Paris, May 27, 1901. Major Taylor shakes hands with his French opponent. Taylor won his first World Championship in Montreal at the Queen's Park Track on August 10, 1899, making him the first Black world champion bicycle racer.
The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World
Major Taylor was the first Black professional cyclist
Images courtesy of Cycle Publishing.
Story by Tammy Thorne
Major Taylor was born Marshall Walter Taylor on November 26, 1878, on the outskirts of Indianapolis into a poor farming family. He eventually came to be known as “The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World.” How did that happen?
The answer lies within the story of Taylor's life, which is beautifully illustrated in the coffee table book, Major Taylor: “The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World” by Andrew Ritchie (October 2009, Cycle Publishing.)
dandyhorse magazine received a copy of this extremely well-documented, 208-page biography of the first Black professional cyclist and we have since kept it with our most treasured cycling reference books.
As the anniversary of his birthday approaches, and as we launched our series “How we got here: from the days of the dandyhorse”, we thought it would be a great time to share some of Major Taylor’s amazing stories from the book that provides the fullest account of his life.
The stories are lush with detail and easy to follow, aided by the 100-plus wonderfully preserved duotone photos, like this rare action photo from Paris 1903 below, which shows Taylor in the back ready to make a jump on his Dutch (Meyers) and Danish (Ellegaard) opponents:
Here are a few tidbits from the first pages of the biography, which include intimate details of Taylor’s first encounters with the bicycle.
Well before being taken under the wing of bicycle men “Birdie” Munger and Arthur Zimmerman, young Taylor had benefited from his father's talents as an experienced coachman and his subsequent connections to a very wealthy white family: The Southards. The Southard's son, Dan, was the same age as Marshall and they became playmates. So, Southard hired Marshall as a companion for his young son and treated young Taylor as his own.
Ritchie uses Taylor’s autobiography from 1929 as a source for rich quotes from Taylor himself, like this: “All of the other playmates were from wealthy families and they all had bicycles so Dan made sure I had a bicycle too and I soon became a big favourite among them. Perhaps because of my ability to hold up my end in all the different games we played…such as cycling and trick riding...” Taylor’s autobiography was called: The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World: The Story of a Colored Boy’s Indomitable Courage and Success Against Great Odds.
But when the Southards moved to Chicago he was left to the 'regular' life of a common errand boy. The bicycle helped him get work as a teenager. Like so many children of that time, he began delivering papers.
One day he needed a bike repair and went to Hay & Willits bike shop in town. Following the repair, Taylor “made a fancy mount” on his bike and Mr. Hay asked “Who taught you that trick?” Taylor replied that he had taught himself and when Hay smiled doubtfully, Taylor said, “that was one of my easiest tricks” and offered a number of better tricks. Hay cleared the shop floor for Taylor and the exhibition was so good he hired the 13-year-old immediately to perform in front of the shop…that day! The promotion was so popular that the police had to be called to clear the ensuing traffic jam.
Hay wanted the teenager to come work for him on a regular basis, and after a short negotiation, Hay offered him $6 per week, one dollar more than he was already making on his paper route and a shiny new bicycle worth an entire $35. Taylor said his “eyes nearly popped out of his head” but told Hay he would consult his mother on the offer first. Taylor began working full-time for Hay shortly thereafter where he did regular shop duties, but also performed bike tricks daily in a soldier’s uniform as a publicity gimmick to entice new customers.
There is no definitive story on how he got the name Major or why it stuck, but the story of the soldier’s uniform is sometimes used to explain its origins.
No matter how he came to be called Major, he was very likely the fastest rider in the U.S. from 1897 through 1900. But his greatest struggle was prejudice. Ritchie notes: “…In a world where Black people were expected to know their place and not to challenge the dominance of whites, the success of this plucky youngster against white competitors came as a disturbing shock… and his astonishing speed as a revelation.”
His many achievements rank him as one of the most extraordinary pioneers among Black athletes.
Taylor was the first Black athlete to compete regularly in an integrated sports team for an annual American championship and he was also the second African-American World Champion in any sport, behind boxer George Dixon.
By 1898 he held seven world records at distances from a quarter to two miles but he refused to race on Sundays which ultimately hampered the sheer number of titles he would achieve. As noted, he became world champion in 1899 and American sprint champion in 1899 and 1900. He then broke a series of world records and received rapturous acclaim during a triumphant tour of Europe. The French still talk about the 1901 races of Paris today. He was the most admired, the most controversial, the most talked about and quite simply the most famous bicycle racer in America at the time. He had become the most prominent American athlete of the day and one of the most celebrated black Americans.
The story of his rise to fame is a fascinating one that Ritchie tells well in Major Taylor: "The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World."
Here are a few more of the photos from inside this fantastic book:
Major Taylor poses on his bike showing his winning posture. This photo was taken in the Fall of 1899 after Taylor broke several world speed records. (As noted at top, Taylor raced and won the 1899 Montreal World Championship.)
Taylor died on June 21, 1932, in the charity ward of Cook County hospital in Chicago. He was buried at Mount Glenwood Cemetery in a "pauper's grave" and later, in 1948, exhumed on Frank Schwinn's dime at the behest of the Bicycle Racing Stars of the Nineteenth century - a group of ex-professional bike racers.
Taylor's remains were moved to a more prominent and honourable location in the cemetery with a proper memorial plaque.
This monument (below) was erected in 2008 in memory of Major Taylor in his adopted home town, Worcester, Mass.
More information on Major Taylor is available via the Major Taylor Association.
This article first appeared on the dandyBLOG here.
UPDATE: There's a new mural to honour Marshall "Major" Taylor in Richmond, Virginia, that was painted for the Road World Championships in 2015, by artist James Thornhill.
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