The Little Black Bottle, by Gerry Moore

The Little Black Bottle

Title: The Little Black Bottle: Choppy Warburton, The Question Of Doping, And The Deaths Of His Bicycle Riders
Author: Gerry Moore
Publisher: Cycle Publishing / Van der Plas Publications
Year: 2011
Pages: 158
Order: Cycle Publishing
What it is: A brief look into the world of the now infamous trainer, Choppy Warburton, his riders and the era they rode in.
Strengths: In words and images - the book has more than sixty contemporary photographs and illustrations - Moore paints a picture of a lost world and a man today remembered only as being cycling's first villain.
Weaknesses: The book's eight chapters sometimes feel less like cohesive parts of one overall book and more like individual essays, with occasional repetitions in the story.

Once upon a time - a time before Team Sky came along and set the world to rights - the British turned their backs on road cycling. Snubbed it. Shunned it. Wanted nothing to do with it and all the trouble it brought with it. In consequence of this, all the focus of cycling in Britain went into track cycling. The best and the brightest of Britannia's two-wheeled athletes turned to the boards. And, in consequence of this specialisation, they became the best the world had to offer. Their victories brought national pride and international prestige. From the man in the street to the Queen on her throne, everyone was pleased by the successes of Britain's cyclists. They warmed the cockles of even the coldest hearts. The British Empire still covered two-thirds of the globe, Britannia still ruled the waves: even Victoria was amused that her boys now ruled the boards as well.

Who wouldn't have wanted to be British in the dying days of the nineteenth century, eh? Ok, dumb question, especially coming from someone from Ireland, but ignore the obvious answer and roll with the question, a bit, please. Even allowing for a little bit of hyperbole in this picture of cycling at the end of the nineteenth century - call it poetic licence, call it promoting the sport beyond our own narrow borders - British cycling rocked in those days. And Gerry Moore's The Little Black Bottle tells the story of one of the men responsible for helping some of Britain's cyclists climb to the top of their sport: James 'Choppy' Warburton.

James Edward Warburton entered the world on 13 November 1845 in the Lancashire market town of Coal Hey, the first of thirteen children born to his parents James and Harriet, who had sealed their nuptials just two months before James Jnr's arrival. Cotton Mills ruled the economy, and it was in the weaving shed of one of these dark satanic mills that Warburton began his working life, aged just eight years old, sent scurrying beneath moving looms to gather up loose cotton.

Choppywarburton_medium In his teens Warburton's athletic abilities were noticed and he became a member of the Haslingden Athletic Club. In 1878 he became the Amateur Champion of England. In the early years of his athletic career Warburton was still working down t' mill and athletics - even at the level of an amateur - afforded him a chance to supplement his income. Trophies won could be sold. Occasionally Warburton would receive appearance fees and generous travelling allowances from promoters. And - sometimes - he would unofficially be paid to perform in such a way as was advantageous to the bookmakers accepting bets on the outcome of races (or, to put it more bluntly, he was paid to take a dive or run as a pace-setter for a rival).

Married and with a son to carry on the family name, Warburton decided to turn professional and fully cash in on his athletic abilities. In 1880 he set out for the US and a series of races that were, in the end, a financial disaster. They also set the seal on Warburton's reputation, one American newspaper recalling them in the following fashion:

"His career in this country was a continued succession of sells, tricks, defeats, disgraces and frauds. He was crooked all the way through after his first race, and ran in the interests of a gang of bullies and blacklegs, who told him when to win and when to lose, as best suited their betting book. That he was persecuted, plundered, and punished we admit, but he couldn't expect any better from the crowd he trained with. The very worst and meanest of the local sporting world were his associates and partners. That they fleeced him is most certainly true, as that Choppy fleeced and sold everybody who had anything to do with him."

In 1883 Warburton tried America again, this time without reported incident, and in 1885 he was - briefly - appointed manager and trainer of athletics at the Stanley Park Running Grounds in Liverpool. He ended his running career in 1892, after a race-meet at Stamford Bridge in London. Five years later, in a lodging house in Wood Green, north London, Warburton was found dead, heart-failure ending his life barely a month after his fifty-second birthday. Those five years between 1892 and 1897 are at the centre of The Little Black Book. They are the years Choppy Warburton earned the reputation that has seen him marked down as cycling's first Dr Evil.

