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Bordeaux-Paris and the Death of Arthur Linton

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Having considered the myth of Arthur Linton's 1893 Hour ride, we now turn to his victory in the 1896 edition of Bordeaux-Paris, and his death two months later.

Arthur Linton, photographed by Jules Beau
Arthur Linton, photographed by Jules Beau
Bibliothèque Nationale de France

If Arthur Linton's Hours are overlooked, the same cannot be said for his ride in Bordeaux-Paris in 1896. The Derby of the Road - at one time considered by some to be one of the Monuments of the sport - was into its sixth year and had already established itself as the toughest one-day race on the calendar (although technically it was a two day race, the 1896 edition starting at noon on Saturday May 24 and finishing early in the morning of Sunday May 25). So popular was the race - and so business savvy were its organisers - that fans could even follow it by a specially chartered train.

The British had swept the podium in Bordeaux-Paris's first running - George Mills, Montague Holbein and Selwyn Edge finishing first, second and third - but had not tasted success since (Auguste Stéphane, Louis Cottereau and Lucien Lesna had won it for France, and Denmark's Charles Meyer was the reigning champion going into the 1896 edition). While Germany's Josef Fischer was the pre-race favourite - he was hot off a victory in Bordeaux-Paris's new baby sister, the inaugural Paris-Roubaix, where Linton finished fourth - the Welsh star hoped to upset the bookies and reclaim the Derby for Great Britain.

Which he did. And did not. For it all got a bit complicated, in the end.

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A Reuters report that came out shortly after the end of the 1896 edition of Bordeaux-Paris said that "the finish was exceedingly close, Linton (England) arriving at 9h 17min 18sec [on the Sunday morning], and [Gaston] Rivière (France) 1min 2sec later. The Englishman was greatly exhausted, while Rivière was in pretty good condition."

If only it had really ended like that. Instead, that was just the beginning, the Reuters report continuing:

"Rivière lodged a protest against Linton's victory on the ground that the Englishman had not followed the route laid down. It is thought probable that Linton will either be disqualified or given second place. Just before reaching the Vélodrome he crossed the wrong bridge over the Seine. 'Choppy' Warburton, and Tom Eck, Linton's pacemakers, declared that the passage across the right bridge was blocked by a large crowd and a heavy cart, and as Rivière was just behind Linton it was possible that Linton might lose his short advantage in the crush of people.

"They point out that the road taken by Linton does not shorten the course, and that he signed at all the places appointed on the route, and say it is hard to believe that the Judges will take an uncompromising attitude. The feeling both of the general public and of the professionals is with the Englishman, but it is observed that the Judges cannot take sentiment into account after a protest by Rivière and by the third man [Marius Thé], though the last named arrived an hour later."

That was what was understood of the confused finish in the immediate aftermath of the race. But the truth was more confusing still, as this report made clear:

"It was not because of the crowd that seemed to block the way, as was at first reported. It appears that the bridge which Linton crossed and the road which he subsequently followed were precisely those laid down in the route published by the promoters of the race. It was, however, discovered a few days before the event that this bridge was partially under repair, and so the route was changed. No notice, however, of the alteration was sent to the several competitors; the fact was merely published in the French press. Now, Linton does not read the French newspapers with any great avidity, and he was, moreover, working hard at his training at Bordeaux. So neither he nor any of his pacemakers had the least notion that the last few kilometres of the course had been altered."

It took until the Monday for the judges to arrive at what they considered a satisfactory outcome and it was one that would have tested the patience of Solomon. Like the final result of the 1949 edition of Paris-Roubaix, where Serse Coppi and André Mahé had to share the victory, the judges decided both riders were right and awarded the victory jointly to Linton and Rivière. Which, naturally, pleased neither rider, especially not the Welshman who had done so much to overcome his French rival. At first, he refused to accept the outcome, and only did so after being pressed by Warburton, who unlike Linton appreciated that a shared victory was of more value to his sponsors - the Gladiator bicycle company (originally created by Alexandre Darracq and, before 1896 was out, set to be owned by Adolphe Clément) and the Simpson Lever Chain company - than no victory at all.

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That Linton and Rivière had finished in such close proximity after 591 kms of racing came as a surprise to many following the race, as this report explains:

"At Étampes [519 kms] Rivière held a substantial lead of 20min, and the race seemed virtually over. To the surprise of everybody, however, Linton completely recovered, and started to rapidly overhaul his opponent. In 54 kilometres he reduced the gap to 4min, and between Versailles [573 kms] and Paris succeeded in again drawing on level terms."

"The finish of the race took place on the Vélodrome de la Seine, where each competitor had to ride two laps before finishing. By some mistake on the part of his pacemakers, Linton was taken [by] the wrong road through the streets of Paris to the track. The expectant public being in possession of telegrams from the contrôles all along the route, knew to a few minutes when to expect Rivière, who from the latest telegrams was naturally expected to be the winner. What (asks Wheeling) was the astonishment of the spectators, therefore, when Linton wheeled on to the track! And what the excitement when, ere he had completed his two laps, the veteran Rivière appeared! It seems more pertaining to fiction than fact to tell of two men riding a race [of] 591 kilometres and finishing within 700 metres of each other. But such is what happened on Sunday morning, and it is to be greatly regretted that a dispute should terminate such a truly wonderful finish."

