To understand the accomplishments of African-American cyclist Major Taylor, whom you most likely have heard about via a Hennessy commercial, you have to understand the context of his day. The 1890s kicked off the first “golden age” of cycling. A biking craze was sweeping the globe, with high wheelers being replaced by the latest technology of the “safety” bike. The safety design, which essentially was just two similarly-sized wheels, provided unheralded access to a smooth, comfortable ride.
Pneumatic tires, an improved chain drive, and mass production made bikes more comfortable, easier to steer, and readily available – at least for the well-to-do. The safety bikes were even considered suitable for women, a development that sounds ridiculous now, but that was heralded as one of the most powerful steps toward liberation by activists of the day.
It also was just over a decade after the Civil War and long before the civil rights movement had any traction. While bikes may have served as a source of daily independence for women, the same could not be said for African-Americans. Even if they could afford a bike, they still had an uphill battle for the same basic rights and liberties. Marshall Taylor’s story is that of a champion athlete, but it is both tragic and triumphant that his story cannot be told without attention to the color of skin.
Taylor (1878-1932) was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, to a family of eight kids. When he was eight years old, his parents allowed him to move in with a wealthy family for whom his father worked. He lived happily with the surrogate family for four years and received a good education and a loving upbringing. And when the family moved out of town, they gave young Taylor a bicycle as a parting gift. At 12, he was now on his own, with only his clothes and a bike.
As luck would have it, Taylor turned out to be a wicked good bike rider. In the 19th century version of today’s trials riding, he could do bike tricks that would gather a crowd. It wasn’t long before he found a job performing at a local bike shop. Riding in an old Army uniform, he took on the nickname, “Major,” and earned $6 a week, plus a new bike. Considering that’s nearly $160 per week in today’s dollars, he was doing alright as a 12-year-old.
With his new, sportier bike, Taylor began racing at the local velodrome and winning in his age group. When he was 15, he set a new track record for amateurs in the mile race. Shortly thereafter, the young black man was banned from coming back because of his skin color.
Frustrated, yet undeterred, Taylor turned to road racing. At 16, he bested the field in a 75-mile race in Indianapolis. The taunts from the crowds and competitors escalated to threats throughout the race. With what would become his characteristic dignity, he ignored the harassment and pedaled harder. For his success, he was “rewarded” by being banned from competing again in the state of Indiana.
In 1894, racism was rampant, but there were geographic pockets of higher tolerance and lower racial tension. Not surprisingly, one of these was Massachusetts. Luckily for Taylor, the town of Worcester also happened to be the center of the cycling universe in the United States at the time. There was a bike shop on every corner and no fewer than six major manufacturers based there. Based on the promise of his early results, Taylor found a patron and a friend who moved him to Worcester, where he could pursue his passion in relative peace.
Within two years, Major Taylor turned pro. As an amateur in cycling-crazy New England, he was handily winning every race he entered, from one-mile sprints to endurance road races, and the podium finishes didn’t stop as a professional.
He raced all events, but Taylor was first and foremost a track sprinter. For some perspective on the popularity of cycling near the turn of the 20th century, Madison Square Garden could pack the house for six-day, indoor track events. (Similar events are still called “Madisons” in the track world.) Prizes for first place could reach upwards of $5,000, which is about $135,000 in today’s dollars. Bike racing was big time, and no one was as exciting as Major Taylor. Even President Theodore Roosevelt, the man’s man of hunting and all things rugged, was a vociferous fan of Taylor.
In his first year racing pro, Taylor blew the competition away in regional races and held his own against top American and European racers at the Madison Square Garden event. In his second year racing, 1898, he won 59 percent of his races (29 of 49), which should have earned him the title of national champion. But harkening back to his days in Indiana, there was a mysterious re-writing of the rules that denied him the title. There is little doubt this slight had less to do with rules and everything to do with the color of his skin.
In his third year, 1899, Major Taylor broke seven world records: from the quarter mile sprint to the two-mile race and every increment in between. His 1:41 minute record for the mile from a standing start stood for 28 years. He was crowned world champion, the second black man (behind boxer George Dixon) to earn this recognition in any sport. But despite the world records and winning 22 major races that year, some people still tried unsuccessfully to have his title removed. He silently answered that criticism with more wins and more record-setting rides.
Taylor was not immune to the prejudice he faced; he simply chose to carry himself with dignity and follow his passion to indulge his talent. In Europe and Australia, he was universally loved and respected. It was only in the United States that the blatant racism influenced his career. He was turned away from hotels when traveling for races, had a major cycling organization attempt to shut him out because he was black, and was run out of Atlanta fearing for his safety.
His talent was so pronounced that companies were designing and building custom frames and components for him. In 1899, Taylor was on a custom made, super lightweight (for the time), 20-pound ride. He rode his sponsored gear to another world champion sprint track title in 1900.
After a banner year on the European circuit in 1902, when Taylor won 40 of his 57 races, he focused his races in Europe and Australia for the next eight years. Dealing with the racism in the American peloton and culture had become too tiresome. Fellow racers would resort to illegally boxing him in, to knocking him down and choking him to unconsciousness. Finally, he retired in 1910 at the age of 32.
Despite ending his remarkable career for reasons having nothing to do with his abilities as a bike racer, Taylor was dignified to the end. “Life’s too short for any man to hold bitterness in his heart,” he said.
He wrote an autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World, in the hopes of inspiring African-American children to “use that terrible prejudice as an inspiration to struggle on to the heights in their chosen vocations.”
Marshall “Major” Taylor is one of the strongest bike racers in history, period. There is tragedy in how he was treated and that we’re compelled to note the color of his skin alongside his achievements. Yet there is undeniable triumph is in his athletic success and in his mental and emotional fortitude. His triumph has also become its own legacy. As a black man achieving global athletic success against all the odds of the era, he undoubtedly helped clear some hurdles for the next generation of African-American athletes: Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Wilma Rudolph, and others.
If his legacy has been overlooked in the big picture, it was not among his peers. When Taylor died a poor man in 1932 in Chicago, he was buried in an unmarked grave in the far corner of a local cemetery. It is a testament to the man, his integrity, and his talent, that a group of ex-racers sought to show him the same dignity, posthumously, that he had displayed in life. Funded by the owner of the Schwinn Bicycle Company, these men had Taylor’s body exhumed in 1948, moved to a prominent location, and buried under a headstone befitting of the great champion.
Today, there is a monument in his honor and street named after him in Worcester. And that velodrome in Indianapolis, where he was once banned from racing because he was black? It now proudly bears his name.