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Interview: Andrew Ritchie

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Majortaylor_mediumAndrew Ritchie - author of Major Taylor: The Fastest Bicycle Rider In The World - answers some questions about Taylor and the era he rode in, as well as telling us a little about his latest book, Quest for Speed: A History of Early Bicycle Racing, 1868-1903.

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Podium Café: You first published Major Taylor: The Fastest Bicycle Rider In The World back in 1988. At that stage, America was only rediscovering its rich cycling heritage, that golden era from the end of the nineteenth century through to the 'twenties. Back then, when you first published the book, how well were Major Taylor's achievements understood, remembered, in both the cycling community and the wider world?

Andrew Ritchie: I first became aware of Major Taylor, and made contact with his daughter, Sydney Taylor Brown, as early as 1975, and I recorded several interviews with her. I didn't do the final research in Paris and on the East Coast, and the writing, until about 1986-7, when I received a small advance which enabled me to travel. So the project was for quite a long time in a cardboard box under my bed!

The first extensive, accurate modern account of Major Taylor's career was my three-part article that was published in Competitive Cycling in 1976, and at that point, I would say that he was essentially unknown to the bicycle racing community and pretty much unrecognized as a pioneer black athlete within the American sport history world.

Theextraordinarycareerofchampionbicycleracermajortaylor_mediumPdC: Twenty-five years on - through your own work, through the work of the others who have written about Taylor, and through the work of the Major Taylor Association - I guess a lot has changed in the way Taylor is remembered.

AR: The changes have been huge! The building of the Major Taylor Velodrome in Indianapolis, the fabulous statue outside the Worcester Public Library, the activities of Lynne Tolman and the Major Taylor Association, and Taylor's induction into the US Cycling Hall of Fame have all been key public events.

But now there is an additional popular recognition in the dozens of Major Taylor cycling clubs springing up all over the country, which are carrying on Major Taylor's example of moral uprightness and taking the values of black cycling out into their communities.

There is even a National Brotherhood of Cyclists - which is a federation of these black cyclists - which is a fantastic development, devoting itself to honour Major Taylor's legacy through education and community work.

PdC: Taylor was a sporting star who became as popular in Europe as he was in America. His popularity on both continents - actually, on three continents, he was also popular in Australia - should mean that he deserves to be compared with other global sporting stars down through history. Who would you consider to be the men and women his name should be recalled alongside?

AR: Taylor was popular with both white and black audiences because he was in the position of being the underdog in America, but he was of course detested by many of the white cyclists, who couldn't stand to be beaten by him. It was very challenging and threatening for them to be confronted by a black man capable of carrying away the big cash prizes. Wherever Taylor appeared, the gate was bigger than without him, and his presence was a test of prevailing racial attitudes in the specific locations in America where he appeared. There are many examples of appalling treatment doled out to him, and yet he persisted and kept winning and breaking speed records.

But in Europe, especially on his first visit in 1901, and in Australia in 1902 and 1903, Taylor was more than popular - he was a superstar who was able to command gigantic sums of start money! This was a new era in the ability of professional athletes to earn a lot of money - the beginnings of truly ‘modern' sport. And that fame continued throughout his six seasons in Europe [1901-1903, 1907-1909].

He was never honoured during his life in the way he should have been in his native country, he always suffered from the racism - not being able to find good places to stay or restaurants to eat in. The fact that he died in 1932 almost anonymously and in poverty tells the loud story of continuing racism and lack of opportunity for an athlete who had achieved so much.

Jack Johnson (heavy-weight boxer), Jessie Owens (runner and jumper) and Jackie Robinson were all much later world champions than Taylor, whose world sprint championship was in 1899. Only bantam-weight boxer, George Dixon, preceded Taylor as a black world champion.

PdC: I wrote some time ago about the post-Tour de France critérium circuit and how gruelling that used to be, as riders travelled vast distances to get from race to race. So I was curious about the sort of schedule Taylor had. Just taking one of his European tours - 1901 I think this one was - you report him racing in Antwerp, Berlin, Copenhagen, Leipzig, Hanover and then back in Antwerp all in one ten day period. Even allowing for the fact that he was travelling by train, that's still quite a demanding schedule.

AR: In Europe, Taylor travelled on the night trains, sleepers, so he would wake up in a new city. But in 1901 especially, the pressure must have been immense, and he was still only 23 years old!

In Europe, he was greeted like royalty. In America, when the riders were out on the national circuit (where they could earn points leading up to the aggregate annual sprint championship), there was also a lot of night travel.

