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Albert Champion won the 1899 Paris-Roubaix at the...

Albert Champion: The little marvel

At the turn of the century, Champion won Roubaix with no experience as a road racer, but his story goes far beyond the world of cycling.

On Saturday, August 15, the city of Flint, Michigan, will unveil a statue of Frenchman Albert Champion. There are several reasons Champion deserves the life-sized bronze likeness. He won the fourth running of Paris-Roubaix in 1899 despite having never raced on the road (he was a track star) and crashing seven times. (Even cooler, he paced behind a motorized tricycle, which was allowed back then.)

Champion also once bounced back from a gruesome car crash that shortened one of his legs to win the French 100-kilometer motorpaced track championships.

But Flint’s not a cycling city. The statue has to do with Champion’s contributions to the automotive industry. You’ve seen his name on Champion spark plugs and his initials in General Motors’ ACDelco division. His products even powered Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis flight across the Atlantic and into history.

Yeah, amazing guy.

Born near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on April 4, 1878, Champion rose from bicycle courier to star professional track cyclist at 18 years old. He stood 5-foot-7, which was ideal for paced racing — behind tandems, triplets, and ultimately motorcycles — which was popular on tracks in Paris, London, and Berlin. Parisian journalist Victor Breyer nicknamed him “petit prodige” (little marvel).

In a nod to the booming popularity of motorized transportation, organizers of the 1899 Paris-Roubaix encouraged riders to pace behind their choice of motor vehicles. Though the 160-mile distance was three times greater than anything he had ever raced — and though it would remain the only road event in his nine-year pro career — Champion excelled at motorpacing.

On race day, he tucked in behind a tricycle fitted with a one-cylinder engine. Though he fell seven times on the race’s notorious cobbles, he still won so decisively that Victor Breyer, a founder of the UCI, wrote, “He had entered Paris-Roubaix as a youngster. Now he is a man.”

For the 1900 season, Orient Cycles, based in suburban Boston, hired Champion to race on the eastern circuit. For four years, he competed on outdoor velodromes from Boston to Atlanta, with forays into Chicago and St. Louis. In 1903, he became obsessed with the goal of clocking a sub-minute mile on a motorcycle.

In July 1903, during a bicycle race program on the Charles River Track in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Champion piloted a Gladiator motorcycle around the board velodrome and clocked a mile in 58.8 seconds. He lowered his record during other race programs on the same track, filled with 12,500 paying spectators. In September, he hit 55.4 seconds at 65 mph, which was the fastest motorized mile — car or motorcycle — ever driven in the U.S. at the time.

A month later, Champion lost control of a race car at 50mph in Brooklyn, which left him with a compound fracture of his left femur. After 11 weeks in traction, he hobbled out of the hospital on crutches, his left leg now two inches shorter than his right, and his cycling career seemingly over.

Ever the tinkerer, Champion compensated by running different crank lengths between left and right. That spring, he headed back to Paris to resume racing and won the 50-kilometer Grand Prix de Paris against elite motorpacers. He finished his season on the same velodrome, the 660-meter Parc des Princes, by winning the 100-kilometer French motorpaced championship at an average speed of 41 miles per hour.

Once the season ended, Champion returned to Boston and began his second life as a businessman. With the help of two partners, he incorporated the Albert Champion Company, which made electrical components, including a porcelain spark plug. A 1908 deal to supply spark plugs to Buick led Champion to decamp to Flint with several of his employees. His partners, who remained behind, moved to Toledo and sued Champion over his hame. The case was settled out of court in 1922, and Champion renamed his Flint operation AC Spark Plug. That company would go on to outfit Peter DePaolo, the first Indy 500 winner to average 100mph, as well as Lindbergh’s Spirt of St. Louis.

Champion died in May 1927, just five months after Lindbergh’s flight, reportedly struck down by a heart attack, at age 49.

Though the Flint statue honors Champion’s contributions to the area’s automotive industry, his influence stretched far beyond the world of engines and across the Atlantic. A marvel indeed.

Peter Joffre Nye is the author of the recent Champion biography, “The Life and Fast Times of Albert Champion: From Record-Setting Racer to Dashing Tycoon, An Untold Story of Speed, Success, and Betrayal,” published by Prometheus Books.