While motorised transportation in the form of the railway, the motor car and the aeroplane may have destroyed the so-called ‘tyranny of distance’, the bicycle played its own role in reconceptualising Australian understanding of space, distance and time. Bicycles brought the human form into a distinctive kind of relationship to the land, quite unlike that experienced in a motorised vehicle.

While Oppy’s journeys were intended to prove his athletic strength rather than understand the landscape that he was passing through, the representation of his cycling feats nevertheless contributed to, I think, a distinctive appreciation of the continent. It was something of a paradox that his efforts reinforced the scale, hostility and vastness of the Australian landscape, but they also rendered it far less abstract in bodily terms. The distances between towns and cities – indeed, across the continent - had been measured bodily in distance, time and, as some newspapers calculated, the tonnes of force required to push one’s way across it. They did a calculation of how many kilograms of pressure was required by each pedal stroke and then made the calculation of how many tonnes Oppy was pushing to cover the continent.

This is not to suggest that earlier endurance riders did not have a profound impact; they did. But that generation of riders framed their accounts around notions of travelling and exploration. Where their journeys were expeditionary in nature, Opperman’s were shaped by a stronger focus on the science of human performance. I think his contribution differed in two ways. Firstly, his celebrity and iconic status generated an unprecedented level of coverage and interest. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, was this concept of repeatability. His events were more precisely measurable, quantifiable and therefore improvable. The regular contesting of these events and these records all sustained an idea of continuous physical improvement.

I don’t think that the attention devoted to his efforts produced necessarily a more objective or richer understanding of the land, but I think he helped reframe the country into a different set of cultural and social imperatives grounded in a desire to measure the nation more precisely against the human form. By using a common and accessible technology, that measurement had much greater meaning for many Australians. In some ways these journeys tied Australia’s distant centres together in a distinctive way, one that resonated powerfully at an historical juncture with people looking for ways to bring the distant cities in Australia together. Opperman was seen to bring the boundaries of the nation together and render them within the reach of human potential, albeit through sacrifice and suffering.

I use those two words deliberately - sacrifice and suffering. They are words long associated with cycling but they have also been important ideas in Australian history. Nationalist historical tradition, which has emphasised suffering like the Anzacs and tragedy like Burke and Wills, have all revolved around an idea of legitimising the possession of the land. The historian Andrew Lattas has written that in this powerful mode of history:

The land becomes a testing ground; it represents a challenge to prove the worth, character and mettle of those who wish to claim her. This is the space of the pioneer, explorer and artist. Each of them is involved in giving birth to our sense of nationhood. Each represents a figure for colonizing the land, for gaining over it some kind of spiritual possession … Their suffering takes on the epic proportions of a pilgrimage that redeems and heals the nation.

It is also, I would suggest, the space of the endurance athlete and, for the sake of this argument, I think we can see Opperman’s feats as being framed in this way as well. Oppy’s suffering saw him literally leave parts of himself across the country from sweat, tears and even blood in the event of a fall. Even though he was clearly an usually unusually talented athlete and achieved his goals in extremis, this merely magnified the sense that superior physiological and mental capacities were required to occupy the land and that ordinary people should aspire to these traits. In this sense, this was a validation of the place of white Australians on this continent and a comment on their potential to thrive here.

I will conclude in the next five minutes. Opperman’s story was an athletic drama that unfolded over the inter-war period and helped shape the way Australians throughout about themselves, their own bodies and the continent they inhabited. As the Second World War approached, journalists and other commentators increasingly drew Oppy’s sporting feats more explicitly into accounts of national capacity, efficiency and race patriotism. Oppy’s efforts always drew passionate prose from Australian journalists, but the prospect of war supercharged the popular response to his feats of endurance.

In late September 1938, Opperman attempted the Hobart-Launceston-Hobart cycling record. As he approached Hobart he was on schedule to complete the journey of some 400 kilometres in under 12 hours. Thousands of people stood along the route blocking traffic, and mounted police in the centre of town struggled to contain the cheering spectators. On arrival at the Town Hall, two policemen hoisted Oppy to their shoulders and carried him inside to be received by the Lord Mayor and his deputy [Image shown]. There he is. The Mercury newspaper celebrated Opperman’s ride as - I apologise if it’s quite a long quote but I think it’s worth it:

… striking feat of physical skill and endurance on the part of one man … It is the fighting spirit displayed in such feats of endurance … that finds its equivalent in even sterner contests. So long as Australia has men to perform such feats and others to cheer them on, the nation will worthily acquit itself in whatever it is called upon to achieve.

