August 2012

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Hubert Opperman & Bruce Small

Word: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Word: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Hubert Opperman was a telegram delivery boy. At the beginning of the 1921 racing season, he joined a suburban cycling club and entered a distance race. It was hot and dusty on the unmade country roads but the 17 year old was gritty and tenacious. He kept pace with the experienced riders, the scratch men, and finished in third place.

The prize was a spanking new Malvern Star. Waiting at the finish line was the bike’s manufacturer, Bruce Small. Small had left school at 14 to become a printer’s devil, then a commercial traveller. Now 24, he had just sunk his life savings into the fledgling bicycle business. So far, Malvern Star was only producing 12 bikes a week but Small had a keen eye for publicity and he immediately recognised the commercial potential of the clean-cut young Oppy.

“He sold me on himself,” recalled Opperman, “at a most opportune moment in my life.” The two young men promptly forged a bond that was to make one of them rich and the other famous.

Riding for Malvern Star, Opperman won the Australian road title four times. In 1928, eager to test himself against the pedal-pushers of Europe, he joined the small Australasian team for the Tour de France. He finished 18th, then went on to win the Bol d’Or endurance event, riding 17 hours without dismounting, cheered on by a crowd of 50,000. He was met at home with a hero’s welcome. Other victories and world records soon followed.

More than just a sponsor, the energetic Small was Oppy’s manager, trainer, tactician, moral mainstay and investment adviser. At the height of the Depression, his protégé was as much a national symbol as Bradman and Phar Lap. In 1936, Allied Bruce Small Ltd went public. Eventually, there would be six Malvern Star factories and a thousand dealerships.

The war marked the end of Opperman’s sporting career. He joined the RAAF and rose to flight lieutenant, then joined the Liberal Party and rose to Minister for Transport. Small, meanwhile, made a gazillion by turning banana plantations into Florida-style canal estates. Running on the slogan ‘Think Big, Vote Small’, he was elected mayor of the Gold Coast in 1967 and put boosterism into bikinis by inventing meter maids.

Oppy continued cycling until he was 90 and died on an exercise bike in a retirement village with “No Cycling” signs. A stalwart of the solo euphonium, Small is commemorated by a smallish statue in Elkhorn Avenue, Surfers Paradise.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

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