Cycling with America’s first black sports hero

Marshall “Major” Taylor become a champion despite facing prejudice.
Major Taylor And Book
Marshall “Major” Taylor at the Velodrome Buffalo in 1908 and a new biography about the American champion cyclist. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

When I got back on a bike last summer for the first time in nearly 50 years, I looked for books about cycling, too.

I loved what I was feeling on the bike and hoped to find a book that captured the spirit of cycling in the way Michael Murphy’s “Golf in the Kingdom” did golf.

The best I found was Paul Fournel’s “Need for the Bike,” translated from French by Allan Stoekl.

Near the season’s end, my friend Jayne Rowsam at Mystery to Me bookstore passed along a cycling book that I put on a shelf with plans to read it when I got back on the bike.

That was last week. I rode the Southwest Path to Budget Bicycle Center on Regent Street to buy a state trail pass and a helmet. I’d resisted the helmet, thinking I was careful, didn’t fall or ride too fast — I did a good job of rationalizing my poor judgment.

Then early one morning on the Southwest Path between Glenway Street and Odana Road, I saw a cyclist 50 yards in front of me somersault over his handlebars. He landed hard on the pavement and his bike skidded down an embankment.

He was lucky — bruised but nothing broken — and unlucky. When I retrieved his bike, we saw instantly what had happened. There was a squirrel, dead, entangled in his spokes.

I got a helmet.

But the real revelation last week came when I picked up Jayne’s book — “The World’s Fastest Man” by Michael Kranish, published in 2019.

My timing was good, and not only because it’s bike season. Kranish’s book is subtitled, “The Extraordinary Life of Cyclist Major Taylor, America’s First Black Sports Hero.”

It’s a book about cycling, and about race relations at an earlier time in the United States.

Kranish today is a political reporter for the Washington Post and the author of previous books on John Kerry and Donald Trump.

Lifelong cycling enthusiast Kranish was a reporter for the Boston Globe in 2016 when he proposed a story on Marshall “Major” Taylor for the Globe’s Sunday magazine. It led, nearly two decades later, to the new book.

Major Taylor, born in 1878, was the son of an African American Civil War veteran who settled in Indianapolis, working as a coachman for a prominent railroad executive who had a son Major’s age. The boys played together, and the family made Major the present of a bicycle.

He proved a natural, performing stunts that drew crowds, and entering races, winning a gold medal before he was a teen.

Athletic accomplishment would be one of two central motifs in Taylor’s life.

The other — which emerged around the same time he was winning his first medal — was racism.

Kranish writes that Taylor went to the Indianapolis YMCA “to strengthen himself for cycling.” He was refused entrance. The Y was for whites only.

Kranish quotes Taylor, writing late in his life: “It was there that I was first introduced to that dreadful monster prejudice, which became my bitterest foe from that very same day, and one which I have never as yet been able to defeat.”

The 1890s, when Taylor shot to prominence — he raced in Madison Square Garden in 1896 at age 18 — were a boom time for bicycles. Kranish sketches the backdrop: “One of every three patents in the 1890s were related to bicycle manufacture, and more than one million new bikes were expected to be sold … in 1896. The country had 30,000 bicycle shops and 250 bicycle factories.”

Women viewed the bike as an instrument of independence. Kranish quotes Susan B. Anthony, in that same year, 1896: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world …. It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.”

Major Taylor, too, may have felt free on a bicycle. But as he pursued his goal of national and world championships, he faced riders who wouldn’t compete if he was in the race (and others who tried to force him off the track) and hotels and restaurants that wouldn’t serve him.

The racism was abetted by a U.S. Supreme Court decision — again the year was 1896 — when the court voted 7-1 to uphold the legality of the Jim Crow law separating railroad passenger cars by race.

“The ruling would be one of the most consequential in American history, all but normalizing racism,” Kranish writes.

Taylor had numerous white supporters, most notably racer turned manager “Birdie” Munger. And he won many races, including the 1899 world championship in Montreal, and with it the title of world’s fastest man.

But one wonders how much more he might have achieved — a half century before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball — had he been treated more equitably.

In 1924, while Taylor was living in Worcester, Massachusetts, and working on his autobiography, a KKK rally at the Worcester Agricultural Fairgrounds drew 15,000 people.

Eight years later, Major Taylor was dead, age 53, in Chicago following heart surgery.

Near the conclusion of his fine book, Kranish quotes something Taylor wrote toward the end: “Throughout life’s great race I always gave the best that was in me. Life is too short for a man to hold bitterness in his heart.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.