Major Taylor: The Story of a Cycling Icon

Major Taylor was the first African American Cycling World Champion, a formidable athlete and gentlemanly competitor who has been described as “the world’s first Black sports superstar”.

Taylor won numerous international races and set a slew of world records in a time marred by vicious racism. His is an inspiring story of overcoming the odds through determination and excellence.

A hero in the African American community and in his local town of Worcester, today we recognize Major Taylor as a giant in racing.

So, if you’re not up to speed on this cycling legend, read on to learn all about “The Major”.

In this article, we’ll be covering:

  • Who was Major Taylor?
  • The Early Career of Major Taylor
  • Taylor’s Professional Career
  • Taylor’s Wins and World Records
  • The Racism Major Taylor Faced During His Career
  • Recognition and Legacy

Ready to learn the story of this cycling icon?

Let’s get started!

Major Taylor: Title Image

Who was Major Taylor?

Marshall Walter Taylor was born in 1878 in Indianapolis to a devout Baptist family.

As a child, Taylor lived with the wealthy Southard family, who knew his father. With the Southards, Taylor was given opportunities not generally afforded to working-class African Americans in late nineteenth-century Indiana. Along with tutoring, it was the Southards who gifted Taylor his first bike.

After learning to ride Taylor developed into an impressive stunt cyclist. The name “Major” was born when Taylor began performing tricks in a military uniform in front of the Hay and Willits bicycle shop.

In the cycling community of Indianapolis, Taylor met Louis D. “Birdie” Munger. Munger hired Taylor as a cycling instructor and ambassador for his racing bike manufacturing company.

Birdie Munger recognized Taylor’s talent for cycling and became his racing coach, mentor, and lifelong friend. Under Munger, Marshall Taylor began his life as a cyclist.

H.T. Hearsey's bicycle shop in Indianapolis where Taylor worked as a bicycle instructor, photographed in 1896.
H.T. Hearsey’s bicycle shop in Indianapolis where Taylor worked as a bicycle instructor, photographed in 1896.

Early Career

In 1895 Munger moved the Munger Cycle Manufacturing Company to Worcester, Massachusetts, the capital of cycling in the United States at the time. He took his young star racer with him.

Massachusetts was somewhat more racially tolerant than Indianapolis at the time, and Taylor was able to compete more often in Worcester, and nearby East Coast cities. He proved to be a fearsome sprinter and became well-known in local velodromes.

In 1896, Taylor set a new track record at the Capital City Velodrome.

However, the “official” record set by a white man was left in place. The apparent reason given was that Taylor was still ranked as an amateur.

Taylor became a professional cyclist before the end of that year.

The second iteration of Madison Square Garden in New York City, set up as a velodrome. This was the venue of Taylor's first race as a professional cyclist in 1896. Picture dated 1908.
The second iteration of Madison Square Garden in New York City. This was the venue of Taylor’s first race as a professional cyclist in 1896. Picture dated 1908.

Taylor’s Professional Career

In 1896, aged just eighteen, Taylor competed in the infamous Madison Square Garden Six Day Race as a professional athlete. As part of a warm-up event, Taylor soundly defeated competitors in a 2 lap scratch race.

The race itself is the subject of the excellent ESPN mini-documentary The Six Day Race: The Story of Marshall “Major” Taylor, which chronicles Taylor’s performance in the grueling international event.

Despite an exceptional start for the young athlete, a series of setbacks would impede his professional advancement over the following years:

  • Taylor was barred from competing in events in the racially segregated South during the 1987 season.
  • During the 1898 season, he belonged to both the League of American Wheelmen (LAW) and the National Cycling Association (NCA). The two organizations didn’t recognize one another, meaning he was unable to win either’s championships.
  • Finally, he was disqualified from the NCA’s championships after refusing to compete in the Sprint Championships finals which were held on a Sunday, as it would be a breach of his faith as a Baptist.

But after these setbacks, at the 1899 World Championships in Montreal, Taylor became the first African American Cycling World Champion by powering to victory in the Men’s Sprint.

The NCA didn’t recognize Taylor’s World Championship win, and rival Tom Cooper was awarded the NCA Championship of 1899.

This rivalry was resolved when the two champions squared off the following year at Maddison Square Gardens. Taylor bested Cooper comprehensively in two heats, in front of a packed crowd of 50,000 fans.

After three years of setting records and winning races in the US, Taylor toured Europe and Australia competing in international races where the crowds and prize totals were generally larger.

After three more years of competing, a mentally and physically exhausted Taylor took a two-and-a-half-year hiatus from competitive cycling.