PdC: That American circuit, it can't have been much easier, given that it stretched from sea to shining sea. That ran May to November. Was it simply a case of going on the road for those six months and slowly working your way west, or were riders bouncing around all over the place?

AR: The trains were much more efficient than they are today. They had nice restaurant cars, and the passengers could relax a little on a long journey. There were hundreds of pros travelling around to the big events in the later 1890s.

For the national circuit races, the organizers laid on a special train, which Taylor would also travel on, though probably in a segregated compartment. But when the train travelled into the south or the far mid-west, Taylor would not be on the train because very often the race promoters simply wouldn't accept his entries. Thus, he would often be deprived of the possibility of earning precious points.

PdC: Taylor's discipline was match sprinting, and mile time-trialling, both paced and unpaced. That makes him comparable to someone like Chris Hoy today, I guess. Intergenerational comparisons are invidious, I know, but do you think Taylor could have taken Hoy?

AR: There's just no way of knowing. So much was different; bicycle and tyre technology, training methods, track surfaces.

Taylor was a magnificently tactical rider whose speciality was agility, cunning attacks, slipping through small gaps and pure bursts of speed. His fluidity and acceleration were often remarked upon. Often he went from the front, the most difficult way to win a race, because he couldn't and wouldn't risk the fouling which he knew was likely to happen.

His speed in time trials came from a high level of fitness. For quite a few years he was consistently one of the best three or four sprinters in the world - no question!

PdC: I want to talk about the use of illustrations in the Major Taylor book, particularly the photographs. Before getting into that though I'm curious about a part of your own background here: you've been a photojournalist yourself, reported the news through a camera lens. Can you tell us a bit about that part of your life?

AR: I struggled as a documentary photographer for several years, but it's very hard to make any money! I've always preferred photography to ‘art' (ie painting).

But the photos of Major Taylor are an incredible record of his career, perhaps the most extensive photographic record of any athletic career in any sport up to that point, because sports photography was only just beginning in the late 1890s, with people like Jules Beau.

Questforspeed_mediumI withdrew my latest book - Quest for Speed - from two academic publishers because they wouldn't make space for the number of illustrations and photos I wanted, and in the end I self-published [you can see a selection of the pictures here]. It's good to have been a darkroom photographer (pre-digital) to learn about photography, and I think I learned to look at and appreciate historical photos much better because I was a photographer myself.

The collecting, copying and processing of the many photographs of Taylor was an act of rescuing him from oblivion, and in fact I have just discovered a new batch of photos in the Bibliotheque Nationale, which I have put up on my blog.

PdC: I appreciate the labour you must have put in to gather together the pictures used in the book, but I suspect that there must have been a fair amount of love in that labour, given your own background. Was there much temptation to put aside what your were working on and find out more about men like Jules Beau?

AR: Yes, that was always in the background and in fact there is a book waiting to be written on Parisian Jules Beau. He seems to have been the pioneer sports photographer; he covered cycling extensively, and also covered early automobilism and aviation.

PdC: Taylor himself seems to have documented some of his own history through photography. There's one particular story you tell, of him racing in Paris against his great rival Edmond Jacquelin, and delaying the start of one race so that he could a take a photo of Jacquelin. From the way you describe him, I think there was another side to that story though: Taylor didn't just win with his legs, he also knew how to play mind-games with his opponents. He was quite a clever rider, yes?

AR: He was tactically clever, yes, and his ‘mind games' were essentially based on the fact that racist white riders hated being beaten by him, and that he could win with such style and speed. It was a kick in the face to the idea of white superiority and exclusivity.

But I think his races with his European peers (Ellegaard, Jacquelin etc) were much more true contests of athletic ability, without the racial element being to the fore. They were equals, athletically speaking.

Don't forget that in America he always had to be careful in what he said and did - it was a delicate balancing trick! He couldn't afford to get out of line because there was intense and constant physical opposition from people like McFarland and Lawson (see Jim Fitzpatrick's recent book, Major Taylor in Australia). He couldn't afford to encourage the already existing impression among many critics that he was an ‘uppity nigger' (which in fact, unlike Jack Johnson, he was not), and there was plenty of unjustified hostility already directed at him.

Taylor was a very intelligent man and he understood very well what he was up against. Munger seems to have guided him very well.