[This] great gathering of citizens was a stimulating indication of public calmness and detachment when on the verge of a world-shaking crisis, proof of the orderly mind that accompanies British blood and further evidence that the most awesome situation can be faced by the British peoples without panic.

I hope in this talk I have given you a more complex impression of Hubert Opperman and his place in Australian history and the broader cultural dimensions of his sporting life. I will leave you with a final thought that, while Oppy was certainly very much a man of his time and for his time, his iconic status was sustained by a much older idea that had bubbled away since the late nineteenth century and powerfully shaped Australian self-perception about the kind of people that would be required to colonise and cultivate this country. And that idea was a powerful utopian fantasy - about the promise of a body and, through it, a nation - without limits and without fatigue. Thanks for listening. [applause]

I am happy to take questions.

QUESTION: Thanks for that. In your research was there any mention of the dietary requirements or things that Opperman did to maintain his endurance?

DANIEL OAKMAN: Quite a lot actually. I found it fascinating that the kinds of things he was taking would be completely at odds with what cyclists are taking today - notably the lack of carbohydrates, eating lots of fruit, apples and things like that. Frankly from my own cycling efforts I can’t imagine getting anywhere on that kind of fuel. Eating steak and eggs are not the kinds of things that I think cyclists today are really thinking about. And coffee - he was a teetotaller so there was this emphasis on drinking milk, and coffee was kind of his apparent fuel of choice. There is, of course, a debate about what he was taking some kind of performance enhancing substance.

QUESTION: I certainly don’t want to refer to performance enhancing substances and I am sorry I missed the first bit. Did you find out about his difficulty in getting Australian teams over to the Tour [de France] and the work he had to do to raise the money to get the second lot across in 1931?

DANIEL OAKMAN: I didn’t particularly focus on that. I know that the first Tour de France for him in 1928 was a problem because they only managed to get four team members so it was Oppy, two Australians and a New Zealander. They were meant to team up with another four riders in France who didn’t turn up. So they were in fact racing against teams of eight to ten. Even the way the race is run today that would be difficult, but back then they raced a lot of these stages as team time trials. Over a 20-stage race, ten of them were team trials. They were riding with four against ten team members so it was extraordinarily difficult for them. Oppy ended up coming 17th in that first Tour largely on his own because his team mates were unable to keep up with him. But they did have to raise money in that early period to head across and did that through various appeals in newspapers and so on. I don’t know about 1931 - but I know they had a proper team. I think they had eight or nine on that one so it was a little easier.

QUESTION: During the 1928-38 period that he was achieving so much, how did the design evolution of the bike help him or was there not a great deal of change at that time in the actual weight, gearing and everything of the bike?

DANIEL OAKMAN: I am not really an expert. There may be other people in this room who know more about the technological changes. I don’t know if there was a spectacular change. The basic shape of the bike had been fairly stable for some time. I think the introduction of derailleur gears was probably the major one. They weren’t allowed gears in the Tour de France because Henri Desgrange felt it was somehow a lesser event to actually have gears. His idea of a good Tour de France was when one person finished because everyone else was literally collapsed on the side of the road. So in some ways the technological advances were actually removed from the Tour to enhance the kind of physical spectacle.

QUESTION: In the 1928 to 1930 Tours they had rear wheels that had a cog on one side and a cog on the other, so they would just simply undo the wing nuts, switch the wheel around to climb, so they had one cog for climbing. It was also that period that they introduced the Alps for the first time so that was a big change that made it significantly harder. From 1931 on, that is when they started to have two or three gears at the back only, and a mechanical lever front changer. So it was a period of great change, and in those rides of Oppy’s in Australia he would have had the benefit of two, four or five gears - I am not really sure – but this was the period of change.

DANIEL OAKMAN: Wow, five gears. Thanks.

