The Little Black Bottle, Gerry Moore (2011)

A lively account of one of cycling’s most intriguing Victorian charecters

Cycle Publishing/Van Der Plas Publications 9781892495679 paperback 159pp $18.95

It is well over a century since Choppy Warburton died, yet still he is a controversial character. Although he never learned to ride a bicycle himself, his role as a trainer a manager of cyclists makes him among the best-known figures of the decade when cycling was the fastest and probably most popular sport in the world.

He owes his fame to two things. By reputation he enthusiastically prescribed his riders chemical enhancements – indeed, the National Cyclists Union convicted him of poisoning one of his charges and banned him from all domestic velodromes. He was also sketched by Toulouse-Lautrec in one of his drafts of the famous Chain-Simpson posters.

Gerry Moore paints an engrossing picture of Warburton – a Lancastrian mill hand, turned professional long-distance runner. As his own athletic prowess waned, in the early 1890s, he turned his attention to the booming new sport of cycling. They were giddy times. Thousands of spectators watched massively hyped races where competitors were paced by tandems, triplets, quads and quints. Fortunes were made and lost by riders and promoters, most of whom appear to have circulated between London, Paris and the east coast of the USA.

For a short period Warburton was the king of this scene, training at least two world champions and being a key organiser of such pivotal events as the Chain races of 1896. In part Moore’s book is an attempt to rescue his subject’s reputation, and he achieves this in part. He argues convincingly that the working class Warburton was conspired against for commercial reasons and not given a fair hearing by the ‘gentlemanly’ NCU.

He does not, however, get to the bottom of what Warburton administered from the little black bottle with which he managed to revive flagging riders.

His case that there were no rules against doping and that, in all probability, most other riders were doing it too are fair – which is some way short of a satisfactorily conclusive answer. The book, which chronicles Warburton’s life and that of his most famous charges, the Linton brothers and Jimmy Michael, does repeat itself occasionally, suggesting that it possible started life as a series of articles. That does not detract from an enormously enjoyable account of cycling 1890s style – and the genesis of the ailment that might yet see off cycle sport.

PS Oct 11

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