swimming pool cap Marshall 'Major' Taylor: The first black American world champion & his fight to the top

November 05, 2021

On a freezing cold December night, thousands gathered at New York's Madison Square Garden.

With the smell of chicken and potatoes cooked over oil stoves hanging in the midnight air, the crowd chattered and beat their hands together, trying to stay warm.

From a small canvas tent by the side of a wooden, banked oval track, the athletes emerged. They weren't here for basketball, or for boxing. This was a bicycle race on 6 December 1896.

On machines not so different to those we recognise today, 28 male athletes made up the field - 27 of them white.

Marshall 'Major' Taylor was a trailblazing African American sportsman. He was in New York that day to take part in a race they most definitely don't run now: the six-day endurance event.

It meant riding a bike with no brakes and no ability to coast if you become tired, in the middle of winter, only stopping to rest if you dared, for nearly an entire week. Perhaps unsurprisingly - given the rigours of American football and ice hockey - the public absolutely loved it.

And it was the race that launched Taylor's career.

Aged 18, he crashed twice and insisted on just one hour's sleep for every seven he rode. He might only have finished eighth, but a star was born. Three years later he was a world sprint champion - over a century would pass before another black cyclist claimed a world title.

Yet Taylor's life story - decorated by victory, damaged by violence - remains largely unknown.

Born in 1878 and raised in Indianapolis, Taylor lived part of his young life with his friend's wealthy parents, who gave him his first bicycle and helped tutor him. When they moved to Chicago, Taylor came home and, aged 12, found an unlikely form of work which would be the launchpad to a career he could never have imagined.

Owners of the Hay and Willits bike shop paid him $6 a week to perform tricks to attract customers. He did so dressed in military uniform, earning his nickname 'Major'.

Taylor eventually moved on to a more established cycle shop in downtown Indianapolis, where he would meet cyclists such as Louis 'Birdie' Munger and double world sprint champion Arthur Zimmerman. It was the relationships he formed with these heroes of the track that helped him break into an exclusively white sport. Munger, in particular, saw his potential and trained him to win.

And win he did. At 15, he broke an amateur one-mile track record. He was promptly disqualified and banned from the velodrome.

Taylor broke several more amateur records around this time, often in the shadow of threats from white competitors. He continued to excel in segregated races, and the records started to fall in national championships organised for black racers.

A move with Munger to the comparatively more racially tolerant Worcester, Massachusetts - also a cycling heartland of the era - made his transition into racing among white athletes a little easier.

He began to make his mark, often to the delight of much of the crowd, but to the chagrin of others. As seven world short distance records fell to Taylor across 1898 and 1899, even soon-to-be US president Theodore Roosevelt was following his every move.

For some, though, his talents were too much. Less than a year after announcing himself on the racing scene in New York, Taylor was wrestled to the floor and strangled unconscious by a competitor he beat into second place following a sprint race in Taunton, Massachusetts.

"After the riders had finished, WE Becker wheeled up behind Taylor and grabbed him by the shoulder," wrote the News York Times. Its report continued: "[Taylor] was thrown to the ground, Becker choked him into a state of insensibility and the police were obliged to interfere. It was fully 15 minutes before he recovered consciousness, and the crowd were very threatening towards Becker."

The crowd's reaction that day was a huge swell of popularity that must have spurred Taylor on to silence those who tried to bring him down. Ice cubes and nails would be thrown under his tyres. Hotels and restaurants would refuse his business.

Dr Marlon Moncrieffe, author of the book Black Champions in Cycling says: "Taylor's rise is a story of desire and determination through his display of human grace.

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