Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor was born in Indianapolis 26 November 1878 into a working class family, one of eight children. In 1899 he became the first ever black cycling world champion riding to victory in Montreal; track cycling was the number one sport in North America.
He became a huge star and known as the ‘World’s Fastest Man’ in the early 19th Century. Also riding high at the time was the Jim Crow era of racial segregation, embracing the scourge of racism. Major rose above all the obstacles. All he wanted was a ‘Square Deal.’
The forgotten champion
In the late 1800s cycling was an incredibly popular pastime and sport throughout North America, Europe and Australia. Bicycling was a rich man’s hobby; women were not encouraged to cycle.
Track cycling held mainly on outdoor banked tracks, but sometimes on indoor velodromes such as Madison Square Gardens, were the most popular and financially rewarding professional sport in North America. One rider shone out from the depths of track cycling history above all others – Marshall Walter ‘Major’ Taylor.
As a bike rider, he trained, prepared, and raced using methods and principles which in essence have changed very little since 1899 to the present day. Major was an incredibly gifted athlete with a fine physique, and he made the most of it by employing intelligent tactics.
He knew the importance of not allowing himself to be boxed in or put into a ‘pocket’ by opponents in group races – he could ride with great skill and courage to force his way between riders who combined to obstruct him – and he was a master at timing his final effort in the surge towards the finishing line.
He knew how important speed training was as well as endurance training; how rest, good nutrition, and a clean lifestyle all made for a top rider. He rode on the best bike available to him at the time.
Perhaps above all it was the sheer determination and willingness to succeed against all the odds; the dignity he showed as a man and his conviction that everyone deserves a ‘Square Deal’ in life that made Major standout. He was a person of faith and a member of the church, he lived up to his Christian principles and treated people well but was not always treated well in return.
Major was black and so the odds he was up against to become the best track rider of his generation were incredibly tough.
How Major Taylor’s career started
Major’s grandfather had been a slave; his father had fought in the American Civil War and was subsequently employed as a coachman for the Southards, a wealthy white family. The whole future for Major pivots around a great friendship he struck up with Dan, son of the family. Apart from Major all Dan’s friends were white and came from wealthy families.
One of the most profound and upsetting times Major would have encountered as a young boy was when he, Dan, and their mates visited the local YMCA. Major was not allowed to enter the premises on account of his colour.
How upsetting and shocking that must have been, but maybe it was a life experience which ignited a fierce fire of determination within Major; a determination to succeed which later made him a world champion.
Sadly when Major was around ten years of age Dan’s family moved to Chicago, they offered to take Major with them in order to give him the same private education Dan would enjoy, but Mr and Mrs Taylor wanted their son to stay with them. Fortunately Major still had his bicycle which Dan had ensured he was given.
Young boy to superstar
Major loved riding his bike. Aged 13 he was taken on by Mr Hay the owner of a local bicycle shop to do odd jobs and perform stunts to promote the shop and increase sales.
As a novelty he was given an army type uniform to wear which is why he became known as ‘Major’. Perhaps if he was performing a similar service in this day and age he would be riding on a BMX bike wearing a t-shirt!
As Major continued to hone his riding skills, Hay subsequently talked him into entering bicycle shop’s annual ten mile handicap road race. Major was reluctant to start but was encouraged – as described in his autobiography The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World, “just to start off to please the crowd”.
Major started off in front of hundreds of spectators and writes, “Crack! went the pistol, and with tears in my eyes I was off with a fifteen minute handicap on the scratch man”. Major pleased the crowd a great deal more than he or anyone else expected – he won the race by just six seconds, winning a gold medal into the bargain!
More wins and fighting against discrimination
That first win led to many others. Former top rider, coach and bicycle factory owner ‘Birdie’ Munger took Major under his wing telling him he would make him, ‘The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World’.
Birdie was as good as his word because in 1899 Major won the world professional one mile championships in front of 18,000 spectators on the Montreal velodrome. The first ever black cycling world champion, and the second black champion in any sport following George Dixon the Canadian boxing world champion of 1891.
Major was invited to race in Europe and Australia, competing against the finest track riders in the world. He won many races, made a great deal of money, and won the hearts of many people around the world. He set numerous world records and achievements made more the greater taking into account the hostility he faced.
Some riders worked against him by obstructing him in group races; sometimes he was knocked off his bike and even suffered physical violence. He faced indifference from officials and some race promoters refused to allow him to ride in the meetings.
Major rose above all the obstacles and although he faced a great deal of racism the public and true cycling fans loved him. Sadly he died in 1932 having lost his fortune due to ill-fated business investments, he died a forgotten champion and was buried in a pauper’s grave.
“Whenever I run across an individual who stands out as a peer over all others in any profession or vacation it is indeed a wonderful distinction”Theodore Roosevelt
For many years the story of Major Taylor has been little known around the world, however in American cycling circles he is celebrated and held in great esteem.
The Major Taylor Association was formed in 1998 in Worcester, Massachusetts and does much to educate young people and promote racial harmony. Sam Henry, founder of CIC, No Limits to Health, playwright Junior Douglas and I have instigated the ‘Major Taylor Initiative’ the first ever group outside America to affiliate to the association.
With an eye on the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games we aim to tell Major’s story in local schools within the West Midlands and inspire a new generation to take up track cycling.
Of course, the new generation of cyclists living in the West Midlands will need their own indoor velodrome to ride in; all they need is a ‘Square Deal’ to help get one and the legacy left by the ‘World’s Fastest Man’ will continue to grow.