Lance Armstrong’s performance-enhancing drug admission as inspiration for a murder mystery series set in the early 1900s? Why not? In February 2013, when six writers gathered in a room to brainstorm for an upcoming season of Murdoch Mysteries real-life events set the creative wheels in motion.
“With this show, we are always looking for a ‘world’ to set an episode in that we have not explored before,” explained writer Jordan Christianson.
At that story meeting, Christianson joked that it would be fun to do something cycling-related since Lance Armstrong had recently been in the news following his admission to doping on Oprah Winfrey’s show. The writer went on to discover that bicycle racing was the biggest spectator sport in the early 20th century. A trail of Wikipedia entries and several books filled out the additional background research needed on this topic.
As he dug deeper, Christianson learned about a trainer named Choppy Warburton, who was regarded as the grandfather of doping in sports at the time. “He had what he called his ‘little black bottle’ and he was very vague about what the contents of this bottle were,” the writer explained. “It was widely speculated that it contained a concoction of stimulants. It wasn’t illegal, but it was frowned upon.”
In the “Tour de Murdoch” Murdoch Mysteries episode, which first aired Oct. 7, 2013, during Season 7, the Chippy Blackburn character is based on Warburton. The character, however, is not entirely historically accurate; the episode takes place in 1901, but Warburton died in 1897. While Christianson said the show’s writers try as much as possible to stay true to history, and not “sully the reputation” of any real-life historical figures they portray, there are always a few liberties they need to take.
Marshall “Major” Taylor – who was the second African-American to win a world championship after Canadian boxer George Dixon – was also written into the episode. “He was such a compelling figure,” Christianson said. “Taylor faced a lot of racism, but was generally accepted and considered a fan favourite. He was part of the circuit that would tour North America. Unlike a lot of his competitors, he was adamant about not taking any stimulants. At that time, that would have taken a lot of integrity.”
Detective Murdoch is a man of science; he loves to invent things that often help him solve crimes. During his time, a rider changed gears by dismounting his bike and flipping the rear wheel. This system was not conducive to racing, so the writers had Murdoch invent a gear system that allowed him to change gears on the fly. He used this invention to race up a hill and catch the murderer. The character, like the actor Yannick Bisson, enjoyed tinkering with the bike.
“It was a helluva hoot,” Bisson said of filming this episode. “The writers did a great job.”