On my entry into competitive cycling during the early 1990s, there was one black cyclist who I remember from time to time appearing in the cycling magazines: Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor.
The same old black and white photographs and portraits that I remember of this imperious looking champion still continue to be rolled out in cycling magazines today.
Why is Taylor so revered and immortalised by people: Black and White alike in the sport?
It is firstly because of his outstanding achievements as an athlete.
He became a double world cycling champion in 1899 and secured the American title in 1900.
He held seven world cycling speed records over various distances, including the one-mile record from a standing start; a record time which stood for 28 years.
He achieved global fame, by competing in match sprint battles against white cycling champions in front of tens of thousands of generally white spectators in the USA, across continental Europe and across Australasia. Taylor beat the best of the best: multiple national and world champions.
Taylor was a man totally devoted to his Christian faith. He intransigently refused to compete and race on Sundays, turning down large sums of money offered by promoters.
As a black man living and existing in hostile Jim Crow America, he faced the horrors of racial discrimination on a daily basis.
Taylor’s rise to the top of world in sport is a story of desire and determination by his display of human grace.
Taylor was born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1878. As a young boy, he practiced tricks on his bicycle. This caught the attention of someone at the Hay and Willits bicycle shop, which paid Marshall to hang around the front of the store, dressed in a military uniform, doing trick mounts and stunts to attract business. This led locals to nickname him the ‘Major’.
His work at the shop also allowed him to meet to become close friends with some the best white racing cyclists in the world, including Louis ‘Birdie’ Munger and Arthur Zimmerman the 1893 double world sprint champion. Both would become Taylor’s mentors. This early social interaction forged for him an alliance that helped to provide opportunities for Taylor to cross the Jim Crow colour line.
Taylor would take to the track, full of verve and power, breaking long standing track speed records that had been set by champion white cyclists. Whist this was much to the delight of the dominant white crowds awed by Taylor’s efforts, this was to the disgust of the white racers. Taylor was warned often that if he ever showed up to their meetings again to cause them embarrassment, that his life would be in serious danger.
News of Taylor’s record-breaking feats and potential spread across the American cycling scene. He secured his professional licence at the age of 18.
His first competitive outing being the demanding six-day race at Madison Square Garden in December 1896. It was a great debut. Taylor finishing 8th from 28 racers.
The emergence of Taylor’s presence on the white professional cycling scene threatened his white competitors. Taylor accumulated glorious victory after glorious victory. The cycling media renamed him as “The Worcester Whirlwind” and “The Black Cyclone”.
However, the new fame achieved through his success did not come without abhorrent verbal and physical racist violence on the racing track – from being faced planted into the track rails, to being strangled to near-death by a jealous white opponent.
1899 was the year of Taylor’s rise to the top of world. He defeated his rival Tom Butler to take the one-mile world sprint title in Montreal. Victory in the American championship followed in 1900.
Despite his national and world championship victories, Taylor's racing in the USA would continue to prove a battle due to the hostile national cycling body, racist white competitors, and Jim Crow laws.
Taylor took the opportunity given by his world titles and increasingly recognisable global name to travel the world for his racing. Taylor squared up with national and world champions across a plethora of European cities including Paris, Vienna and Rome. He raced across Australia including in Sydney and Adelaide. His travels and racing feats across the world paved the way for him to be known and remembered today as a legend in cycling.
Taylor’s legacy as the fastest man on two wheels can help to remind us that desire, determination, friendship, and human grace collectively are the greatest force for power in the sport.
However, the story of racial discrimination suffered by Taylor is perhaps more significant today in connection with the huge Black Lives Matter anti-racism protests of 2020 across the world. Major Taylor's legacy is therefore also a reminder that racial prejudices towards Black people in the dominant and exclusive white world of cycling have not been totally eradicated.