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The Fast Times of Albert Champion, by Peter Joffre Nye

A story about a cyclist who made a major impact on the automobile industry.

Albert Champion signing on for the start of Paris-Roubaix, 1899
Albert Champion signing on for the start of Paris-Roubaix, 1899
Bibliothèque nationale de France

The Fast Times of Albert Champion Title: The Fast Times of Albert Champion - From Record-Setting Racer to Dashing Tycoon, an Untold Story of Speed, Success and Betrayal
Author: Peter Joffre Nye
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Pages: 460
Year: 2014
Order: Prometheus Books
What it is: A biography of Albert Champion, spark plug king and one-time winner of the Queen of the Classics
Strengths: Nye really does tell the story of Champion and his times, weaving together a story about sport and business that tracks the early years of both the sport of cycling and the automobile industry on two continents
Weaknesses: It leaves you wanting to know more about a time when the worlds of cycling and automobiles were intertwined

On the eve of his eighteenth birthday Albert Champion, a young Parisian who had started out on one wheel, performing tricks on a unicycle, and graduated to two following reports of Paris-Brest-Paris in 1891, presented himself to Adolphe Clément - maker of bicycles and the French distributor of Dunlop tyres - and asked to turn professional with his sponsorship. Clément agreed and on the very day that Champion turned eighteen - April 5, 1896 - Champion made his professional début at the Palais des Arts Libéraux, in a race organised by Henri Desgrange.

"'He's called Champion, a strangely prophetic name for his future battles,' Desgrange wrote for Le Cycle under the nom de plume A Spectator of the Third Arrondisement, caricatured in the margin of the page as an aristocrat in a top hat, frolicking on a bicycle, coattails flapping. 'It's a bit like crowning the winner coming before the event itself. Physically, the young rider is not very attractive. I would even go so far as to say he's not very appealing.' He chided Champion for having a sultry expression and wearing an ill-fitting purple jersey: 'Some riders show off their shape, show off their muscles and their suppleness, but Champion hides his spindly legs and pulls his jersey as low as possible to cover them up.'"

Four riders took the line in the race, each supported by teams of pacers provided by their sponsors. Champion got his professional career off to the best of starts with victory, which helped secure him a contract to ride in Roubaix, on the velodrome Théo Vienne and Maurice Perez had opened the year before.

Over the course of the year, Champion added more victories to his palmarès and considerable burnish to his reputation. In the late summer he and his boss Adolphe Clément received a visitor: James 'Choppy' Warburton. The famed English trainer - the man credited with turning Arthur Linton and Jimmy Michael into world champions - offered to take Champion under his wing, having recently lost Michael to American rival Tom Eck (and having been 'warned off' tracks in the UK).

Warburton took Champion in hand and immediately started putting him through his paces. Warburton is famed for his little black bottle and its unknown contents but there was more to him than that. He was a trainer ahead of his time. Under his tutelage a typical day for Champion started with twenty minutes of skipping, followed by a massage and breakfast. Then came thirty-five to forty kilometres riding in the Bois de Boulogne, followed by another massage and lunch. In the afternoon Warburton made Champion practice starts, in the Vél d'Hiv: sprinting away from the starter and getting into the slipstream of his team of pacers (racing then being a paced sport). Then it was back home for dinner followed by a stroll round the Bois de Boulogne, with the day ending with supper, a massage and sleep. (Sundays were different: Champion enjoyed a full English breakfast and then had to get from the north west of Paris to Orléans before one o'clock, where Warburton - fresh off the train - met him with lunch and then left Champion to make his way back to Paris by eight o'clock, a round trip of 250-300 kilometres.)

Across France, Great Britain and Germany Champion raced and won with the help of Warburton's training methods. And, with the help of Warburton's showmanship, Champion became a fan favourite, especially in races where he was pitted against another of Warburton's charges, Amélie le Gall (aka Lisette). His successes were sufficient to allow him to travel first class as he, Warburton and their team of pacers made their way around the German winter track circuit, stopping off in Berlin, Dresden, Hanover, Leipzig, Cologne, Hamburg, Frankfurt and more. And they were sufficient to see Champion pitted against Constant Huret in Paris in March of 1897, less than a year after having turned pro, "the young challenger against the established star."

In Paris, against Huret, both riders were paced by motorised tricycles. Advances in aluminium processing had enabled lighter engines to be manufactured. In France, Georges Bouton and Jules-Félix-Philippe-Albert de Dion formed the De Dion-Bouton Motorette Company, which teamed up with Adolphe Clément to manufacture motorised trikes. One trike, with a two-horsepower engine, could replace an eight-man pacing team. But that extra power came at a cost: reliability. In the Huret-Champion race in Paris, Huret's pacer broke down. Two months on, a Huret-Champion rematch was organised, in Roubaix. This time it was Champion's pacer that conked out. A week later the two met for a third time, at the Buffalo Vélodrome. This time neither pacer malfunctioned and Champion took the win, fair and square.

