Marshall 'Major' Taylor: The First Black American World Champion


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.



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