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The Decline and Fall of Choppy Warburton

From the heights of Arthur Linton's victory in Bordeaux-Paris Choppy Warburton fell a great distance, within weeks becoming persona non grata in the British cycling scene.

Arthur Linton and Choppy Warburton, photographed by Jules Beau
Arthur Linton and Choppy Warburton, photographed by Jules Beau
Bibliothèque Nationale de France

It was a Saturday when it all began to go wrong for Choppy Warburton. The date was June 6, 1896. The place the Catford track in south-east London. The Simpson Lever Chain company of William Spears Simpson and Ernest Terah Hooley was promoting a series of races that have come to be known as the Chain Matches.

Simpson had recently developed a new chain which he claimed gave more leverage at the point the chain connected with the chain-ring, thus increasing power. So confident was Simpson in the efficacy of this that he was offering odds of 10-1 - £1,000 against £100 - that riders using his chain would beat riders on any other kind of chain.

Taking up the challenge was a former cyclist, Dr FF MacCabe, now with the Irish Field magazine. MacCabe had been to the fore in popularising the use of Dunlop's pneumatic tyres in the early 1890s, bringing a team of Irish riders to Britain who beat all before them. This time round MacCabe had put together a team consisting of Arthur Chase, Charley Stocks and Charley Barden, who were riding bikes equipped with the Cycle Components Manufacturing Company's Pivot chain (which claimed to offer the smallest area of contact between chain and chain-ring, thus reducing friction). MacCabe's riders would be racing behind the powerful Dunlop team of pacers mounted on four quads and six triplets.

Representing Simpson were three riders from the Paris-based Gladiator team: Jimmy Michael, Tom Linton and Constant Huret, who brought with them a pacing team consisting of two triplets, nine quads and a quint. To give you some idea of how strong the Gladiator team was, consider this story - at a track meet in Bordeaux's Vélodrome du Parc in 1894 (Oct 28-Nov 3) the Gladiators finished the week's racing with a dozen major and more than 200 intermediate records:

Oct 28 Debatz Hour (Women) plus all records 1-35 kms 35.936 kms
Oct 29 Barden 10 Kilometres plus all records 2-9 kms 12'47.0"
Antony 1 Mile (flying start, Trike) plus Kilometre 2'08.4"
1 Mile (standing start, Trike) plus Kilometre 2'13.0"
Oct 30 Exceel + Lambrechts Kilometre (Tandem) 1'07.4"
Antony 333 metres (Trike) 0'25.8"
Hour (Trike) plus all records 2-39 kms 39.974 kms
Oct 31 Linton 100 Kilometres plus all records 51-99 kms 2h24'16.2"
Nov 1 Barden 1 Kilometre (flying start) 1'09.6"
1 Mile 1'53.4"
Antony + Lambrechts 10 Kilometres (Tandem) plus all records 2-9 kms 13'34"
Laugt, Barden + Guicheney Hour (Triplette) plus all records 1-44 kms 44.653 kms
Nov 3 Linton Hour 45.433 kms
50 Kilometres plus all record 11-49 kms 1h05'59"
2 Hours 83.789

All records men, paced, standing start, bicycle unless otherwise stated

Some of the Gladiator riders in 1894
(l-r) Augier, Antony, Mercier, Linton (with Warburton), and Barden

The Catford Chain Matches of 1896 were raced over three events: five miles, one hour and 50 miles. Victory went to the Simpson-Gladiator riders, two to one over MacCabe's Dunlop-paced riders. The American magazine The Referee carried this report:

"The long-talked of chain matches are now a matter of history. The 'fate of millions' has been decided on the cemented banking of the Catford track before an attendance of about 18,000 keenly interested spectators - a record gate for the track. Mr. Simpson, his levers and his men have triumphed over the plain chain. Dr. McCabe's selected racers were defeated twice in three races, and he must forego the pleasure of pocketing that $5,000 stake he stood to win at the risk of losing $500. At 2 o'clock the gates of the Catford grounds were besieged by a crowd anxious to secure seats or standing room, although the racing did not actually begin till near four o'clock."