QUESTION: Can I ask two questions, although it’s three now actually: You said they described him as a machine and stuff like that. It made me think of Bradman as well when he was described as a machine. Do you think part of it was people just liked describing people as machines at that time rather than anything about Oppy himself? It seems a coincidence that both of them were called a machine.

DANIEL OAKMAN: Absolutely, and it is still used today. People refer to sportsmen who are performing like a machine. I think those cultural connections back to the late nineteenth century are more revealing of the broader cultural concerns in that period. The comparison with Bradman is a good one and also with Phar Lap, because the three of them were all known for their endurance and that, I think, is the quality that has received a heightened level of interest. Those kinds of phrases take on a particular potency.

QUESTION: That leads really well into the next question, because I had forgotten about Phar Lap at that time. So you have Bradman, Phar Lap and Oppy, and it seems of the three the one that is far less known now and somehow has disappeared a bit is Oppy. Do you have any idea why that is? Oppy is far less known in the public now than Phar Lap or Bradman who are both absolute legends. Oppy is a legend too, but Phar Lap is better known.

DANIEL OAKMAN: In fact, Oppy was asked this question in the 1960s why his cycling legacy was less well known and Oppy slightly facetiously said, ‘Oh it was because of Phar Lap,’ and that kind of knocked him off the pedestal. But I don’t agree, I think it was partly because Oppy became a politician and he was 17 years in parliament, including minister for immigration and was part of incredibly controversial changes to the white Australia policy. I think that was part of it.

The other part of it was, for me, the rise of the motor car and the idea of cycling changed. Culturally in the 1920s and 1930s riding across Australia was incredible. I think in the post-war period it was seen as absurd. I know cyclists in this room who would counter this idea today - why would you do it when you had mechanical assistance? So there was that cultural change. Cycling became - at least for me - something that was devalued. There were all sorts of changes to the cities that diminished the role of cycling. We are only now in the last 20 or 30 years starting to see that culture shift back, thankfully. That is just off the top of my head.

QUESTION: We live in a city that is designed in the twentieth century, and it is all for cars. Thanks.

QUESTION: This is a simple question about his race bikes in Paris. Were they all of steel construction or was aluminium?

DANIEL OAKMAN: I can see Greg shaking his head - they would have been steel, yes. I don’t know how heavy that would have been.

QUESTION: Hi, Daniel, thank you, that was very interesting. In response to the gentleman who asked about the idea of bodies as machines, while you were talking about him and how psychology has become so much a part of sport today that the three - I can’t talk for Phar Lap - but for someone like Bradman and Oppy, obviously it was more than just their bodies that drove them. It came back to that time of Descartes and the dualism of the body and the mind and how scientists believed that bodies could just be treated like machines, that they were machines and that medical practitioners could look at the body as a machine and fix different parts of it. And we still do that. We replace parts of it as you would a machine. But for me when you were talking, it really struck me that he must have had an incredibly powerful mind or his discipline. That doesn’t come from the body; it comes from a very powerful mind and ability to control himself and push himself, which is not a bodily function.

DANIEL OAKMAN: That’s a really good point. The other thing that made him different is he would reflect on that process, which was highly unusual for an athlete to be so articulate about their sport and what they went through. He would often be really honest about his suffering and mental torment that he would be going through. That’s a great point.

QUESTION: What items does the Museum hold of his cycle career?

DANIEL OAKMAN: Good question. We have got two collections from Sir Hubert himself. They are made up of lots of racing licences and items of clothing, that kind of material. We don’t have a bike, which is a real shame, but we are looking for one. So if anyone has one, come and see me. It’s a fairly small collection but it does have some gems like the beret is a really terrific iconic piece of clothing from him. We would love a bike.

I might conclude on that: as Kirsten mentioned, part of my research is going into developing a travelling exhibition about the history of cycling in Australia. That is going to be ongoing work for the next year or so. We will be putting some stuff up on the website about some objects that we are interested in looking for, and some other public programs that we are hoping to get off the ground. Please stay tuned and look at the website for more cycling related stuff. Thanks again for coming, and this will be on the web shortly. [applause]

Date published: 4 April 2013