Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer

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01/30/2003| 0 comments
by Steve Chasin

Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer

Review of the book by Andrew Richie

Before Lance, before Greg and before Davis, another American- Marshall Walter Taylor (Major Taylor)- captured the hearts of the European cycling world. While applauded, admired and revered throughout Europe in the 1900?s, Major Taylor faced hatred, fear and discrimination in America. As racers lined up at starting points, they thought about tactics, stamina, and equipment. Major Taylor had one added worry: physical harassment by racers and spectators to stop him. American cycling then, as now, mirrored its society. Even though in 1899, Major Taylor?s 22 season palmares included the American and world sprint records, some riders and officials only saw an African American beating the white world.

 

An English bicycle enthusiast, Andrew Ritchie, wrote the definitive biography of this forgotten, yet pioneering American cyclist. While occasionally fawning, Mr. Ritchie excellent book follows Major Taylor?s life and places it in an historical context. Major Taylor?s exploits preceded the boxer Joe Louis, runner Jessie Owens and ball player, Jackie Robinson.   Mr. Ritchie contrasts Major Taylor?s reception in Europe to America. In 1901, Major Taylor was treated as a crown prince during his European tours. In France, the world cycling capitol, Mr. Ritchie mentions how crowds accompanied Major Taylor and shop keepers would leave their stores to look at him during his morning walks. Nobility sought his presence and envied his achievements. Even Jacuelin, the French cycling champion, unexpectedly stopped his car to meet Taylor for the first time. In contrast, Major Taylor used subterfuge to buy his house and then face the neighbors? wrath because he now lived in a white American neighborhood.

 

In face of these hardships, how was Major Taylor, the man? By all accounts, he held to high ethical and moral standards and was a forward thinker. During most of his racing career, Major Taylor refused to race on Sundays to attend church. His training routine sounded very much like today?s racers: carefully monitored diet (like Lance weighing his food), no alcohol, and plenty of gym work. Before Greg Lemond introduced aerobars, commentators noted that Major Taylor?s upper body was more aerodynamic than his rivals because of his handlebar placement.

 

The tragedy of Major Taylor did not stop when he was re-buried from the pauper?s grave in Chicago sixteen year after his death. The continuing tragedy is that his memory and influence still remain ignored by the American cycling community. Today, due to Lance?s extraordinary achievements cycling?s popularity is higher now than in many years. Even with the fresh crop of upcoming American riders like Levi Leipheimer and Tylor Hamilton, U.S. cycling remains snow white. Major Taylor?s character, exploits and cycling?s ability to be a lifetime sport should be the rallying cries to entice, diversify and expand our sport. A British writer showed us our history - let us write our future.

 

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