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On Saturday 15 March, CyclingTips’ resident historian Craig Fry was part of a team that attempted the Australian Audax Flèche Opperman 24 hour record of 770km. In this piece Craig tells the story of that ride, while considering Australia’s long and successful history of endurance riding.
The first Flèche Opperman All Day Trial was held in 1985, four years after Audax Australia was established. The inaugural 24-hour event was based on the French Flèche Vélocio, and was won with 570km by a Port Fairy Cycling Club team that included well-known distance rider Graham Woodrup.
The Audax Flèche Opperman 24-hour (‘the Oppy’) rules are simple. Three to five riders try to cycle for 24 hours on a course of their choosing with specified control points (verified on individual rider brevet cards). The ride route must be a tour rather than repeated loops on the same road.
Control points are the only places the team can get assistance from their support crew, and three of the five riders must finish in order for the team’s distance to be recognised. Relaying of riders is not permitted.
The Oppy 24-hour trial and numerous other distance events run by the Audax organisation are part of a long tradition of distance cycling that dates back to the late 1860s in Australia. Buried in the archives are amazing stories of Australia’s long distance cycling past that inspire and should be remembered.
A long history of long rides
The first long distance velocipede ride in Victoria was in October 1869 when William Kernot rode from East Melbourne to Geelong in nine to ten hours. It inspired many imitators and set in motion a popular fascination with distance cycling, and a desire for breaking records that persists today in Australia.
Australia’s early long-distance riders helped spark public imagination and thinking about new possibilities for moving around the country, and the speed with which one could do so. The ride notes and stories of some cyclists inspired Australia’s first road maps (e.g. Broadbent’s Road Map and Guide of Victoria 1896, Broadbent’s Fifty Miles Round Melbourne and Broadbent’s Map of Victoria), and paved the way for many others that would follow.
The motivations for long distance riding in Australia varied:
- “Some did it for the glory and others merely wanted to get from one place to another or see the country” – (The Bicycle and the Bush by Jim Fitzpatrick, p184)
- “No doubt it was the liberating force of the bicycle that produced the mania for covering distance” – (The Confessions of a Bicycle Nut, Keith Dunstan, p59)
Whatever the reason, this ‘mania’ for long distance riding produced an astonishing legacy of records in this country. Many riders “became momentary heroes and made Australia the undisputed long-distance cycling centre of the world”, according to Jim Fitzpatrick’s “The Bicycle and the Bush”.
Consider some of the following examples:
- 1884 – Alf Edward became the first to cycle from Melbourne to Sydney on a high wheeler (8.5 days for 931km on the Hume Highway)
- 1888 – George Burston and Harry Stokes became the only Australians to complete a round-the-world cycling trip on high wheeler bicycles
- 1896 – The first Australian women’s cycling records were set by Mrs Benzley of Sunbury (130 miles/209km, Melbourne to Castlemaine return), and Mrs Newtown (570 miles/917km from Sydney to Melbourne in 6 days, 13 hours)
- 1896 – Arthur Richardson became the first to ride across the Nullarbor, and around Australia 1899-1900
- 1906-1912 – Francis Birtles cycles across Australia numerous times
- 1931 – Doreen Middleton aged 19 rides from Adelaide to Melbourne (607 miles/977km in 4 days 20 hours and 30 mins)
- 1931 – Hubert Opperman wins the Paris-Brest-Paris 1,200km race in 49 hours 23 minutes
- 1932 – Opperman sets paced world records at the Melbourne Motordrome (860 miles, 347 yards/1,384km in 24 hours, and 1,000 miles/1,609km in 28 hours, 55 minutes and 39 seconds)
- 1933 – Ossie Nicholson set a world distance record of 43,996.75 miles/70,800km in a year (100 miles/161km or more on 365 days from Melbourne to Portsea return). In 1937 he did that same ride twice each day reaching 62,656.6 miles/100,835km
- 1937 – Opperman sets Fremantle to Sydney record (13 days, 10 hours and 21 minutes)
- 1939 – Opperman breaks 101 records during 24 hours at the old Sydney Velodrome. He covered 489.3 miles/787km unpaced in 24 hours. He also set the 24-hour road distance record of 505.75 miles/814km.
