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Many American cyclists know the name Major Taylor, the world champion and multi-time world record setter who broke the color barrier racing more than 120 years ago. But most cyclists in the U.S. probably don’t know the details of the life or specific racing accomplishments of Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor, who detailed his racing career and the persistent bigotry he faced in his autobiography, “The fastest bicycle rider in the world.”
I recommend Taylor’s 1928 autobiography to current American cycling fans for a few reasons. Taylor paints vivid a picture of bike racing in the United States at the turn of the century, and highlights his mental process in dealing with racism — from event promoters, track owners, other competitors, racing leagues, hotel owners, restaurant manger, the media, and more — all while becoming, indeed, the fastest bike racer in the world.
Taylor got into bike racing as a teenager. American segregation barred him from entering the local Y.M.C.A with his white friends, but he was able to ride bikes with them. He got a job in a bike shop, and won his first race — the first bike race he had ever seen — at age 13.
The wins — and the racist roadblocks — came thick and fast from there. He was banned from racing on any track in his hometown of Indianapolis, for instance, after he set a track record there for the mile.
He competed in road races, from 10 to 75 miles, often fearing for his safety as some riders threatened him. And he competed largely on velodromes, which were numerous at that time around the United States.
He would go on to win scores of races, including multiple national titles, which at the time were decided based on multiple events. His path to victory there was often thwarted by events in the south that would bar him from competing because of his skin color. He nonetheless continued racing and continued improving, and was soon competing in Europe and in Australia, where he faced less discrimination than at home.
He set world records for various distances, riding alone and behind pacers on tracks around the world. Sometimes the pacers were teams of multiple riders, sometimes they were on a quint (think tandem but with five people), and sometimes he had a pacer with an engine.
He traveled to Europe, beating the champions of various countries in one-on-one track races.
He won the world championship title, in 1889 and 1890, becoming the first Black American to win a world title.
After returning home from Australia with his wife and young daughter (named Rita Sydney in appreciation of their time there), he was again met with harsh racism, being turned away from restaurants and hotels in California.
The point of his book, he says, is not only to keep a record of what he achieved, but to inspire and encourage others:
“I am writing my memories in the spirit calculated to solicit simple justice, equal rights, and a square deal for the posterity of my down-trodden by brave people, not only in athletic games and sports, but in every honorable game of human endeavor.”
Bike details and racing tactics
Taylor details how, in his second race as a 14-year-old in 1892, he witnessed a rider, William Laurie, using a new technology — tires with air in them.
“Hitherto all racers had their wheels equipped with solid rubber tires,” Taylor wrote. “Hoots and jeers greeted Laurie throughout the afternoon as he blazed the trail for the use of pneumatic tires, which revolutionized bicycling racing, and the manufacture of bicycles simultaneously.”
Taylor also shares detail of his bikes — at one point he had the lightest possible bike at 14 pounds. This would be a light bike today — with derailleurs, 22 gears, and disc brakes. Taylor rode a steel fixed gear without brakes.
He talks about his tactics for various races. In some road races, he would jump out ahead, fearing that other riders’ threats of violence would be acted upon. In track races, he was often boxed in — “put in the pocket,” was the phrase — and he developed a reputation for being able to blast through the tiniest of gaps.
“I have often started through with scarcely space enough for my front wheel to pass, and having been so well protected from wind resistance, since the pocket formed a sort of vacuum, I was able to kick through like a cork out of a champagne bottle,” he wrote. “As a matter of fact I consider this the most skillful bit of tactics in bicycle racing.”
Racing in spite of racism
Taylor notes that most fans, in the U.S., Europe and Australia, were generally very supportive of him. And even some promoters who sought to block him couldn’t help but notice his impact on ticket sales. And while some white riders insulted him, conspired against him, tried to crash him, or refused to race him, many others treated him with respect, he wrote.
Taylor noted that the press was supportive of him, and quotes many newspapers at length throughout the book.
“I had always received the fairest treatment at the hands of the newspapers of the country,” he wrote. “News items and editorial in most of the leading papers in the country, from both above and below the Mason-Dixon line, crystalized public sentiment in my favor.”
However, even in these clips Taylor deems supportive, he is constantly referred to with condescension, such as being referred to as a ‘colored boy’ while his white competitors were referred to as men.
Fans at U.S. velodromes were generally supportive, he notes, although he did have a bottle thrown at his head at Madison Square Garden by a fan of a rider who tried to crash him that same night.
Fans in Europe welcomed him, he wrote, even when he was beating their national champions.
“The Belgians gave me a splendid ovation despite the fact that I had dethroned their idol, Louis Grognia,” he wrote.
In France, Taylor raced against national champion Edmund Jacquelin.
“Upwards of thirty thousand eager, impatient bicycle race enthusiasts greeted Jacquelin and I with a storm of applause,” Taylor wrote, going on to discuss how the two riders tried to maneuver each other in the the lead position, eventually both coming to a track stand. “Balancing a few moments, I backed slowly half a revolution of my crank until I brought myself directly behind Jacquelin. The grandstands were now in a frenzy. Realizing I had outmaneuvered him on this score, Jacquelin laughed out right and moved off in the lead.”
Taylor discusses how he enjoyed his time traveling around Europe, and then living and racing in Australia.
When he returned to the United States, accompanied by his young family and an Australian friend Don Walker, racism was still there, waiting for him.
“We encountered a new epidemic of Colorphobia,” he wrote of his experience in California. “Don Walker was completely nonplussed as he observed the treatment accorded to Mrs. Taylor and myself and our infant baby. We fond it impossible to dine in the restaurants because the management drew the color line, and the same condition confronted us at the hotels. We made the rounds of the city, only to be refused shelter and in many cases to be actually insulted. I was unable to explain conditions satisfactorily to [Walker]; the more I tried to smooth matters over, the more incensed he became.”
Taylor retired after 16 years, and wrote that few understood the great physical strain, mental strain, “and the utter exhaustion which I felt on the many occasions after i had battled under bitter odds against the monster prejudice, both on and off the track. In most of my races I not only struggled for victory, but also for my very life and limb.”
In concluding his book, Taylor writes the following to the coming generations of Black Americans, noting there will always be that monster prejudice to do extra battle against because of their color.
“I do not want to make their futures appear more rosy than they will be, nor do I wish to discourage them in the slightest degree as they face life as its vicissitudes. My idea in giving this word to the boys and girl of my race is that they may be better prepared than I was to overcome their sinister conditions.
“I might go on discussing this subject at great length, but my own book of experiences will best show what these obstacles are, and how I managed to overcome them to some extent. I would advise all youths aspiring to athletic fame or a professional career to practice clean living, fair play, and good sportsmanship. These rules may seem simple enough, but it will require great morale and physical courage to adhere to them.
“Any boy can do so who has will power and force of character, even as I did, despite the fact that no one of my color was able to offer me advice gained through experience as I started up the ladder to success. In a word, I was a pioneer, and therefore had to blaze my own trail.”
You can find Taylor’s 431-page book, “The fastest bicycle rider in the world,” for sale online.