PdC: Major Taylor was an outsider, a black man in a white world. He didn't just have to beat his peers on the bike, he had - as you note - to compete against the prevailing prejudices of the time. I'd like to ask you about another group of outsiders at that time, who also had to compete against prevailing prejudices: female cyclists. I've seen mention of a ladies' Six Day in Madison Square Garden in 1889. Among women, how popular was the sport in those days?

AR: It's a big subject that I don't think we have space to get into here. There were quite a few professional women riders in the 1890s, especially in London and Paris, and there was a serious athletic element to the women's racing. But there was only occasional public racing, and no proper championships.

In Paris it was most developed and they had these ‘Café Concerts' which were more like theatrical celebrations with an edge of style, speed and true competition for women. But in England women's racing was opposed by the National Cyclists' Union and was always considered risqué and unacceptable in ‘polite' circles.

The promoters were thinking less about true competition than about creating a sensation and making money at the box office. Even up into the 1920s it wasn't really considered very ‘nice' for women to strip off and really race!

PdC: You're British, Scottish actually. How did a kid from Edinburgh end up becoming one of the deans of American cycling history?

AR: Although I wrote my first cycling history book (King of the Road, 1975) in London, I've been living in the San Francisco Bay Area for a long time now, so had a chance to take a good look at American cycling history.

But my connection with Major Taylor was, I think, just happenstance: the story needed to be told, and I just happened to be there to choose it. I had no idea that I would discover that for a couple of seasons he was such a huge celebrity in Paris and Berlin.

PdC: Track cycling in the UK - all those bangles and baubles Lottery money has bought - has helped push cycling to new heights of popularity there. It's cool to be seen riding a bike. With London 2012 coming up it strikes me as the ideal time to look beyond the successes of the current stars and remind people where track cycling has come from. I like to annoy the current crop of British cycling journalists by constantly demanding more of them, so let me put this question to you: how would your rate their appreciation of the history of track cycling?

AR: The current generation of cycling journalists and publishers in general have fairly sketchy ideas about the early history of the sport, though they are stronger on the early road racing than the track racing.

But, you know, it's still hard selling cycling history. That early period of the sport, from 1870 - 1890, is pretty complex, really. But that's why I published my new book - Quest for Speed: A History of Early Bicycle Racing, 1868-1903 - so all that information will now be available.

PdC: Has there been any interest in the Major Taylor book from Hollywood, or American TV?

AR: What I would most like to see happen is the big-screen movie about Major Taylor, which after nearly four years of a black President is still crying out to be made! We have had several entities buy an option, and the most recent optionees are very close to getting it done, and still may.

The movie that was made some years ago - Tracks of Glory - was disappointing, and in my opinion was far from capturing the true nature of Major Taylor's life and personality.

Taylor was a serious, complex man, whose achievement in cycling was extraordinary, and he deserves to get wider popular recognition in a really good movie as a pioneer in the history of American sport. It's such a fantastic subject!

PdC: You were, I think, involved in helping out with Gerry Moore's recent Choppy Warburton book, The Little Black Bottle, the author having died before the book was published. It's a book I quite enjoyed, it broadened my understanding of the sport as it existed at the end of the nineteenth century. Can you tell us a bit about that book?

AR: Well, the book that's been published was to honour Gerry Moore's work on the subject, but it's by no means the last word on the history of Choppy Warburton, Jimmy Michael and the Linton brothers - the three cyclists who all came from the South Wales coalfields and made their fortunes in Paris and the United States. I'm actually currently working on a new account of Choppy from the rich source material, which is in fact quite a lot more extensive than Moore discovered, because he didn't read French. That's my next project. But don't look for it tomorrow!

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Thekingoftheroad_mediumAndrew Ritchie is the author of King Of The Road (Wildwood House / Ten Speed Press), Major Taylor - The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer (Johns Hopkins University Press), Major Taylor: The Fastest Bicycle Rider In The World (Cycle Publishing / Van der Plas Publications), Flying Yankee - The International Cycling Career of Arthur Augustus Zimmerman (John Pinkerton Memorial Publishing Fund), The Origins of the Bicycle - Kirkpatrick Macmillan, Gavin Dalzell, Alexandre Lefebvre (John Pinkerton Memorial Publishing Fund), The Origins of Bicycle Racing in England - Technology, Entertainment, Sponsorship and Publicity (John Pinkerton Memorial Publishing Fund) and Quest for Speed: A History of Early Bicycle Racing, 1868-1903 (published by the author).

You can find Andrew Ritchie online at

Our thanks to Andrew Ritchie for taking part in this interview.