- 1940s – Ernie Old completes an amazing series of interstate rides in his 70s (e.g. 1945 Melbourne – Sydney – Melbourne; 1946 Melbourne – Adelaide – Melbourne; 1947 Melbourne – Brisbane – Sydney; 1948 Melbourne – Adelaide – Darwin – Brisbane – Melbourne; 1948 Melbourne – Perth – Melbourne; 1949 Melbourne – Brisbane – Melbourne)
- 1966 – Barry Waddell sets a solo record of 465 miles/748km from Adelaide to Melbourne in 22 hours 55 minutes
- 1967 – Vic Browne breaks Oppy’s Sydney to Melbourne record (32 hours, 57 minutes and 9 seconds)
- 1978 – Ian Hay sets the veteran 24-hour solo road record of 538km around Albert Park Lake
- 1982 – Graham Woodrup sets a solo record from Melbourne to Adelaide return (83 hours and 27 minutes).
2014 Flèche Opperman 24 hour Trial
My first thoughts about attempting the Oppy 24 hour trial came soon after the Melbourne to Mildura ride I did in April last year. This was my first foray into distance cycling (over 200km), and I had been inspired to set even larger goals while doing background research for the subsequent CyclingTips article about that ride.
I knew I couldn’t do the Oppy 24 hour alone, so I floated the idea with our Mildura ride leader, Chris Munro. He said yes immediately, and so over the next six months we put together a team of five riders plus a support crew.
The Australian Audax 24-hour record of 770km was set back in 1993 by a team called the ‘Endorphins’. The goal of our team was to beat that 770km record by riding 780km. A bold aim for first-time 24-hour riders, considering the Endorphins’ 770km equated to an average speed of 32.08kph in 24 hours. And once you count necessary rest stops, even if those stops are only short, it means the average speed for actual riding time is significantly higher.
We planned our course meticulously before submitting for Audax approval. The stipulated 2014 finish town for Victorian teams was Wangaratta, so we started with Bureau of Meteorology prevailing wind data for mid-March, and drafted potential 780km routes to Wangaratta.
The course we settled on went clockwise from Ballarat – Hamilton – Horsham – St Arnaud – Rochester – Shepparton – Benalla – Glenrowan – Wangaratta. It included five-, ten-, and 15-minute control points, as well as ‘zero-minute’ controls (quick bidon and food refill stops). It would be critical to get the food, hydration and rest time needed, without cooling down too much.
Our training and preparation was crucial too. Most of us are regular riders, and had done events like Amy’s Gran Fondo in Lorne, and the Audax Alpine Classic Extreme 250km. Some of the team also races regularly. Collectively we had a solid fitness base, and built on this in earnest from December with longer ride and steps from 100km to 350km. Also important was a reconnaissance ride in February to check our course – a 620km effort over two days.
By the time March arrived we felt well prepared. Everything had gone to plan. But this all changed two days before the start.
One rider, Murray Crawford, had to withdraw the day before the start due to a nasty virus that knocked him sideways. He was a big loss, being a very experienced cyclist with years of racing, and time as director of the John West and Target Trek Cycling teams in Victoria.
We were able to find a replacement at the 11th hour, James Black, who had some reasonable fitness after having completed a recent week-long 1,000km ride. James was honest with us — he wasn’t promising he’d go the whole distance, but assured us he’d help on the front for as long as possible.
This was good enough for us. We didn’t have a choice anyway. We would certainly need five riders.
Racing the clock
The morning of Saturday 15 March arrived soon enough, with everyone up early to get a decent breakfast down, and prepare for the 8:00am start in Ballarat. There was a good energy in the group, lots of smiles and positive talk, but plenty of nerves too. I must have checked my tyre pressure and the food in my jersey pockets a dozen times.
We rolled out of the motel around 7:30am, took team photos, and assembled at 7:50am at the agreed start location. Those next 10 minutes took forever, as we were all impatient for the start. 8:00am came and we were finally underway, glad to be rolling even though we were probably all wondering if we would last the next 24 hours.
The forecasts for that day were accurate. There was a strong crosswind that necessitated a right-to-left of road echelon the entire 177km to Hamilton. The wind was slightly over our right shoulders giving assistance some of the way, so we were on schedule after the first 100km. But the wind was shifting, making it difficult to hold a rhythm, and conditions worsened between Lake Bolac and Dunkeld with rain and the wind turning west (headwind).
Unfortunately, this and some cramping put James into the van at about 150km. We were all expecting he would leave us at some point, but it was still a blow to lose our first rider so soon.
We reached Hamilton for our first 10-minute rest. The rain had stopped, but time now seemed to speed up and those precious rest minutes evaporated quickly. We were wet, tired, and getting worried about being 30 minutes behind schedule.