Champion could train as hard as Warburton could push him, but if victory or defeat could come down to the performance of a motorised pacer, what was the point? So Champion did what he had to: he found out all he could about the workings of the engine he was trusting his career to. Everything, right down to the spark plugs.

* * * * *

Champion's second year as a professional ended on a low note, with Warburton's death. It was Huret who recommended where Champion should go next for support: his own coach, Dudley Marks (who in 1896 had taken Teddy Hale - the Englishman who masqueraded as an Irishman - to the Madison Square Garden International Six Day Race, where Hale took a famous victory). With Marks's support, through 1898 Champion became one of the major draws at Henri Desgrange's recently opened Parc des Princes along with Huret and Émile Bouhours. And despite Marks's attempts to discourage him, Champion - a star of the track - entered one of the toughest road races on the calendar: the 1899 edition of Paris-Roubaix.

As we all know by now, pacers were a part of Paris-Roubaix from its beginning in 1896. But in the first few editions those pacers were human powered. In 1899 Paris-Roubaix's organisers were allowing motorised pacers: trikes, tandems and cars. On April 2, three days before he turned twenty-one, Champion signed on for the start of the race that would become the Queen of the Classics, outside a café in the Paris suburb of Chatou. He was not considered favourite for the victory: at 268 kilometres Paris-Roubaix was longer than the races Champion was used to on the track (though it was close to the distance Warburton had him training over between Paris and Orléans). The favourites were Maurice Garin (who had won the previous two editions) and Josef Fischer (who had won the first). Even Champion's track rival Émile Bouhours was considered more of a favourite than Champion. Despite his non-favoured status, it was Champion who won, leading from start to finish, reaching Roubaix twenty-odd minutes ahead of the next rider, Paul Bors (who, like Champion and Bouhours, was a star of the track, not the road).

Some of Champion's victory can be credited to the mechanical failures suffered by his rivals: Garin's pacer broke down and he abandoned. Some can be credited to the usual bad luck suffered by others in the Queen of the Classics: both Fischer and Bouhours were taken out by crashes. But, really, Champion's victory deserves to be credited to la tête et les jambes. He knew what his legs could do, he just had to use his brain to come up with a strategy that would enable them to do it. What he figured was that if he could be in the lead at Amiens - about midway through the race and closer to the distance he raced on the track - then he would have enough in the tank for the second half, even as the pavé really kicked it. To get to Amiens first Champion realised that, as on the track, a good start would be everything. With thirty-odd riders racing through the suburbs of Paris behind cars, trikes and tandems, there would be traffic jams at some points, especially if someone crashed or broke down. So Champion decided to have his pacer wait for him beyond Paris, thirty kilometres out, in Hérouville, and thus avoided the early carnage that took out others.

* * * * *

Following Champion's twenty-first birthday, the newly crowned champion of Paris-Roubaix received his draft papers, telling him that his two years of military service were due to commence in November. Champion's career was only taking off and now he was expected to put it on hold for two years. Many riders have had to face this dilemma (although, today, the French federation makes it somewhat easier, blocking riders from turning professional until after their military service). Some riders have got lucky, and joined the battalion in Joinville (Roger Rivière, Marc Madiot, Richard Virenque and many more). Some have escaped military service by changing their nationality (François Faber took a passport from Luxembourg, the country of his father). Champion, he decided to skip the country. With the help of Victor Breyer he shipped out to America.

* * * * *

The first phase of Albert Champion's career takes up about a quarter of Peter Nye's The Fast Times of Albert Champion. Most pen portraits of Champion more or less dismiss his cycling career - they'll tell you he won only two races of note, Paris-Roubaix in 1899 and a French championship five years later - before turning to the story of the spark plugs that bear his name and initials. And the story of his death, one of those tales of a love triangle gone bad that always captures the imagination. But, as Nye shows, Champion's cycling career was much, much bigger than that. He was a star of the track at at time when track racing was bigger and more exciting than road racing.

