By know you may have heard tell about the Superbowl Ad that featured Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor. Sponsored by Hennessy (err..a bit weird, but I’ll leave that one..), the ad features Taylor, with voice over proclaiming that, by 1901, he was considered the world’s greatest athlete. Track racing was a big draw. The bicycle was a new fangled thing, and watching humans push themselves and their beautifully simple machines to speeds only rivaled at the time by a race horse, steam-powered vehicles and fuel burning contrivances called automobiles must’ve been positively jaw-dropping. A human. Going sustaining speeds like that of a four-legged horse!? Crazy talk.
I first came across Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor completely by accident. I don’t know that much about cycling’s racing history and I was doing a bit of excavation. I had been watching documentaries, reading about the usual crop of cycling ‘legends’ when I came across someone called Major Taylor. When I found out just the bare contours of his story — an African-American guy who raced bikes in the middle of America shortly after the Restoration Era — I had to know more. So I got the biography with the most stars and the most didactic title: Major Taylor: The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame
I thoroughly enjoyed the biography. It’s not the kind of biography that can rely on first-hand, first-person recollections through-and-through, but that’s to be forgiven. There’s lots of Taylor’s life that would be left to speculation based on the cultural and political moment, which makes writing a post-humous biography a bit tricky. But, the book did a decent job of trying to bring his story to life.
Hennessy also produced a short film called “The Six Day Race: The Story of Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor”
To top of Black Cyclist History Month, the New York Times published a posthumous Major Taylor Obituary — which completely surprised me:
More than 100 years ago, one of the most popular spectator sports in the world was bicycle racing, and one of the most popular racers was a squat, strapping man with bulging thighs named Major Taylor.
Major Taylor was the “Black Cyclone,” at once the LeBron James and Jackie Robinson of his time. He blew past racial barriers in an overwhelmingly white field bent on stopping him, sometimes violently.
He was the first African-American world champion in cycling and the second black athlete to win a world championship in any sport.
So consider this: He died penniless in 1932, at age 53, and was buried in a pauper’s grave.
Why do I write about this?
I’m drawn to stories of people going up against the odds, who endure the unceasing animosity and nay-saying that can come with wanting to do something but being hemmed in because of your background, your sex, your age, your political persuasion, your missing body part or your whacky, unconventional vision of a different kind of world — anything of that sort. Being a mixed race guy myself, I was also happy to have a hero who didn’t quite fit the mold, beyond his sheer athleticism, of what counts as a competitive cyclist.