The wind was westerly (a pure crosswind) for the next 133km section to Horsham, where we had scheduled our next 10-minute control. We lost another 30 minutes on this section, which was a second big hit. It was an uneventful section with some spectacular views of the Grampians but it seemed to take forever. Our smiles and positive energy were now giving way to frowns and flat spots.
Spirits raised noticeably amongst the team after we reached Horsham (310km), and it became apparent that the westerly wind was still in. We were all praying for a tailwind for the remaining 470km, and hoping it would help us to make up time.
With the westerly behind us the section to St Arnaud was faster, and we covered the distance in 3 hours and 8 minutes (just over 34kph). We were able to claw back 17 minutes by the time we got in to St Arnaud (417km), but we were still 42 minutes behind.
Even with the wind assistance the faster pace began to take its toll. By late evening Trevor Junge started to feel sleepy on the bike, and Jeremy Canny-Smith began to fade. It was a critical period for the team, as we could not afford to lose another two riders.
We slowed the pace in the hope Trevor and Jeremy could ride through their flat spots, told them to rest at the back more, yelled encouragements, and kept checking in with how they were feeling. The crew also gave them extra attention at the next stops.
This seemed to work, because for the 43km section between Moliagul and Bridgewater our pace lifted again to 36.8kph. We had lost and regained seven to eight minutes, and were 41 minutes behind schedule at the 503km mark. Getting to Wangaratta by 8:00am still seemed possible at that stage.
Regrettably, these efforts put Jeremy into the red, and he stayed there. Jezz was feeling the pinch coming into our short stop at Bridgewater, with sore legs and knees, and feeling nauseous. He hit the wall unable to ride any quicker than 26kph.
It was a tough moment, and posed a real dilemma. We were all hoping Jeremy would recover, but while rolling at only 26-27kph we were losing valuable time – the chances of beating the 770km record were worsening by the minute. Jeremy eventually pulled the pin somewhere between midnight and 1am.
We all felt bad for him. But he had given the team everything and simply couldn’t continue. He had just ridden around 525km. An amazing effort by any measure.
The last six to seven hours
So, there we were. Three remaining riders in the middle of nowhere with a huge task ahead – around 260km to Wangaratta, but we were fast running out of time.
The next six or seven hours are a blur. Our control points came and went without incident. But we kept losing time. By Rochester (604km) we were 66 minutes down. By Shepparton (674km) 68 minutes down, and by the Dookie – Nalinga Road on the Midland Highway (707km) it was 91 minutes.
The three of us covered the last 197km until the 8:00am race end in an average speed of 28.8kph (including about 20 minutes in stops which puts the ride time average at 30.3kph). Not bad considering.
We had our bad luck, with the loss of riders and tough weather during the first 310km. But overall we were mostly very fortunate – no punctures or mechanicals, no injuries, no traffic incidents, and getting three riders to 730km in our first 24-hour ride.
The ride result isn’t an Olympic cycling medal, a national championship, or a Tour stage win. We get that. But we are all very proud of what the team did achieve.
We didn’t reach our goal distance of 780km. We didn’t break the record. But we did ride the longest distance in 2014 (the Oppy 24-hour ran simultaneously in VIC, WA, QLD, NSW, ACT and SA). Our 730km brings the ‘Oppy Shield’ back to Victoria after seven years, and makes us the first team over 700km in 21 years.
You can’t help learning about yourself on rides like this, about inner strength, weaknesses, and so on. But this ride also showed me what the group together allows mere individuals to achieve. We could not have done this without our superb support crew. And the support of our partners and families was also crucial in accommodating our training, team meetings, and the numerous other demands we placed on them.
Lots of people have asked me why we did this ride. Personal challenge? Sure. Because its there? Yep. Curiosity? Definitely. But for me the biggest reason is the satisfaction that comes from attempting such a massive physical, mental, and seemingly impossible challenge by doing something as simple and beautiful as riding a bike with friends.
You can check out the Strava file from Craig’s ride here.
Team Pane e Acqua: Riders – Chris Munro, Trevor Junge, Jeremy Canny-Smith, James Black, Craig Fry. Support Crew – Mark Trigger, Simon Maddison, James Black.
About the author
Craig Fry is a Melbourne-based researcher, writer and amateur cyclist. His cycling articles can be seen here at CyclingTips, at The Conversation and The Age. You can follow him on Instagram at Pushbikewriter and on Strava. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.