For me, what is most remarkable about the first phase of Champion's life - what's even more remarkable about the three years between Champion's eighteenth and twenty-first birthdays - is the list of people whose paths he crossed. For a start, there are men like Choppy Warburton and Dudley Marks, men whose contribution to the sport we are only really beginning to rediscover. Warburton in particular was a major influence on cycling, even after his death (Alphonse Baugé - one of, if not the, most successful directeurs sportive in the history of the Tour de France - was a devotee of Warburton's methods and even wrote a training manual based on them). Or consider Jules-Félix-Philippe-Albert de Dion, better known in cycling history as the Comte de Dion, the man who initiated the creation of L'Auto-Vélo after having political and economic differences of opinion with Le Vélo's Pierre Giffard. There's Adolphe Clément, one of the original investors in L'Auto. Or there was Henri Desgrange: as well as promoting and reporting on races Champion appeared at, the two met through Clément, Desgrange writing advertising copy for the company and Champion acting as general office boy ahead of his first professional appearance. And then there was Victor Breyer who, like Desgrange, reported on Champion's races, but was also instrumental in getting Champion to America without being arrested (one year later Breyer would become the first general secretary of the UCI).

Champion, then, was wrapped up in a veritable who's who of the French cycling world. And, through Clément's association with the likes of De Dion-Bouton, Panhard-Levassor and Darracq, he also had an in to the nascent automobile industry. (Clément purchased the Gladiator bicycle company from Alexandre Darracq, allowing Darracq to go into the auto industry. Clément was also an early backer of René Panhard and Émile Levassor who acquired the French rights of Gottlieb Daimler's internal combustion engine. Darracq and Panhard-Levassor became major names in the French auto industry, as did De Dion-Bouton, whose motorised trikes Clément built.)

Just focusing on Champion's brief career as a professional cyclist in France you could paint a picture of the years in which cycling grew to become the major sport of its time, Champion having had an almost Zelig-like ability to place himself in the right circles and connect with some of the most important people in the development of the sport. But that would only be half the story, for in America Champion again managed to insinuate himself into the right circles, to such an extent that his story as spark plug king is also a story of the early years of the American automobile industry.

* * * * *

Champion's decision to skip the country in 1899 and sail for America had been made easier by the fact that he had the offer of a job there: the Boston-based Orient Cycles company had offered him a contract to race for them. Over the next three seasons - 1900 through 1902 - Champion won races and set dozens of records, racing in the era of men like Major Taylor and Bobby Walthour. When Orient announced they would be quitting the bicycle business at the end of 1902 and moving on to motorcycles, Champion decided he too needed a change: he was going to switch from the power of his legs to the power of a petrol engine and set himself the goal of pushing a motorcycle to a mile in under a minute. This Champion achieved in July 1903, though his thunder had somewhat been stolen by Barney Oldfield, who drove a car designed by Henry Ford to the mile-a-minute record the month before. So Champion gave himself a new goal: beat Oldfield's four-wheeled record, on two. And this he did in September of that year. The following month Champion, who already had had his share of broken bones from crashes in motor-paced races, was at the wheel of a Packard Gray Wolf at a race in Brighton Beach when he lost control of the car, crashed off the race course and broke his femur.

The Fast Times of Albert Champion
Albert Champion aboard his mile-a-minute motorcycle

Remarkably, within six months, Champion was back on his feet, one leg shorter than the other, and preparing for a new challenge: he was about to return to France - taking advantage of the government having offered an amnesty to draft dodgers - and take a tilt at the national motor-paced championship, raced over one hundred kilometres. Returning to France would also offer Champion the opportunity to use his connections there to help him break into the automobile business, importing into the US French spark plugs and other components.

Now for the science bit: why do spark plugs matter?

"Spark plugs are simple. They are narrow cylinders less than three inches long and weighing only ounces. In gas-combustion engines, however, they are indispensable in firing the pistons that propel vehicles weighing thousands of pounds. [...] Ideal ones fired the spark that ignited gas fumes and air at the right time in the piston chamber to push the piston down for the power stroke, driving the vehicle ahead. Yet the vast majority of spark plugs for sale misfired."

The consequences of a misfire could be serious, particularly in race situations. They could and did lead to death. To illustrate this fact, let's turn to the Hour record. In 1904, the Hour record we know today was held by an American rider, Willie Hamilton, who rode 40.871 kilometres in Denver in 1898. But the Hour record that actually captured the public's imagination back then was the one that Thaddäus Robl, Tom Linton, Paul Dangla, Tommy Hall and Louis Darragon had been pushing higher and higher across the previous few years, several times a year, Darragon raising the record to 87.359 kilometres. This was the paced Hour record, which between the start of record attempts in the 1870s and the demise of the paced record shortly after World War One was by far the more popular variant of the Hour. And in November 1904 this was the record that a French rider called Charles Brécy set out to break, riding round and round the Parc des Princes' track, caught in the slipstream of a powerful motorcycle. Brécy was on pace to smash Darragon's record when his pacer's engine cut out. Brécy smashed into him and was thrown to the cement track, bouncing off the side railings. A little over a week later the Frenchman died of his injuries.

