- The Little Black Bottle: Choppy Warburton, the Questions of Doping, and the Deaths of his Bicycle Riders by Gerry Moore
If you ignore the title, including the subtitle inference, this is a reasonably interesting look at early bicycle racing in the United States and Europe. It has little to do with track star and later bicycle race manager, James Edward (Choppy) Warburton (1845–1897), and almost nothing to do with questions of doping, but it does highlight the lives of those who raced for Choppy—the Linton brothers—Arthur, Samuel, and Thomas, and Jimmy Michael. There are also brief mentions of a few others, including women’s world champion Lisette Marton (Amelie Le Gall) and Albert Champion.
Born in Lancashire, England, at age eight Warburton entered the textile mills. He performed a variety of tasks there, including going to the railroad station to tell the station master when to send an engine to collect loaded cars. To make a game of it, he would run back to the mill, racing the engine. The mill owner, also secretary of the local athletic club, [End Page 183] witnessed his seemingly effortless style and as a result began entering him in long distance competitions, his first in London in 1873. Despite a poor finish he went south again the next year to finish second. When he defeated the English champion, Walter George, Warburton won the title of Amateur Champion of England. During his time as an amateur, he earned a meager living as a mill warehouseman. Unable to afford his own housing he continued to live with his parents in their home. When he married in 1874, beginning a family with his wife, he realized he needed to improve his income, and to do so he decided to turn professional.
Due to social constraints, this was a major step. During the Victorian era sports were the purview of amateurs, which included track and field, and then later bicycling. Professionals had but little status in the class-oriented society that lauded the amateur; this disadvantaged almost anyone who worked for a living as they lacked the time and resources to train as well as to travel to meets.
Though he knew many managers throughout England, Warburton’s naïveté and belief that he knew what was best kept him from earning any serious money. In 1880 he came to the United States where he competed in twelve races, varying in distance from two to forty miles. He won seven. While the trip was an athletic success, it was a financial disaster for Warburton. A second journey across the Atlantic resulted in a better economic return, but his age meant his performances began to flag. Over the next few years he managed a running ground and several taverns but without distinction.
Since running was no longer an option Warburton turned to bicycling. Even though he never rode a bicycle he managed the very successful Paris cycling team, the Gladiators. Unfortunately a cloud hung over his career and ultimately the National Cyclists’ Union barred him from English tracks for doping. It was never proved that he dispensed anything more than herbal supplements from his “little black bottle”; more to the point, at the time there were no drugs deemed illegal. For example, athletes regularly used cocaine in various forms to improve their performance. Still, Choppy’s reputation suffered when two of his premier racers took drinks from his little black bottle. Tom Linton collapsed during a race only to have a miraculous recovery after drinking from Choppy’s bottle. A few weeks later when Linton died from typhus, the public and the cycling community assumed it to be the result of whatever Choppy had given him. Later, Jimmy Michael took something from Choppy’s little black bottle. Then because he wanted to break his contract with Choppy, Michael accused Choppy of poisoning him. Though there was no evidence of wrongdoing, these two events continue to plague Choppy’s...