It was in the first of the three matches that things began to go wrong for Choppy Warburton. The Referee again:

"The first contest was at five miles, Michael being the racer selected by Mr. Simpson, while Barden started for the plain chain side. Michael at once led, but at 4 3/4 laps Barden dashed by and immediately placed twenty yards between himself and the Welshman. Riding a very hot second mile in 1:55 2/5, Barden got a great lead, and at two miles led by half a lap. To the utter astonishment of all, Michael seemed unable to respond and sitting up, let his quad go and dismounted at 7 1/2 laps (2 miles). Barden finished in 10:40 2/5 scoring one race to Dr. McCabe. Barden's victory was vociferously applauded and McCabe's supporters were frantic with delight."

Toulouse-Lautrec's La Chaîne Simpson poster showing the Catford track, the band of the Honorary Artillery Company with Simpson and Bougle to their left and Constant Huret being paced by a Gladiator multi-cycle

While the rest of the racing went on - the Simpson-Gladiator riders winning both of the next two matches with ease - Waburton's world began to go to hell in a handcart, a rumour circulating that Michael had been doped. Where the initial rumour came from is not clear - some reported it as locker-room gossip, some as being put about by Michael, some as coming from the mouth of Simpson - and it wasn't even immediately clear who was alleged to have done the doping. But the story quickly gained currency and the doper was quickly identified as Warburton himself, with some embellishing the tale, saying that Warburton had fed his charge the contents of his legendary little black bottle with the immediate effect that, when Michael remounted, he didn't even know which way he was going and proceeded to ride the wrong way round the track.

Warburton should have been celebrating Arthur Linton's success in Bordeaux-Paris two weeks before - Linton was present at the Chain Matches, riding an exhibition race over two miles - but instead was now mired in controversy, a controversy he would still be trying to unravel right up to his death eighteen months later.

* * * * *

James Edward 'Choppy' Warburton was many things, the most important of which was a showman. He understood that the public wanted to be entertained. And he entertained them. Paris-Vélo offered this brief sketch of the man:

"In the track centre he is the only one you see. His great overcoat and his Derby hat pushed down to his ears, with a bang of his fist he gives an air of mystery that intrigues rivals. From his pocket he suddenly takes a small glass container, shows it to his rider, uncorks it with dramatic care, pours the unknown mixture that it contains into a milk bottle and then, still running, knocking over anyone who gets in the way, gets himself to the other side of the track to pass it on to his rider."

That small glass container - a little black bottle - intrigued many in Warburton's day, and continues to intrigue today. Did it contain the mysterious trimethyl that allegedly brought about the death of Arthur Linton two months after he ingested it? Or was it just a sugar-rush pick-me-up? No one knows. And no one will ever know.

Born in Haslingden, Lancashire in 1845 Warburton had been an athlete since his teens and continued to race as an amateur through his twenties. Aged 34 in 1879 he turned professional and that career lasted through to 1888, after which he started acting as a trainer. He is first reported to have entered the world of cycling in 1892, when he was said to be working with Freddy Osmond, one of the better British riders of his time (the same FJ Osmond who took a tilt at the English paced Hour record on the day Arthur Linton rode his mythical Hour in Cardiff in 1893). It was after Arthur Linton's mythical Hour in 1893 that he and Warburton hooked up, Linton seeking Warburton out after riding in the Cuca Cup in London, a 24-hour race, and being signed to ride for Alexandre Darracq's Paris-based Gladiator bicycle company.

As well as signing Arthur Linton, Gladiator also picked up two of his brothers, Tom and Sam. In 1864 Warburton added a fourth Welsh rider, Jimmy Michael, who - like the Lintons - was from the south Wales mining village of Aberaman (a village just south of the larger Aberdare - Michael was actually born in Aberdare and grew up in Aberaman). Arthur Linton and Jimmy Michael quickly achieved success. And Warburton became the most talked about trainer in the sport.

* * * * *

Almost immediately after the Catford Chain Matches the National Cycling Union (NCU) suspended Michael's licence:

"He was suspended for refusing to ride at different meets after he had been advertised, a riot at the Vélodrome Buffalo [on May 14] being raised on account of his refusal to ride Cissac at the last moment. He again refused to mount his wheel at the Simpson chain meet in England in the five mile race against Barden. Simpson, whose chain Michael rode, claimed he was drugged, but that is rather old. Anyway, Michael was called before the cycling board of England to answer complaints. But he and Choppy Warburton were in Paris and unable to appear at the specified time and his suspension followed."