He returned to professional cycling in 1907, and over the next two years, he set numerous world records. On 10th October 1909, Major Taylor won the final professional race of his life in Roanna, France, defeating the then World Champion.

Major Taylor officially retired from cycling in 1910, aged 32.

Major Taylor racing against Edmond Jacquelin at the Parc des Princes in Paris, 1901.
Major Taylor racing against Edmond Jacquelin at the Parc des Princes in Paris, 1901.

Taylor’s Wins and World Records

Below is a quick rundown of the major wins and records set throughout Major Taylor’s cycling career:

  • 1899 Cycling World Champion – Men’s Sprint.
  • 22 Major US Championship Titles.
  • At the height of his professional career – the years 1898-99 – Taylor set seven different World Records. Most came in short-distance sprint events.
  • Declared the “Fastest Man in the World” in 1898, setting a One-Mile World Record in 1 minute and 19 seconds.
  • During his dominant European tour, Taylor won 42 of the 47 races he entered in 1901, and 40 of 57 races in 1902.
  • Taylor set another two World Records in Paris in 1907 – all the more impressive for coming after his return from retirement.
Major Taylor pictured on the front of the French sports magazine La Vie Au Grand Air, November 1, 1898.
Major Taylor pictured on the front of the French sports magazine La Vie Au Grand Air, November 1, 1898.

The Racism Major Taylor Faced during his career

The sport of cycling – and American society as a whole – were bitterly racist during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The story of Major Taylor overcoming the prejudice he faced throughout his life is both inspiring and saddening.

In his early career, local track owners barred Taylor from competing because of his race: he was forced to hide his racial identity until race days to avoid racist exclusions.

Even after Taylor became an international athlete, he was barred from competing in the racially segregated South and often struggled to find accommodation while touring.

On the track, Taylor was subjected to racist abuse, with insults, ice water, and even metal nails being thrown his way by crowds who didn’t want a black man competing in professional cycling. Off the track, he was also sent death threats for his participation in professional cycling.

In his gripping autobiography, Taylor describes how white athletes would often work together against him in races, fouling him and “pocketing” him (boxing him out of sprinting the position).

Taylor was assaulted on the race track by a bitter rival who choked him into unconsciousness in 1897, and a competitor deliberately crashed his bike into Taylor’s during a race in 1904, causing serious injury.

Major Taylor often triumphed despite his abuse, perhaps most dramatically at the 1900 Maddison Square Garden Race where he soundly defeated his racist rival Tom Cooper before 50,000 fans.

However, Taylor was not entirely impervious to the racism he faced throughout his life. He took his 1904 hiatus after being emotionally worn down by constant prejudice and abuse, and the financial difficulties which plagued his retirement can be partly attributed to systemic racism.

A memorial to Major Taylor in his adopted hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts.
A memorial to Major Taylor in his adopted hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts.

Recognition and Legacy

Along with Taylor’s long history of racist detractors, he also had passionate and vocal fans. President Theodore Roosevelt keenly followed Taylor’s entire career.

Newspapers sensationalized the young African American cyclist who defeated his white rivals over and over, giving him racially-loaded heroic nicknames and building his mystique among enthralled spectators.

But, after his retirement, the world seemed to quickly forget about this cycling hero. Taylor found little success during his lifetime with his self-published autobiography. He died in relative obscurity in 1932, aged just 53.

Years later the Major Taylor Velodrome was opened in Indianapolis, in preparation for the 1984 Olympic Games. This marked the beginning of the renaissance of Taylor’s legend. Since then, he’s been:

  • Posthumously adopted into the US Bicycling Hall of Fame in 1989
  • Awarded the US Korbel Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996 and 1997
  • Inducted into the UCI Hall of Fame in 2002
  • Honoured with a State Historical Marker, installed in 2009 at the site of his unofficial World Record at the Capital City Track.
  • Given a tribute at the International Athletic Association’s Jesse Owens Awards in 2018.

These are just a few of Taylor’s posthumous recognitions.

Taylor is now honored as a local hero in Worcester: a bronze memorial statue of him stands outside the Worcester Public Library.

Major Taylor has also been the subject of:

  • The 1992 Television mini-series Tracks of Glory
  • An upcoming graphic novel chronicling his life, set for publication in 2023.

Numerous cycling, athletics and community projects throughout America are also named after Major Taylor.

Today we recognize Major Taylor as a hero in cycling, and his story represents an epic tale of overcoming the odds in an unjust society through determination and sheer sporting brilliance.

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One of BikeTips' content creators, Riley spends most of his time on a bike battling the hills of the Chilterns or winds of North Cornwall. Off the bike you're likely to find him writing about cycling or reading about everything else.

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