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Paris-Roubaix Winner Albert Champion Helped Put Americans On Wheels

By Peter Joffre Nye

Chairman Bill's note: Author Peter Joffre Nye's latest work is his biography of Albert Champion, The Fast Times of Albert Champion: From Record-Setting Racer to Dashing Tycoon, An Untold Story of Speed, Success, and Betrayal (Prometheus Books), and it is available in hardcover and Kindle eBook.

Champion (1878-1927) was an incredible man, as a bicycle racer he was winner of Paris-Roubaix and set more than a hundred world records. He went on to found both the Champion Spark Plug Company and General Motors Division AC Delco Systems.

Just click on the Amazon link to the right to get your copy of this terrific book.

Mr. Nye was kind enough to share this piece about Albert Champion's winning the 1899 Paris-Roubaix and his pivot to becoming a world-class manufacturer.

Also on this site is Mr. Nye's story of one of cycling's toughest-ever racers, Reggie McNamara. McNamara won over 700 races and was one of the greatest-ever six-day racers. Oh, and there's Nye's story of Joseph Magnani, the Illinois rider who challenged Coppi and Bartali.

Enjoy!


Albert Champion, a popular young track rider from Paris in the late 1890s, caused a stir in the cycling community when he entered the 1899 running of Paris-Roubaix on Easter Sunday, April 2. Race organizers responded to the new craze of motor vehicles sweeping Paris. They encouraged cyclists to motor-pace the 165 miles from Paris north to Roubaix near the Belgian border.

Albert Champion

Albert Champion as an 18-year old neo-pro

Sports writers debated in print whether motor-pacers like Champion and other cohorts, accustomed to smooth velodromes, stood a chance against veteran road riders, like defending champion Maurice Garin, familiar with the difficult roads fraught with diabolical cobblestone stretches. The controversy helped sell extra newspapers and drew more spectators.

Champion was still 20 years old when he paced behind a tricycle powered by a one-cylinder engine. Steering it was a friend whose only name in records is listed as Broc. Garin paced behind a long handsome automobile, which crapped out. (Garin gained immortality four years later when he won the inaugural Tour de France.)

Albert Champion

Albert Champion signing in for the 1899 Paris-Roubaix

Although Champion had never raced farther than 62.5 miles, he flew over the first half of the route to Amiens and built a big lead. “Paris-Roubaix provoked a tremendous enthusiasm in the villages the race went through,” observed the Roubaix Journal.

The second half of the course with its notorious pavé caused Champion’s tires to slip on the cobbles, round as skulls. He fell seven times. But each time he got back up. He won in 8 hours 22 minutes and 53 seconds. It was the only road race of his career.

Albert Champion

Champion was put on the cover of Velo after winning Paris-Roubaix

Around Europe and in the United States, Paris-Roubaix was followed not only as a bicycle race but also for how the motors held up over a distance that horse-drawn coaches needed five days to travel.

Champion was offered a one-year contract by the owner of Orient Cycles, manufactured in the Boston suburb of Waltham, to race in America for the 1900 season. He competed in the circuit along the Eastern Seaboard, on board tracks in a dozen cities from Boston to Atlanta.

Albert Champion

Albert Champion with manager "Choppy" Warburton

Champion used his prize money as capital to enter the wild new automobile industry. In Boston he founded the Albert Champion Company, where he began manufacturing electrical components, including porcelain spark plugs with his name on them.

Late in the summer of 1908, William Durant persuaded him to move to Flint, Michigan, to supply electrical parts to the Buick Motor Company there. A week after Champion moved to Flint, Durant incorporated General Motors, purchased the Cadillac and Oldsmobile Motor Companies, and GM was on its way to becoming the largest corporation in the world.

Today Albert Champion’s initials remain in the GM division ACDelco. His name continues in a separate business, the Champion Spark Plug Company. In 2015 he was enshrined as a life-size bronze statue in downtown Flint as one of the city’s automotive pioneers.

Albert Champion Statue

The Albert Champion statue. His great-niece, Cherie Champion of Huntington Beach, California, is holding the red cloth after just unveiling the statute in downtown Flint, Michigan