Major Taylor, the first black cycling champion

As the Tour de France draws closer, we take a look at a remarkable cyclist whose efforts came before the grand race even started.

Bike shop beginnings

Marshall “Major” Taylor was on 26th November 1878 in Indianapolis. His cycling life began in the bicycle shops where he worked. His nickname, “Major”, came from performing bicycle tricks while dressed in a military uniform to attract customers to his shop. From there, he started perfecting his craft on the track and the road. But his prowess wasn’t welcomed. Taylor wasn’t allowed to join any cycling clubs and was couldn’t compete on tracks in his home state. That’s when his manager Louis Munger, suggested he move to Worcester, Massachusetts.

Move to Massachusetts

His performances as a teenager were astounding. He became a highly successful amateur cyclist, breaking track records and wowing crowds. In 1896, Major Taylor took part in a six-day race at Madison Square Garden. Many competitors pulled out due to the physical demands. He was also the only African-American cyclist there. It was an ordeal but it helped define him. At the age of 18, he turned professional.

A year later, he shifted his focus to sprint events in 1897. He became sprint world champion in 1899 – the first black cyclist to achieve this – and the victory catapulted him to stardom. He travelled to Europe and Australia, winning race after race. But his fame didn’t afford him security from racism. He was often insulted and attacked by other cyclists and spectators. Racism wasn’t as overt abroad but in the Deep South, Taylor was barred from racing. In a one-mile event in Boston, a cyclist named W.E. Becker knocked Taylor off his bike and choked him before the police “were obliged to interfere”. Taylor still finished second. Becker finished third.

Triumph through adversity

During a race in Georgia, he received a death threat, a day after he challenged three riders who’d said they “didn’t pace n*ggers”. Taylor was subjected to ice water thrown at him during races, nails scattered in front of his wheels, and constant elbowing and obstruction from other riders to stop him moving in front of the peloton – his speciality.

“I felt I had my day, and a wonderful day it was too […] I always played the game fairly and tried my hardest, although I was not always given a square deal or anything like it.”

Quotes from Major Taylor’s autobiography about his retirement

In contrast, he was warmly embraced in France to the point they moved race days from Sunday to weekdays to accommodate for Major Taylor’s faith. No European racer was left unbeaten. He took a break from cycling and came back in 1907 before retiring in 1910 at the age of 32. At the time, his net worth was said to be around $75k-$100k (over $2m in today’s money). He still managed to win a race – an “old-timers race” – in 1917 and that was his last ever race.

A tragic end to a brilliant career

But that net worth turned to dust over time. Bad investments, the stock market crash of the 1930s, and numerous businesses lost him money. He had to sell his Worcester home and family property to pay debts. He moved to Chicago in 1930 and lived in poverty until his death, selling copies of his self-published autobiography to make ends meet.

His health deteriorated and in March 1932, Major Taylor suffered a heart attack. He had a heart operation but it was unsuccessful and he died on 21st June that year, aged 53. He was initially buried in Cook County near Chicago, next to an unmarked grave, but in 1948, a group of former pro cyclists used donated funds to have his remains moved to a more prominent location.

“Dedicated to the memory of Marshall W. ‘Major’ Taylor, 1878–1932. World’s champion bicycle racer who came up the hard way without hatred in his heart, an honest, courageous and god-fearing, clean-living, gentlemanly athlete. A credit to the race who always gave out his best. Gone but not forgotten.”

Major Taylor’s epitath

A Major legacy reborn

Taylor’s story wasn’t told in great detail for decades but in 1982, a velodrome in Indianapolis was named after him. The Major Taylor Velodrome opened July of that year and has since hosted the 1987 Pan American Games, The Collegiate Track National Championships and The Masters Track National Championships. He was inducted into the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame in 1989, and awarded the USA Cycling Korbel Lifetime Achievement Award and Massachusetts Hall of Black Achievement in 1996 and 1997.

His effect on Worcester didn’t go unnoticed either. Locals formed the Major Taylor Association and they erected a permanent memorial for him outside the city public library. Cycling clubs began bearing his name in 1979 and in 2008, they combined to form the National Brotherhood of Cyclists. A year later, a youth cycling program called The Major Taylor Project was launched in Washington State to “empower youth through bicycling”. The project helps over 500 kids every year from all backgrounds.

Major Taylor – humble to the end

What strikes me about Major Taylor is his humility. He was subjected to brutal conditions at an early age on the track and that was before the cyclists got involved. He fought physical demands and emotional demands to get to the top of his sport as a black man in a racist country. It was a great tragedy that he was left in abject poverty after amassing a well-earned fortune during his career. But he was never bitter. He may have died poor but his legacy remained a source of richness. Athletes cycle in velodromes with his name on the front, children take part in projects in his name, and cycling clubs joined together in his honour.

Before the likes of Jackie Robinson, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods, there was a black champion from Indiana. And his name was Major Taylor.

A new biography The World’s Fastest Man: The Extraordinary Life of Cyclist Major Taylor, America’s First Black Sports Hero is available on Amazon to buy.

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