* * * * *

When Choppy Warburton died in 1897, his reputation was already in tatters in the UK, where - in 1896 - the NCU had 'warned him off' all UK race meetings, a ban he was appealing against in the months before his death. But despite the opprobrium heaped upon him in his home country, in the rest of Europe Warburton was still a star, welcomed rapturously by the punters. It took the better part of a century for people to really begin to demonise Choppy Warburton. But once they began ... boy did they make up for lost time.

In the dying years of the twentieth century, a hundred years after he'd died, Warburton was blamed for causing the death of poor, young Arthur Linton, of doping another of his riders to the point he was unaware of his surroundings and attempted to resume racing in the wrong direction, and of being partly responsible for the death of a third rider. As the war against doping heated up, Warburton was time and again rolled out to illustrate that the darkness at the heart of sport was no modern invention.

Arthurlinton_medium You can use the death of Arthur Linton as a litmus test for the quality of people who talk about doping. If you come across a story of Linton dying moments after becoming the first rider across the finish line of Bordeaux-Paris in 1886, his system poisoned with some noxious substance, abandon all hope, for the person repeating that story is clearly an arse and hasn't bothered checking the facts of a story that was debunked more than a decade ago. Bordeaux-Paris didn't commence until 1891 and it was 1896 when Linton became the first rider across its finish line and was later judged to be the joint winner of that year's race. He died 23 July 1896 - two months after Bordeaux-Paris and after having competed in several other races in the intervening weeks - in his home village of Aberare, Wales. Heart failure, brought on by typhoid fever, was adjudged to be the cause of his death.

So how did Choppy Warburton come to become the first most evil man in cycling? That's where the little black bottle of Moore's title comes from. At track meeting across Europe he played to the gallery, was a flamboyant character, a true showman. Whenever one of his charges would flag in their effort, Warburton would reach into his black bag and ostentatiously produce his little black bottle, which he would brandish in the air. Fuelled by the magic elixir offered them by their trainer, Warburton's riders became world champions.

Warburton's riders were successful QED he must have doped them. So goes the modern logic anyhow. For what other explanation could there possibly be? Actually, there's a quite a few, and one of them sees Warburton looking more like a nineteenth century David Brailsford and less like the prototype for Michele Ferrari. To understand this, you have to step back a bit and look at the cycling world Warburton operated in.

In those days - the infant years of cycling - the understanding of sporting physiology, training methods, diet and the like, was basic in the extreme. Warburton, in his own athletic career, had taken responsibility for his own training, and consequently felt he had a certain level of understanding of what would work for others. This, he felt, armed him adequately in the task of training others. Particularly important to Warburton was the role recovery periods played in a proper training schedule. That could explain one reason for Warburton's success.

Another explanation comes when you consider the way bike races were raced in those days: paced racing was the order of the day, with riders competing behind teams of riders mounted on tandems, triplets, quintuplets and even stranger multi-rider powered contraptions that look like they came from the imagination of Heath Robinson. A single rider would have teams of pacers available to him throughout a race - a tandem-mounted pair driving the racing here, a quad providing the pace there - and here an experienced manager, orchestrating the change-over of pacing teams trackside, could prove to be the difference between winning and losing.

More important than orchestrating the change-over of pacers was the athletic prowess of the pacers themselves. The difference in the quality of rival pace teams often accounted for the difference between winning and losing. Drill the pacers - particularly in the art of the change-over - and deploy them in the most advantageous manner and you would contribute something significant to your rider's chance for victory.

For a time, the tyre manufacturer Dunlop had the best pacers money could buy. Warburton though noticed that success was making them complacent. He approached the Gladiator Bicycle Company and took charge of their pacers, quickly turning them into the best in the world. And, with his own riders racing in their slipstream, Warburton's charges became world beaters. The secret of Warburton's success may have been as simple as doing something his competitors were not doing - simply paying attention to detail, aggregating marginal gains.