It only took the NCU a few weeks to reach a decision on the matter, The Referee carrying this report:

"The sensation of the week has been the removal of the suspension of Michael's license and the punishment of 'Choppy' Warburton, who has been warned off every English track enclosure and dressing room. This is the effect of a wordy announcement just issued by the union. It appears that Michael, Choppy and Mr. Simpson appeared before the general committee Monday last [June 29] in reference to the Michael-Barden race at the chain matches, when Michael cracked up and retired so inexplicably.

"Michael unfolded a pretty tale concerning the wily Choppy, from whom he is now separated for the second time. After his week's riding at Olympia, just prior to the Simpson matches. Choppy gave Michael a dose of physic, the like of which he had never before taken, with the result that, although not feeling ill, Michael could attain no speed in his track practice. Michael has not been on a track from the day of his defeat until the present time.

"Moreover, Choppy could not deny that he was in the habit of furnishing information to certain bookmakers, although he denied that he ever made bets himself on any cycle races. Altogether there appeared every indication that Choppy had planned for Michael to ride the Simpson chain to defeat in two matches, although at the last moment he (Michael) was only allowed to appear once.

"Lastly it was fully proved that Choppy had embezzled considerable sums due to Michael - this being the little prodigy's reason for leaving him. In future Michael will sign his own agreements and Choppy Warburton will be prevented by the decision of the union from engaging in his profession, at any rate on English soil, even if no action be taken in France, which is by no means certain."

The embezzlement charge came about partly because Warburton was acting as Michael's manager, one report saying he was receiving half of Michael's income in management fees. It fell to Warburton to organise Michael's appearances, signing contracts on behalf of the rider.

The allegation that Warburton had doped - nobbled - Michael in order to make a killing with the bookies unfortunately raised memories among some of Warburton's days as a professional athlete, where he had form for fixing the outcome of some races. One American newspaper wrote this about him:

"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 books. 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."

Warned off British tracks Warburton's reputation was in tatters. Within weeks it got worse, when Arthur Linton died.

* * * * *

Choppy Warburton was many things, but a quitter he was not. With Jimmy Michael lost to him and Arthur Linton dead Warburton quickly set about rebuilding his career and repairing the damage done to his name. And here fate was about to smile upon him, for the rider Warburton identified as his next star was Albert Champion. Not only did Champion have a prophetic name, he was also contracted to ride the bicycles manufactured by Adolphe Clément and in early August Clément had merged his bicycle business with the Humber Bicycle Company owned by Harry Lawson, and the two had bought out Alexandre Darracq's Gladiator bicycle company. Whatever damage had been done to his reputation with Gladiator by events in Britain over the previous two months, if Warburton could take Clément's young charge in hand and guide him to success, then perhaps that damage could be undone.

Rebuilding his reputation was a serious business for Warburton, but it didn't stop him from taking the time to thumb his nose at those in Great Britain who had rejoiced in his downfall. Early in 1897, in spite of the NCU edict against him, Warburton turned at the Royal Aquarium in London for an unsanctioned bike race, a race in which he had not one but two riders racing, against one and other: Albert Champion and Amelie le Gal. Not only was Warburton making a mockery of the NCU's ban on him, he was also challenging their rules which forbade men and women racing against one and other.

Warburton also had business to settle with Jimmy Michael for despite the judgement of the NCU he continued to insist that he had not poisoned his charge. The two were reported to be suing one and other - Michael suing Warburton for having poisoned him, Warburton suing Michael for libel - but by the spring of 1897 their differences seemed to have been settled. By the end of 1897 Warburton had convinced the NCU to hear an appeal against his ban, with Michael reportedly ready to appear in Warburton's defence.

The appeal was never heard, the ban never lifted, for on December 16, 1897, Choppy Warburton died.

What hope had Warburton that the NCU would overturn his ban? To answer that question we have to return to that Saturday afternoon in June when it all began to go wrong and tell the story of another who was there in Catford: Tom Eck, the Canadian-born American impresario whose training techniques, tactical nous and showmanship left Warburton looking like an amateur. The man who, it is alleged, had convinced Jimmy Michael to falsely accuse Warburton of having poisoned him.