an account of the 1931 race
by Sir Hubert Opperman
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 Princes, I heard calls "Never mind this one, Oppy - wait for the Paris-Brest."
To my surprise my name was placed at the head of the entry list and No.1 went automatically onto my back and my bike.
Yet I could not give myself a chance to win when I saw the 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 record-breaking mountaineer Benoît-Faure.
Belgians Bonduel, Joly, Demuysere, Louyet and Decroix had impressive wins from 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 through 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 cobble-stone 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 1:00 p.m. we speeded onto gale-lashed roads, and twenty-eight pairs of wheels began inscribing the history of the fifth PBP. As rain spat from low-level clouds, riders braked, dismounted, and hurriedly fought into their silk coat-capes, 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 free-wheeled 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 3:00 A.M. slough of depression, when one sourly wonders whether it is all worth while, Bidot ranged alongside with an antidote.
"One good Belgian is finished," he chuckled. "Demuysere has abandonded."
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 his 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 control and was munching happily as he rode easily up the tram-lined 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 center of the road.
Others swayed into the grass and crashed into wakefulness, while I banged my head alternately with each, gulped black coffee, and broke into unmelodious songs every few minutes.
Sydney-Melbourne 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 warning from cars, like the cackling geese of Rome, jerked the teams into a wakeful chase, and overtaken I would then relax again into a sleep-resisting struggle.
We replaced our capes. Bodies denuded of weight by 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, with a dozen vacuum flasks alternated hot soups, tea, coffee, warm grilled chops and chicken. "Ah, Oppy," wistfully said one rider as I gulped a beautifully scalded liquid, "if you became 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 at 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 Sûreté.
However, in the brief three minutes at Rennes, De Baere told me the important if unwelcome reason. Bonduel, after abandoning had told DeBaere 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 I had to watch, and while I grabbed a food bag 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 pursing any member of their squad.
At sixty miles to go, fourteen riders were still in a group, but at Bretuil, in the forty-sixth hour, we wearily commenced to meet the rise out of town. Then when the grade began to hurt every pair of road-stained legs, Frantz and Dewaele, faces contorted with effort, smashed the line and thrust on handlebars and digging deep into the pedals, I somehow managed to get them. For three hundred yards we kept jamming until the sweetest music I ever heard was "Niks" choking "Chase him Maurice," and Dewaele's despairing, "I am finished."
Soon I had three minutes advance with fifty 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 quartet of Pancera, Bidot, Louyet, Decroix. Pacing frantically and Decroix. Pacing frantically and lashing to furious endeavor by the knowledge that until I was overtaken only second place was 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 forty-eighth hour it was still twenty-five miles per hour along the flat, forty 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 thirty 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 two hundred yearned-for yards before we bounced and clattered over the grey-colored 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 discomforture. It was war and the 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. But of them all the sifting critics will always rank those final breath-catching moments of this PBP as the top-line reminiscence of hectic ends to cycling road combat.
For me that last lap will never fade.
Decroix led Louyet as the faintly heard bell sounded the last lap. Bidot jockeyed for the 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 four hundred yards to cover. At three hundred yards Louyet left his wheel and went past, and it appeared that the Belgian must win, when Pancera shifted madly and rushed alongside.