"Inferior electric components had caused the engine of the motorcycle pacing Brécy to cease working all of a sudden. If his pacing machine had kept going just minutes longer he would have clinched the prized world record, assuring him higher appearance fees for the next season to support his family with more comfort. However, the motorcycle suffered a failure of its spark plugs, coils or magneto - a frequent inconvenience, but fatal to Brécy."

Champion knew the Parc des Princes, and knew Brécy, they had raced against one and other just a couple of months earlier, in September, when Champion achieved the goal he had set himself of winning the French championship (Champion had an almost uncanny ability to achieve the goals he set himself). And Champion knew that motor-paced racing was a dangerous sport: in 1900 he had been involved in a crash while racing in America that saw two pacers mounted on a motorised tandem die. The month before he became national champion he had attended the memorial service for a friend and fellow rider, George Leander, who had been killed during a motor-paced race in the Parc des Princes. But while some crashes had to be considered a part of the game, some - such as that suffered by Brécy - were clearly avoidable, by improving the performance of something as small as a spark plug.

Champion used his time in France in 1904 to educate himself, using his connections in the French automobile industry to intern at various auto companies and learn the ins and outs of the industry he was about to entrust his future to. Among the companies who took Champion on was that of Edouard Nieuport, whose spark plugs were fitted in cars that were winning the major automobile races throughout France and Belgium. Champion had two points of contact with Nieuport: his new mentor was supplying spark plugs to Champion's old mentor, Adolphe Clément; and the two had been protégés of Choppy Warburton, racing with and against each other.

By the time Champion returned to the US in 1905 he had secured a deal with Nieuport to import his spark plugs and other components into the States. With backing from a former hotelier, Frank Stranahan, Champion went into business, forming the Albert Champion Company. By early 1907 Champion's import business was thriving.  Champion set about improving Nieuport's spark plugs and added to his product range the Champion spark plug.

One of the interesting facets of the early American auto industry is how many of the men who gave their names to businesses disappeared while others carried their names forward. Consider the case of David Dunbar Buick, a Scots immigrant who built a business making cars bearing his own name. The Buick Manufacturing Company became the property of the Flint Wagon Works and the cars bearing Buick's name became famous while Buick himself all but disappeared, exiled from his own company. Something similar was about to happen with the Albert Champion Company, Champion and Stranahan falling out and the French star withdrawing from the business that bore his name. But he had no intention of disappearing. Champion struck a deal with William Durant, president of Buick, to form the Champion Ignition Company. That deal required Champion to move to Flint, Michigan and develop a new spark plug that would out-perform the ones Buick was then using, and would do so for a lower cost. Durant gave Champion twelve months to achieve this goal.

While Durant left Champion to get on with refining the spark plug, he himself set about creating what was to become an empire, buying Oldsmobile and incorporating it and Buick as wholly-owned subsidiaries of the newly-created General Motors Company. And, of course, there was also the partly-owned subsidiary, the Champion Ignition Company. When Champion delivered his better and cheaper spark-plug his future became bound up with that of Durant and General Motors.

* * * *

Within the 400-odd pages of The Fast Times of Albert Champion Peter Nye has taken a man often considered as a minor star of the early years of cycling - a too often somewhat dismissed star, for having won Paris-Roubaix in the years in which it was motor-paced - and shown there was much more to his cycling career, and showing how his post-cycling career in the automobile industry intersected with some of the most important people in that industry. It's a story of America's Gilded Age growing into the Jazz Age. It is, in many ways, a classic story of the American dream, an immigrant draft-dodger who becomes a captain of industry. And, like the best stories about the American dream, it ends in tragedy, Champion killed by a punch from a love rival. Nye - whose Hearts of Lions is still the book about the history of American cycling, even today, three decades after it was written - tells it expertly and entertainingly, always keeping Champion at its centre but spreading off sideways to tell the stories of the men he worked with and competed against.

* * * * *

The Fast Times of Albert Champion

Albert Champion - the man Henri Desgrange said had a "strangely prophetic name" - is today most often remembered for the spark plugs that bear his name. For a man who so often and seemingly so easily achieved the goals he set himself, this is an oddity, for the most notable goal Champion failed to achieve was to kill the business that bore his name, the Albert Champion Company. After splitting from Stranahan and going into business with General Motors two competing businesses were selling spark plugs bearing Champion's name, those from the Stranahan-owned Albert Champion Company and those from the the General Motors subsidiary, the Champion Ignition Company. The two went to the courts, Champion fighting for the right to his own name and deny that right to Stranahan. He lost and the Champion Ignition Company became the AC Spark Plug Company. Today, both brands of spark plugs still compete, one bearing Champion's name, the other his initials.

The Fast Times of Albert Champion