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Major Taylor, by Andrew Ritchie

As the Olympics progress and the sprinters prepare to strut their stuff, time to turn back the clock and look at one of the true stars of the discipline.

Major Taylor

Title: Major Taylor - The Fastest Bicycle Rider In The World
Author: Andrew Ritchie
Publisher: Van der Plas Publishing / Cycle Publishing
Year: 1988 (updated 2010)
Pages: 208
Order: Cycle Publishing
What it is: A biography of the American sprint sensation Marshall 'Major' Taylor.
Strengths: Wonderfully written and beautifully illustrated.
Weaknesses: The coffee table format makes for an awkward read.

May 16, 1901. Parc des Prince, Paris. Edmond Jacquelin, the reigning French sprint champion and champion of the world, versus Marshall 'Major' Taylor, reigning American champion and former champion of the World. The champion of Old Europe versus the star of the New World. A white man versus a black man.

The stands of the Parc des Princes are packed to capacity - 20,000 paying punters - as the two stars took the track. Outside the vélodrome a crowd clamours, unable to gain entry. For two months now the local and international press have been building up to this event. From Taylor's arrival in Cherbourg on March 11 reporters from Le Vélo, L'Auto-Vélo, La Vie Au Grand Air and more have practically shadowed, and reported, his every move.

The Jacquelin-Taylor head-to-head is to be contested over the best of three heats. The first heat has to be restarted after the Frenchman falls, the two stars of the sport cat-and-mousing one and other, balancing on their bikes, neither prepared to lead the other round the Parc's cement oval. When they restart, Jacquelin takes the lead, his head turned over his shoulder, a wary eye on the American glued to his wheel. Two hundred metres out and the French champion jumps. As they hit the finishing straight the American draws level and the two barrel elbow-to-elbow toward the line. And then Jacquelin hits the boost button, jumps again. One-nil to Old Europe.

In the second heat Taylor takes the lead. Again it's Jacquelin who jumps first. Taylor is on him in a flash, past him in a thrice. Jacquelin jumps again. Taylor falls behind. Game, set and match to Jacquelin. The old world beats the new, France beats America, white beats black.

* * * * *

Taylor rode, and won, his first race when he was just fifteen, in 1893, eight years before he went head-to-head against Jacquelin. Three years later, toward the end of 1896, Taylor turned pro, débuting at the Madison Square Garden International Six Day Race. His actual pro début was the day before the Six began, a Saturday programme of races to whet the appetites of New Yorkers for the feast of cycling that was to be served up to them over the following week. The Referee reported the events that unfolded on that Saturday evening:

The jewel of the evening's entertainment flashed in the bicycle world in the form of a veritable black diamond, the ebony mascot of the South Brooklyn Wheelmen, 'Major' Taylor who chose the half-mile handicap for his professional début.

Taylor won the first qualifying heat, a fine first outing for a neo-pro. Then he found himself in the final, pitted against Eddie 'Cannon' Bald, the reigning American sprint champ. The Referee again:

The crowd [about 5,000 strong] roared itself hoarse over the victory of the coloured man. But his victory in the heat was nothing compared to the final, which was the last event on the card for the evening. After his great performance in the heat the crowd was expecting big things from the dusky wheelman, and it was not disappointed. With the crack of the pistol, the rider jumped forward. Round and round the track whirled the coloured rider, pedalling away like a steam engine. In the meantime Eddie Bald, who started from scratch, was straining every nerve to catch the runaway African [...].

But to every one it looked as if the darkey held his own. It is a ten-lap track, and with five laps to the half mile the Major sat up after going four laps, thinking the race was over. He rode half way round again before he discovered his mistake, and in the meantime Bald was coming up rapidly. The crowd was shrieking to Taylor to go on and the latter suddenly realised that he had another lap to go. He ducked his head and away he went again, and beat Bald over the line by twenty yards. The South Brooklyn contingent went wild over their dark secret, as they called him, and he was easily the hero of the evening.

Then followed the Six. From just after midnight on the Sunday evening through to ten o'clock on the following Saturday evening, Taylor rode round and round and round the Garden's pine oval. The Six Day record at that stage stood at about 2,500 kilometres. Taylor rode more than 2,770. Seven others rode further, with Teddy Hale, who the promoters claimed was Irish, taking the win, covering more than 3,000 kilometres in the 142 hours of racing.

In 1897 Taylor took on the American National Championships, run off over the course of the Summer and early Autumn. This wasn't just Taylor's first season, it was the first time a black rider rode as a full-time professional. The importance of the National Championships was explained by The Referee in December 1896:

The national circuit derives its chief prestige, interest, and claim upon public attention from the fact that it is national in the fullest sense of the word. It is the arena in which the pick and flower of American speedsters daily measure their relative standing in the racing world. It is the great cycle-racing university, to enter which is the fondest ambition of every young racer. Every novice looks forward with keen anticipation to a day when he will regularly follow the circuit, knowing that it enlists the services of the cream of our racing talent and that to win its laurels is to attain the supreme pinnacle of racing fame. Without it, cycle racing would be sporadic and local in character and national fame would be well nigh impossible in racing circles. The national circuit is the supreme court of racedom.

