Marshall "Major" Taylor

Marshall "Major" Taylor

Cycling: The Sport of the People

by / / 29 posts

Monday in the USA is the national holiday to remember Martin Luther King. He was a great man but he was no cyclist. Fifty years before MLK, Major Taylor was the Eddy Merckx of cycling. In 1900 cycling was the king of sports. Outdoor tracks and velodromes dotted the country. Taylor was the original Cannibal, regularly winning sixty percent of the professional races he entered and he was the first black world cycling champion.

A real honest-to-goodness champion can always win on the merits.””Marshall Taylor

Despite longstanding racism in the United States, Major Taylor fought his way to the top of his profession. He traveled the world kicking ass and maybe changing some minds. More than a hundred years later, the velodromes in the USA have mostly disappeared, cycling is a marginal sport and in the USA cycling is still too often a white person’s sport.

What I find encouraging is the changing face of the professional peloton. It is starting to reveal the expanding nature of cycling’s popularity. In last year’s Tour de France we saw Chinese rider Ji Cheng doing his daily Sean Yates impression- crushing breakaways all day long. It is a universal cycling language; put the strong bastard on the front and keep him there. African team MTN-Qhubeka rode well in its first Vuelta. From the insanely fast stage racing I’ve seen in Africa, MTN-Qhubeka should eventually be a powerhouse. Athletic excellence knows no national boundaries or race. If one has the massive talent and desire there is a decent chance one can find a way up to the professional ranks.

Thirty years ago an all Dutch Grand Tour podium may have been unremarkable, now that podium usually represents three different countries or just as easily, three continents.

The bike is the vehicle of youth and it is there the fire starts to burn. And we are now all adults still obsessed with riding around on those same two wheels. Why does this melding of human and machine so captivate some, where ever they live? I’m already looking forward to seeing the great huge unknown kid from the Mongolian steppes. He herded horses on a bike to the dismay of all around him. Headwinds are all he has ever known. Bidons, what are those? When he first rides the stones of Roubaix they will be the smoothest thing he has ever raced on. He might not know Merckx from mare’s milk but he will float over the pavé like he was born to it.

// Awesome American Guys

  1. Great title and post Gianni!

    Around Major Taylor’s time was Tillie Anderson ~ The Terrible Swede

    Cycling – Definitely the sport of the people, until 1902, when women were banned from racing due to the perceived level of danger in the sport.

  2. Major Taylor’s racing in Australia is still remembered.

    http://www.starhillstudioaustralia.com/#!major-taylorin-australia/c147v

  3. Nice timely article. What if there were “one-design” race series, like in sailing (I am not a sailor)? Maybe not even uniform design, just a high minimum weight for a low cost of entry?

  4. And three minutes after reading the above, and linking to @markpa‘s link above, I am £3.66 poorer but my Kindle has a book on Major Taylor’s Australian events.

    Sounds like a fascinating era in cycling.

    David

  5. Respect, Gianni.

  6. @Gianni

    When he first rides the stones of Roubaix they will be the smoothest thing he has ever raced on. He might not know Merckx from mare’s milk but he will float over the pavé like he was born to it.

    I’d watch that for a dollar.

  7. Top class piece, Gianni. Major Taylor was a total boss.

    The truly wonderful thing about cycling (well, one of them) is that anyone can participate. With a little scrounging around, a few allen wrenches, and some grease, any kid can come up with a bike that could carry them cross-country. You don’t have to wear Rapha and ride $10k of carbon fiber to play.

    @Gianni

    When he first rides the stones of Roubaix they will be the smoothest thing he has ever raced on. He might not know Merckx from mare’s milk but he will float over the pavé like he was born to it.

    I’m savoring the imagery here,

  8. @PeakInTwoYears

    Nice timely article. What if there were “one-design” race series, like in sailing (I am not a sailor)? Maybe not even uniform design, just a high minimum weight for a low cost of entry?

    You mean like Keirin racing? Japanese Keirin racing is basically a one-design series. Only a very limited number of approved frame-builders may be used, and your bike may only use parts stamped for approval (down to the bolt!) by the national association.

  9. Nice one Gianni – I’ve been thinking of doing an article on Major Taylor. One of the first truly international sports stars. I believe the velodrome in Indianapolis is named after him.

  10. Gotta love that Major Taylor and Jack Johnson were rocking the sporting world right around the same time. As a U.S. historian with a lot of African-American studies, the fear Johnson put into white America was immense. Even better was the fact that he loved to race around the countryside in his hot rod with young white women. Major Taylor was indeed the boss. Don’t know quite as much about him, but I’m sure they tried to find the best white racers to beat him and prove the superiority of whitey.

    I’m sure Spitzer was pretty pissed the Mann Act bit him in the arse a century after they set it in place.

    Nice one, Gianni!

  11. A few years ago, I happen to be in my local library and they had this book on display with a turn of the past century image of a black cyclist on the cover. At the time, being still a young pedalwan, I didn’t know Major Taylor from Taylor Swift but I was always looking for any book about cycling, so I picked it up having no idea how eye opening it would be, not just about Major Taylor himself and his kick assedness, but about how popular cycling was in the late 1800s/early 1900s.

    Of course, I can’t recall exactly what book it was but I’m guessing any biography of Taylor’s life would be an excellent read.