It wasn't just the finish that had been wonderful. This was the era before team tactics sterilised racing, the peloton rolling along as one for most of the course and only coming alive in the closing kilometres, and the chief competitors in this sixth edition of the Derby of the Road had gone at it from the gun, in the first hour of racing covering 40 kilometres. But while this was the era before teams, it would not be fair to say that the riders were racing without support, for this was the era of paced racing, on the road and on the track:

"No rider can possibly hope (says the Cycle) to show up well in a race like the Bordeaux-Paris road race unless his arrangements as regards pace-making and food are absolutely perfect. The arrangements for some of the riders in this year's race were on a most elaborate scale, more especially for Linton, Rivière, and Fischer: each had an army of about 70 pace-makers, and they were never without a quad or triplet in front of them, and a spare single hanging on."

Pacers, though, added to the dangers of the sport, even before they became motorised and started reaching ever more dizzying speeds. Pacers were partly responsible for Fischer losing the race, and partly responsible for Linton almost losing it. Fischer first: at Chaunay, about 190 kms into the race, the German took a tumble when he hit a dog (ironically, it was a dog that had all but ended Linton's chances of beating Fischer in Paris-Roubaix the month before). But it wasn't the dog that caused the German's exit, it was what happened when he hit the ground: Linton's pacing triplet rode over Fischer, injuring his leg and putting him out of the race.

At this point, Linton and Fischer had been pulling away from Rivière and by Couhé-Verac (200 kms) the Welshman led the Frenchman by 19 minutes. But by Tours (339 kms) Rivière was 13 minutes in front of Linton. There are many conflicting versions of what happened to bring about this change of fortunes but the short version is that Linton suffered an accident that took out his pacing team and saw him reaching Tours on a borrowed bike that didn't fit him. Linton was now on the back-foot and chasing to close the gap to Rivière, but making little or no impact. At Orléans (455 kms) Rivière had a lead of 15 minutes and the effort of chasing was beginning to take its toll on Linton, as this oft-cited anonymous correspondent for Cyclers News indicated:

"I saw him at Tours, halfway through the race, at midnight when he came in with glassy eyes and tottering limbs, and in a high state of nervous excitement. I then heard him swear, a very rare occurrence with him, but after a rest he was off again, though none of us expected he would go very far. At Orléans at five o'clock in the morning Choppy and I looked after a wreck, a corpse as Choppy called him yet he had sufficient energy, heart, pluck, call it what you will, to enable him to gain 18 minutes on the last 45 miles of hilly road."

One of the reasons this report has been cited so often is that it is meant to suggest that Warburton had given Linton a magic potion in Orléans - trimethyl, some like to say authoritatively, although no one knows the contents of Warburton's famous little black bottle (or, for that matter, quite what trimethyl was either) - a pick-me-up that enabled Linton to put time into Rivière. If it was a magic potion, it was one that look a long time to kick in, for 64 kms after Orléans, at Étampes (519 kms), Linton had made no inroads into Rivière's lead. Most of the main reports at the time of race attributed Linton's success - his fightback in the 54 kms between Étampes and Versailles - not to doping but to pluck. This Linton, they were saying, he was a fighter, with a never say die spirit.

Die, though, he did, barely two months later.

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Two weeks after Paris, Linton was back in London, racing in Catford (June 6), at a meet which has since become famous for having been where Warburton was accused of having doped another of his riders, Jimmy Michael (some claim that Michael faked the whole thing in an attempt to break his contract with Warburton and sign with Tom Eck). Less than a month after that, Linton was back in Paris for the prestigious Bol d'Or 24-hour race in the Vélodrome Buffalo (July 3). There Linton was taken ill and had to abandon. Rather than resting, Linton returned to London for three days of racing in Catford (July 9-11), only to be again taken ill. Finally accepting that rest was in order he returned to Aberaman, where he was diagnosed as suffering from typhoid fever. In the early hours of July 23, Linton died. He was twenty-seven-years-old and had been a professional cyclist for barely three years.

Most of the reports at the time decided that Linton's death was hastened by his exertions in over-coming Rivière, preceded by too much racing in preparation for Bordeaux-Paris (which had included a Six Day race in Islington's Agricultural Hall in March, as well as Paris-Roubaix in April) and followed by too much racing after. One doctor - EB Turner - wrote the following in Wheeling about Linton's demise:

"The blood of any man who has competed in a distance race on foot or on a cycle is found afterwards to be full of poisonous substances produced by the free combustion of his tissues, and this poison is gradually excreted from his system during the next few days, but it takes a more or less long time to be quite free from it. Now, if a man, before he is recovered from these effects of one race, rides in another, he adds a fresh dose of poison to the dregs of that remaining in his tissues, and in a short time he simply becomes a storehouse of waste material. This is the condition of young, unseasoned soldiers in a hard campaign, who die like flies after forced marches from fatigue fever, an illness whose early symptoms directly stimulate those of typhoid."

Such was the understanding of these things in those days. Turner ended his article with this warning:

"I wish to point out the danger of excess, and warn the modern school of distance racers that Nature must be obeyed, and that one 24 hours' race in a year is about enough for most men, and I address this warning particularly to those riders who have their living to make out of the sport, lest in the present pursuit of fame they may ruin their whole future health, or even put an end to their lives by thoughtless over-competition."

The predominant view at the time was that, if Warburton was to be held responsible for Linton's death, it was only because he had pushed his rider too hard. The doping claims, they only achieved traction long after both men were dead, when the world had become more Puritan.

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The only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter
is that his name wasn't Henry Porter
~ Bob Dylan, Brownsville Girl

Arthur Linton's life story has become so mythologised that it is hard to know if anything about it can be believed. His death became a necessary lie for some in the anti-doping community, his mythical Hour a legend that outgrew the truth. To close, two more myths about him which should be considered: he wasn't really Welsh; and his name was not really Arthur Linton. Arthur Lenton was born in England. He was three before his family moved to Wales and became the Lintons of Aberaman.

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Next: Choppy Warburton