To give some idea of the circuit that then existed, consider these appearances put in by Taylor. On June 26 he raced and won at Manhattan Beach, near New York. There followed races in Providence, Rhode Island; at the Charles River track in Cambridge (July 21), across the river from Boston; in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; in Philadelphia (August 6); at Reading; at Wilkesbarre; Manhattan Beach again (August 15); the Rigby Park Fairgrounds, Portland, Maine (August 20); at Worcester (August 31); in Springfield, Massachusetts (September 14 and 16); Waverly Park, Newark (September 17); Taunton, Massachusetts (September 23); and Cleveland (September 25).

Throughout all these appearances Taylor was generally winning or placing well and was in the top ten of the championship standings. But his presence in the American peloton was not welcomed by all his peers. One newspaper reported events at the Worcester meet thusly:

In the last lap [Taylor] was crowded into the fence, as he was rounding the back stretch, and when the riders began to spurt for the finish, his wheel struck one of the posts, and he was thrown heavily to the ground. His arms and legs were severely torn and his front wheel broken so that he could not ride it. The plucky little rider picked up his wheel, however, and rolled it over the finish.

At Newark another newspaper report noted that:

Taylor was the star of the show. Most of the men in the final had entered into combinations to help one and other freeze Taylor out. They did work together, but the little black rider was tacking on at every opportunity and skinned them all in the homestretch.

Following that threats were made against Taylor. At Taunton Taylor was physically assaulted by a rider he finished ahead of, who tried to strangle him.

Then the circuit went west, to Detroit, Illinois (October 1) and Wisconsin, before dipping south and then back east, with stops scheduled for Kentucky, Missouri, Georgia and Florida. Two railroad carriages were specially chartered to carry the riders and their entourages though this two month Southern Extension of the national circuit. But south of the Mason-Dixon line was another America and Taylor was either refused entry to races or his fellow professionals - white to a man - refused to ride with him. Where Taylor had the support of the press and the crowds in the East, in the South he was on his own. Having been hovering between fourth and seventh in the championship Taylor was effectively locked out of the rest of the circuit, denied the chance to complete the championship season.

Bike racing in America at this time was ruled by the League of American Wheelmen and, in theory, they should have stepped in to ensure that Taylor was allowed to race. But the LAW was not willing, or able, to defend Taylor's rights. An American solution to an American problem was suggested: Taylor should decamp to France, where he would be welcomed with open arms. Taylor, though, had no intentions of going to Europe, not before he'd proved himself in America first.

For the 1898 season Taylor was signed to a team put together by Pat Powers and Bill Brady, who ran the 1896 Garden Six where Taylor had made his professional debut. Alongside him on the American Cycle Racing Association (ACRA) squad was the Welsh rider Jimmy Michael, the French star Edouard Taylor and Fred Titus. James Kennedy managed the team and Willis Troy, who had worked with Arthur Zimmerman, was the directeur sportif.

In preparation for the season Taylor wanted to put in some warm weather training early in the year. Typically at that time riders decamped to Bellair, near Tampa on the West Coast, St Augustine, on the East Coast, or Florida for their winter training camps. Soundings were made and Bellair and St Augustine were ruled out when white riders would not tolerate Taylor's presence. Florida was also ruled out and Taylor's entourage settled on Savannah, Georgia.

The trip was a disaster, with Taylor barred from his intended lodgings after the other guests threatened to leave if a black man was allowed eat and sleep in their midst. Then he was refused admittance to the local track where he had intended to train.

Then a letter arrived.

Mister Taylor,

If you don't leave here before 48 hours are up, you will be sorry. We mean business. Clear out if you value your life.

White Riders

These were the years of black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. The years when millions of white Americans were members of the Ku Klux Klan and black Americans could be lynched for the most trivial 'cause,' such as using offensive language, making boastful remarks or - heavens forbid - daring to act like a white man. Taylor and his entourage swiftly left Savannah and returned to New York.

The Southern Extension that featured in the 1897 circuit was dropped for 1898 and Powers and Brady had sounded out the head of the LAW before signing Taylor, to make sure that the LAW would force promoters to let Taylor ride or risk having their event pulled from the circuit. The fact is though that few promoters wanted to block Taylor's presence: he was a draw for the crowds and his presence helped fill the tracks. One promoter, Tom Eck - the man who had lured Jimmy Michael from Choppy Warburton's stable, and is generally credited with introducing the first full all day and all night Six Day races to America - threatened to exclude Taylor from his event at the Woodside Track in Philadelphia, but quickly backed down. The threat to bar Taylor probably helped Eck sell more tickets, he himself noting that:

The promoter who would debar a good drawing card like Major Taylor does not understand his business.