  12. MT was a badass no question. I’m not from “Woostah” but I’m near enough to put this on my bucket list

    http://www.majortaylorassociation.org/events/georgestreet13.shtml

  13. @Graeme Reid

    Nice one Gianni – I’ve been thinking of doing an article on Major Taylor. One of the first truly international sports stars. I believe the velodrome in Indianapolis is named after him.

    Please do. This was just a teaser. His story is pretty amazing for many reasons.

  14. @Ccos

    MT was a badass no question. I’m not from “Woostah” but I’m near enough to put this on my bucket list

    http://www.majortaylorassociation.org/events/georgestreet13.shtml

    Fackin’ Woostah had 30 bicycle manufactures back in Major Taylor’s day! That’s a lot of bikes coming out of one city.

    Do that climb and report back to us.

  15. “Major” by Todd Balf is worth a look.

  16. The bike club in Seattle has a great program named after the great man –

    http://www.cascade.org/major-taylor-project

    plus a jersey if you want to support

    http://www.cbcmerchandise.com/estore/default.asp?estore=majortaylor

  17. What’s with the weird log in stuff? Website? I know it’s not needed, but . . .

  18. Damn I had it in my mind to do a short article based on this photo a while back. Bravo Gianni, great story and article.

  19. @sthilzy

    Great title and post Gianni!

    Around Major Taylor’s time was Tillie Anderson ~ The Terrible Swede

    Cycling – Definitely the sport of the people, until 1902, when women were banned from racing due to the perceived level of danger in the sport.

    It does amaze me that cycling was such a monster sport back then. Six day races were six days long. I’m sure at the top of the sport, betting, money, drugs were all in the mix. Maybe cars were not so inclined to run a cyclist off the road back then. Also, a cyclist could catch a car then too, better chance of drivers behaving themselves.

    Lastly, I read that Major Taylor’s track bike was about 20 lbs., 9 kg. That is not so bad.I’ve owned heavier.

  20. Loving the sentiment on this thread. The concept that the natural will somehow be discovered. Worked out well for Nairo and 16 km’s to 3000m each day to and from school. There’s also a great piece in Sean Kelly’s book ‘Hunger’ recalling how he won his very first race by just pedalling flat out from the gun and not letting up. By the time the rest realised he wasn’t going to blow it was too late. Conversely, Charlie Wegelius had an incredible natural talent, huge determination and great physiology, yet didn’t want the pressure of leadership and the expectation that came with that position. The greats of our sport needed so much more than just natural talent, but it’s a great place to start!

  21. @RedRanger

    Damn I had it in my mind to do a short article based on this photo a while back. Bravo Gianni, great story and article.

    Look at the geometry of that bike: the fork rake, the crazy bars. Something tells me it was a bitch to steer. And his position makes Kelly’s look good and that’s saying something. Didn’t stop him going batshit fast though . . .

  22. Great article, great cyclist: pure sport. It’s a little sad to think that as velos were exchanged for race tracks, NASCAR may now be the sport of the people in the US and too few modern cyclists and trackies in particular know about Major! And, bel mezzo to the man. I read that none of his bikes exist today….

  23. @wiscot

    not to mention the rolling resistance on those tires. But those legs though.

  24. @Gianni

    It does amaze me that cycling was such a monster sport back then. Six day races were six days long.

    And you could actually watch a madison at Madison Square Gardens (albeit in a different incarnation).

  25. @wiscot

    Look at the geometry of that bike: the fork rake, the crazy bars. Something tells me it was a bitch to steer. And his position makes Kelly’s look good and that’s saying something. Didn’t stop him going batshit fast though . . .

    You mean he didn’t just bend those bars down at the stem in an effort to gain a more aero position? And you don’t really need to steer when you’re going around a track and you’re in front of everyone else.

  26. Great write-up. For those who haven’t read Major Taylor’s book, I recommend it. He used to run some ridiculous gears, 92 inches and 120 inches, if I remember correctly. Lots of V to turn those buggers.

  27. @Gianni

    @Ccos

    MT was a badass no question. I’m not from “Woostah” but I’m near enough to put this on my bucket list

    http://www.majortaylorassociation.org/events/georgestreet13.shtml

    Fackin’ Woostah had 30 bicycle manufactures back in Major Taylor’s day! That’s a lot of bikes coming out of one city.

    Do that climb and report back to us.

    That climb’s a ba-stahd. The good Major would climb it on his track bike in some faakin huge ass gear “to build leg strength.” I’ll climb the thing, but not while anyone is looking

  28. Gianni, MT was the Eddy of his day. My old Waltham Massachusetts workshop was across the river from the now buried Waltham track. It was set into a hill and was sheltered from the wind so the times there set records. Crowds would be in the thousands while across the street the baseball field would get a few hundred.

    Also, I have seen a Wooster, MA pre WWI racing bike that weighed 16 1/2 lbs!

    lastly, sadly, a guy here was wearing a Major Taylor jersey from the west coast , mentioned above but he did not know who Major Taylor was FFS!

  29. Talk about having to HTFU. Less than 50 years from emancipation, in the midst of northern Jim Crow, and constantly competing with ignorant fools. Amazing accomplishments in the face of incredible adversity. Thanks for the article. I wish there were more like Major Taylor.

Leave a Reply

Skip to toolbar