At the dawn of the 20th Century it wasn’t baseball that was the most popular sport in America, it was cycling. Tens of thousands of spectators were regularly drawn to velodromes to see dangerous and even deadly races that bore little semblance to bicycle events today.
It was at this time when Marshall “Major” Taylor, then just a teenager, turned professional and began winning races on the world stage, with even President Teddy Roosevelt becoming one of his greatest admirers. But it was not Taylor’s youth that cycling fans originally noticed. Called the “Black Cyclone,” Taylor burst to fame as one of the first black world champions in history.
Born into poverty in Indiana in 1878, Taylor was essentially adopted by the wealthy white family that employed his father, who gave him, among many things, a bicycle. The bicycle allowed Taylor to earn extra money delivering newspapers and later entertaining customers in front of a local bicycle shop by doing stunts dressed in a military uniform, which earned him the nickname “Major.”
One day the shop’s owner entered Taylor in a 10-mile bicycle race – something the boy had never seen before. “I know you can’t go the full distance,” the proprietor whispered to the terrified Taylor, “but just ride up the road a little way, it will please the crowd, and you can come back as soon as you get tired.”
The crack of a starter’s pistol signaled the beginning of an unprecedented career in bicycle racing. Taylor finished six seconds ahead of anyone else and thereafter began competing in amateur races across the Midwest – even earning a mention in the New York Times while he was just 13-years old.
Prevented from joining any riding clubs as a result of his color, the black phenom was smuggled into a whites-only race in Indianapolis in 1896 by Berdi Munger, owner of the Worcester Cycle Manufacturing Co. of Massachusetts. Although Taylor couldn’t officially compete against the professionals, his time could certainly be measured.
In his first heat, he knocked more than eight seconds off the mile track record while the crowd roared. After a rest, he came back onto the track to see what he could do in the one-fifth-mile race. The crowd tensed as Taylor reached the starting line. Stopwatches were pulled from pockets. He exploded around the track and, at age 17, knocked two-fifths of a second off the world record! Taylor’s time could not be turned in for official recognition but everyone in attendance knew what they had seen. Major Taylor was the fastest man on two wheels.
Under the sponsorship of Munger, the Black Cyclone became a professional racer and earned seven world records before his teenage years ended. He won 29 of the 49 races he entered, and in 1899, he captured the world championship of cycling. Major Taylor was just the second black athlete in history to become a world champion, behind Canadian bantamweight boxer George Dixon.
Taylor’s victories earned him tremendous fame but he was barred from many races in the South, and even when he was allowed to ride many white competitors either refused to ride with him or worked to jostle or box him in. After winning one race he was even attacked and choked to the point of unconsciousness.
It was clear that he would be better off racing in Europe, where some of the strongest riders in the world were competing and where a black athlete could ride without fear. But Taylor would have none of it. The prestigious French events held races on Sundays and Taylor’s religious convictions prevented him from competing on the Sabbath. “Never on Sundays,” he insisted. The European promoters were eager to bring the Black Cyclone to their tracks so they shifted events from Sundays to French national holidays to accommodate the American. In 1902 Taylor finally competed on the European tour and dominated it, winning the majority of races he entered and cementing his reputation as the fastest cyclist in the world.
Racing for the rest of the decade, Taylor became one of the wealthiest athletes of his day – black or white. Finally retiring at the age of 32 after a long career at the top, Taylor would fade into obscurity along with the sport of cycling (a victim of the growing popularity of the automobile) and, unfortunately, would lose everything as a result of poor investments and the Wall Street crash of 1929. Never embittered, he wrote, “I felt I had my day, and a wonderful day it was too.” Dying indigent in a Chicago YMCA, he was buried in a pauper’s grave.
When former racing stars learned of Taylor’s fate, they persuaded Frank Schwinn, owner of the Schwinn Bicycle Company, to pay to have Taylor’s remains exhumed and transferred to a more fitting location in Chicago cemetery’s Memorial Garden. There a bronze tablet reads:
“World’s champion bicycle racer who came up the hard way without hatred in his heart, an honest, courageous and God-fearing, clean-living gentlemanly athlete. A credit to his race who always gave out his best. Gone but not forgotten.”
Edited from the original story by Gilbert King, Smithsonian, Sept. 2012.
The Men of Character features are strictly editorial. In no way does this article imply association with or endorsement from the Estate of Marshall Taylor.