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Major Taylor - A Pioneer of cycling

Major Taylor (USA) - 1908
Major Taylor (USA) - 1908

Cycling has a long history as an agent of social change and mobility. It has provided inexpensive transportation for employment and recreation, contributed to the independence of women, and provided a career path to wealth and fame for numerous talented athletes who come from less fortunate backgrounds.

One of the earliest success stories comes from African-American cyclist Marshall 'Major' Taylor, who overcame racial prejudice to become one of the first black World Champions in any sport, second only to Canadian boxer George Dixon. Taylor became the professional Sprint champion at the World Championships in 1899, in Montreal, Canada.

Taylor was born in 1878, just over a decade after the end of the US Civil War, and began showing his remarkable talent as soon as he received his first bicycle, at the age of 12. His skills at trick riding - while wearing a soldier's uniform, hence his nickname of 'Major' - led to his first job of performing stunts to attract customers into a local bike shop.

By the time he was 13, Taylor was entering and winning races as an amateur, and set the amateur one-mile track record at the local track in Indianapolis, Indiana. After dominating local competitions on both the road and the track, discrimination reared its ugly head, and Taylor was banned from competing locally at the age of 15. It was 1893.

Major Taylor (USA) - Stade vélodrome Buffalo, Montrouge, France - 1909

By 1895, Taylor had attracted benefactors and sponsors, and was winning races along the eastern coast of the United States, in New York and Massachusetts. He turned professional in 1896 at the age of 18, and immediately began winning against the top professionals from North America and Europe on the hugely popular Six Day circuit.

By 1898, Major Taylor held seven world records: the quarter mile (0.4km), one-third mile (0.53km), half mile (0.6km), two-thirds miles (1.06km), three-quarters mile (1.21km), the mile (1.6km) and the two mile (3.2km). His record for the standing start one mile (1.6km) was 1:41, and remained unbroken for 28 years. This time would still be competitive today!

In 1899, Taylor raced in the professional category at the Track Cycling World Championships in Montreal, winning the one mile sprint event. He beat Tom Butler of the United States and Gaston Courbe d'Outrelon of France for the title. He ended the year by setting a new world record for the paced one mile, riding the distance in 1:19 behind a steam-powered tandem at a speed of 73.32 km/h.

Taylor was extremely popular in Europe, and in 1902 spent the season racing across the continent, competing in 57 events and winning 40 of them. He also raced successfully in Australia and New Zealand.

His record for the standing start one mile (1.6km) was 1:41, and remained unbroken for 28 years. This time would still be competitive today!

Major Taylor (USA) - 1908 Grand Prix de Paris

Sadly, in his own country, he was often the victim of racism, and was banned from racing in many states. In his autobiography, he talks of being attacked by other riders, having ice water thrown at him, nails thrown on the track in front of him, and having other riders conspire to block him from winning. Marshall 'Major' Taylor retired in 1910.

Since his death in poverty in 1932 – he was a victim of the stock market crash and ill health - later generations of American cycling enthusiasts have revived his legacy, with monuments, velodromes and streets named in his honour.

In his autobiography, Taylor said "It is my thought that clean living and a strict observance of the golden rule of true sportsmanship are foundation stones without which a championship structure cannot be built."

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