What then of that little black bottle, what role did it really play? It was a great crowd pleaser, of that there should be no doubt. It got Choppy noticed. And getting noticed meant he got more space on the sports pages. There's no such thing as bad publicity and everyone - especially the sponsors and the promoters who pulled the purse strings - was happy. The sponsors got their name in front of the punters, the punters got a character they were happy to pay to see and the promoters smiled each time Warburton played to the gallery.

But that little black bottle, a hundred years later, has sealed Warburton's reputation. A century after his death, Warburton has been hoist by his own petard. In his lifetime he created an air of mystery over the fuel that drove his charges. Today we have stripped away as much of that mystery as we can and have decided for ourselves just what was the secret of Warburton's success.

So what was in Choppy's little black bottle? What do you think was in it? Laudanum? Cocaine? Arsenic? Strychnine? Caffeine? Nitroglycerine? These were all easily available from the local pharmacist. They were all used at that time by athletes of diverse persuasions. And none of them - not a single one of them - was on the banned list. For one very simple reason: doping in the nineteenth century was not illegal.

Gerry Moore is unable to answer the central question of what was in Warburton's little black bottle, but he takes a stab at guessing its contents. Could it have been as bad as people think? Or could it have been something as simple as pineapple juice or extract of cherry oil? Should I tell you here what Moore decides or should I let you learn that for yourself by reading his book? Hmmnnn ... eeny, meeny, miny, moe ... ok, you'll have to read the book yourself. Sorry.

I should though tell you this: doping is actually the least important aspect of The Little Black Bottle. Which, in some ways, I think is quite apt. What Moore's book is really about is painting a picture of Warburton and his riders and the cycling world they operated in. For me, this - not the doping, although it goes without saying that I enjoyed that bit too - was what made The Little Black Bottle such a fun read.

This lost world of multi-manned pacing machines fascinates me. We have forgotten that, in its earliest years, Paris-Roubaix was raced behind multi-manned pacers, and later behind petrol-driven ones. The myths wrought by the disciples of Desgrange mean we have forgotten that, even in that great era of individualism, cycling was very, very much a team sport. It's nice to be reminded of what the earliest days of this sport looked like. And Moore does this not just in words, but through some sixty or more contemporary photographs and illustrations which pepper the book.

* * * * *

One of Choppy Warburton's grander boasts was this:

"I've only coached four riders, and three of them are now world champions."

Needless to say, there is a degree of untruth in Warburton's claim. His stable of riders actually extended to about thirty riders in all. Among them were the three Linton brothers (Arthur, Sam and Tom), Jimmy Michael, the French champion Constant Huret, Edouard Nieuport, Albert 'Jenny' Walters, and Albert Champion.

Michaelwarburtonlintonlinton_mediumTwo of the Lintons - Arthur and Tom - along with Michael were three of the four riders Warburton admitted to having coached. Moore goes into considerable detail on their lives and careers, while touching briefly on the careers of some of the other riders who passed through Warburton's stable. Moore also pauses to look at a couple of Warburton's coaching competitors: Sam Mussabani - whose interest in cycling I was previously unaware of - and the American Tom Eck (who really ought have a film made about him, his life was so full of ... colour).

What of that fourth rider Warburton admitted to coaching? Who was he? Well, he was actually a she and she was the French rider Amelie le Gall, a Breton better known as Lisette Marton. In 1896 Marton won the Woman's World Championship in Paris. She trained with Warburton's male charges and mostly seems to have competed on the track, in matched sprints against other women and, sometimes, on a tandem, in mixed-pairs races. Sometimes Marton went head to head against men.

In at least one of these mixed-sex tandem races, Marton was teamed with Jimmy Michael against the pairing of Charley Bearden and Clara Grace. Grace was a Scots-born rider also in Warburton's stable, who seems to have raced mostly in the UK, winning the English National Championship on the road in 1896, setting new records for London to Coventry and London to Brighton and taking various other victories on the road and on the track.