Many of the problems Taylor faced in 1897 were there again in 1898, with riders combining against him and attempts made to ride him off the track. But, with a month to go in the championship season, Taylor was sitting pretty in the standings and looking like a good bet to take the title. Then, at the end of September, American cycling suffered a schism when a group of riders rebelled and broke away from the LAW, forming the American Racing Cyclists' Union and aligning themselves with the National Cycling Association. Most all of Taylor's chief rivals - including Eddie Bald, who was leading the championship - decamped the breakaway grouping. After initially refusing to join Taylor too went with the rebels, deciding that the certain victory he would have had in the LAW championship would have been rendered meaningless by the absence of his chief rivals.

The rebels continued on with the previously scheduled races, the points won in the LAW-sanctioned races now transferred to the breakaway league. When the circuit hit St Louis Taylor was in second place overall when a race that should have been run off on a Saturday was delayed by rain and had to be rescheduled. The rescheduled race was held the following day, Sunday. Taylor refused to race on Sundays on a matter of religious principal. He was not alone in this position but the rebels didn't care. Sunday racing was part of their disagreement with the LAW - who refused to run races on the Sabbath - and the race went ahead without Taylor. Had be raced and won he could have pulled level with Bald. But Taylor was a man of principles and the refusal to race on Sundays was something he clung to, only relenting in the declining years of his career.

Then Taylor refused to race in Cape Giradeau, after the promoter had promised to secure him lodging in his own hotel and then reneged and instead arranged lodging for Taylor with a local coloured family. Taylor was still just nineteen and for a second time had failed to win the national championships, not through a failure of his muscles or his will, but through a failure in a system that refused to treat him as an equal.

In 1899 Taylor finally won the national championships, having broken with the rebels and returned to the LAW. But without the breakaway riders it was something of a hollow victory. The following year the LAW abdicated responsibility for the running of cycling as a sport in America and handed the keys to the NCA. After much debate Taylor was finally admitted to the NCA: many wanted him barred but more realised his drawing power. Over the course of the 1900 season Taylor amassed enough wins his second national championship. And this time there could be no doubt as to his worthiness.

Having proven himself the fastest rider in America, Taylor finally heeded the siren call of European promoters and pitted himself against the best Europe could throw at him.

* * * * *

Is there any relevance today in the story of a sprinter from a century ago? There's always relevance in these stories, if you care to look for it. More importantly match sprinting hasn't changed much down through the years. Taylor, Marty Nothstein, Reg Harris, Gregory Bauge, there's a greater continuity between their stories than there is between say, Henri Cornet, Roger Pingeon, Pedro Delgado and Bradley Wiggins.

There is temptation to think that Taylor's story should only be of interest to Americans, to reduce it to a story of white versus black, a period of American history some would sooner forget all about. But there's so much more to Taylor that just that. Like Arthur Zimmerman before him, Taylor was one of the true global sport stars of his era, feted in America, Australia and Europe.

All of which is reason enough for you to read Andrew Ritchie's biography of Taylor. First published twenty-five years old - its most recent update was only a couple of years back - Ritchie tells Taylor's story from cradle to grave. As important as Taylor's story is - both to American cycling history and to the sport's wider record - what makes Ritchie's book really work is that he sets Taylor's story in the right frame. Too many biographies just take a life and say what happened in it. Ritchie takes Taylor's life and tries to paint a proper picture of the time it was lived in.

As well as telling the story through words Ritchie's biography of Taylor is lavishly illustrated with period photographs that draw the eye. No matter how many times someone tells you how many thousand people filled such and such a vélodrome, sometimes the popularity of the sport back then really only hits home when you look at a photograph of a crowd-filled venue and see for yourself.

* * * * *

May 27, 1901. Parc des Prince. Taylor Vs Jacquelin, the rematch. The demand for tickets was even greater than first time around. As the two riders took the line for the first of their scheduled best-of-three heats Taylor called a halt, wanting to take a photograph of Jacqueline before saddling up against him. Wanting to play mind games with his French rival.

Taylor's own account of the race reads like this:

As we rode slowly from the tape in the first heat, there was great cheering. After some manoeuvring, Jacqueline and I tried to force each other into the lead. In so doing we came to a dead stop. We were practically side by side, Jacqueline being slightly ahead. Balancing a few moments, I backed slowly half a revolution of my crank until I brought myself directly behind Jacquelin. That's just where I wanted to be. The grandstands were now in a frenzy. Realising I had out-manoeuvred him on this score, Jacquelin laughed outright and moved off in the lead prepared for business.

Taylor took the French star by four lengths. As they prepared for the start of the second heat Taylor reached across to shake Jacquelin's hand:

My motive was to impress on Jacquelin that I was so positive that I could defeat him again that this was going to be the last heat [...]. As the French idol gathered the full significance of my gesture, he mumbled something, shrugged his shoulders, and set his jaw. His sneering smile disappeared and a frown encompassed his face.

In the actual race Taylor had to come from behind Jacquelin but did so with such effortless ease that he again beat his French rival by clear lengths. Two nil on the day. One all between the Old Europe and New World head to head. Honours even.