In one race at the Islington Aquarium, Lisette Marton went head to head against Albert Champion, the future king of the spark plug. Who beat whom isn't recorded but the NCU's sensibilities were so offended by the thought of men and women competing against one and other that they banned Champion. While it is true that the NCU had rules against women's racing - yes, even back then British Cycling (as the NCU eventually became) didn't consider female cyclists to be the equal of male ones - such rules were often honoured in the breach. Consider, for instance, the case of Albert Walter Gamage.

Gamages_medium Gamage was the founder of a Holborn-based department store which bore his family name. A part of the business's profits came from the new craze for cycling, with Gamages selling bicycles, accessories, clothing and associated merchandise. A keen rider himself, Gamage took considerable interest in this part of his business and became involved with various cycling clubs. He also became an official of the NCU, donning a blazer and making sure that races were run in accordance with NCU rules.

Gamage's interest in cycling - and his eye for a profit - saw him investing in a cycling track in Wood Green, north London. In 1894 he bought Nightingale Hall, which he then had razed and a new cycling stadium built in its place. Measured in old money, the concrete track ran three and a half laps to the mile (four hundred fifty, four hundred sixty metres the lap?), had straights of one hundred twenty yards and banking of eight feet. It was, Moore says, one of the fastest tracks in the country. Ten thousand fans at a time could be accommodated - to use the London 2012 vélodrome for perspective, only six thousand lucky punters at a time will get to see the track events at the Olympics. As well as gate receipts, Gamage recouped the £18,000 building costs through areas reserved for a restaurant, bar, café and an area for traders to set up stalls.

Work commenced on the Wood Green track in 1895 and was completed in time for a series of races to be held there over the Easter of 1896. The Good Friday races alone attracted a total of twelve thousand paying punters. Among the events put on by Gamage was, Moore says, the first outdoor race for women in England. Gamage had seen women racing at the Olympia indoor track earlier in the year and engaged them to compete at his own track, against a group of invited French riders. This, despite Gamage being an official of the NCU and the NCU having rules against such things.

Worse though was to come that Easter. Women racing against other women was one thing. But then Gamage organised what he referred to as 'Daisy Races.' In a nod to the music hall favourite, Daisy Bell, he teamed male and female riders on tandems in mixed-sex races. Apart from the apoplexy you hope such races must have caused inside the NCU, what sounds particularly enjoyable about them is that they were run off to a soundtrack provided by the Wood Green Military Band, accompanied by the massed choir of paying punters belting out the music hall ditty. Pause and think about that for just a moment: Spring-time in north London and men and women on tandems racing round and round a concrete oval, all to the accompaniment of thousands of voices belting out Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do, I'm half crazy all for the love of you. It won't be a stylish marriage, I can't afford a carriage, but you'd look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle made for two.

* * * * *

Let's bring this back to the story of Choppy Warburton. Gamage played an inadvertent role in Warburton's downfall. It was later in 1896, at a Whitsun track meet in Catford, south London, organised by Gamage, that Warburton was accused of doping Jimmy Michael, the occasion when some reports have Michael riding off in the wrong direction after taking a sip from Warburton's little black bottle. Warburton's bottle in this case was not said to have contained performance enhancing drugs. Quite the opposite. Warburton was accused of nobbling Michael. For the simple reason that his rider was about to leave him for Warburton's American rival, Tom Eck.

No one knows what really happened and who did what or why, but Moore offers a not unbelievable alternative explanation: Michael wanted to extricate himself from his contract with Warburton and Eck suggested the ruse of accusing Warburton of having attempted to poison him. Modern riders should take note of such negotiating tactics. Cadel Evans and Bradley Wiggins could have been saved from having to buy out their contracts had they thought to try similar stunts.

Gerry Moore's The Little Black Bottle is not an attempt to whitewash Warburton, though a consequence of it might be a rehabilitation of his reputation. Moore - who died in January 2010, before his book could be published - has no illusions about Warburton, is actually quite blunt about him and the probable contents of his little black bottle. The simple fact is, Warburton was a shady character, operating in a shady sport. But he was probably no better or worse than many of his peers. In collating as much of the available evidence on Warburton and his charges as he could, Moore shows that the story of Warburton's little black bottle is, unsurprisingly, far from black and white.

* * * * *

Images courtesy Cycle Publishing / Van der Plas Publications

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