Title: Major Taylor - The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame
Authors: Conrad Kerber and Terry Kerber (with a foreword by Greg LeMond)
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Order: Skyhorse Publishing
What it is: A new biography of Marshall 'Major' Taylor, one of America's first internationally successful cyclists
Strengths: Adds colour to some of the characters that surrounded Taylor
Weaknesses: An idiosyncratic and overly colourful writing style that favours images over accuracy
1907, May 10, Parc des Princes, Paris: Six years after he first raced in Europe, and nearly three years since his last race of any sort, Marshall 'Major' Taylor returned to the sport he had once ruled. Taylor's previous continental outings had helped sell many newspapers and magazine and helped fill out many vélodromes, not just in France but also in Belgium, Italy and Germany. Many hoped that those days would return with Taylor. But the Taylor who stepped off an ocean liner in Cherbourg in April was not the same Taylor as of old. He was not yet twenty-nine but he was already old for a sprinter. And after nearly three years out of the sport Taylor was carrying a few excess pounds.
In the month between arriving in France and his first race in Paris Taylor trained hard and trimmed down his body. But even so, he was still a rider coming out of semi-retirement and about to set out on a series of match sprints against top class opponents, several of them - like Taylor himself - former world champions:
"That race, and the series of five races to follow, proved to be the most humiliating in his career. Time and again he raced and lost, sometimes by ridiculous lengths. [Race promoter Robert] Coquelle and [Taylor's wife] Daisy would sit in the grandstand each day and watch him go by, cringing at the sad sight of a racing legend getting trounced by a slew of younger riders or those he had previously handled. After his sixth straight loss, Daisy swept up the steps and out of the track."
Taylor could have finished it there, that series of races was all his contracts required of him, anything after was extra. But Taylor couldn't finish it there. He was a former world champion. Between 1901 and 1903 he had been a star draw in the Parc des Princes - Henri Desgrange, the vélodrome owner, had even skipped out of his own Tour de France in order to watch Taylor race French champion Edmond Jacquelin - and he believed that, with time, he could get back on top. By the end of the Summer Taylor was back to levels he once knew and beating the men who had beaten him earlier in the year.
* * * * *
In a foreword to this new biography of Major Taylor, Greg LeMond - who these days seems to be getting a kick out of styling himself "the only American to win the Tour de France" - draws parallels between himself and Taylor, particularly in the manner both sought to return to the sport after a layoff. But, for LeMond, the most important thing about Taylor was his "his transcendent ability to forgive those who tormented him on and off bike tracks." How much capacity LeMond has for forgiveness we have yet to learn. But if it is as deep as Taylor's there may be surprises in store for some in the near future.
The torment that Taylor endured ... well I hardly need to go into that here. Few today have not heard of Taylor and his struggle to become American champion in the second half of the 1890s at a time when many in the US were bent on making cycling a 'whites only' sport. There is a wealth of material available on him: in 1928 he published his own, sprawling autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World: The Story of a Colored Boy's Indomitable Courage and Success Against Great Odds. There have been at least four good biographies of him published in recent years - Andrew Ritchie's Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer and Major Taylor: The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World; Todd Balf's Major: A Black Athlete, a White Era, and the Fight to Be the World's Fastest Human Being; and Jim and Roey Fitzpatrick's Major Taylor in Australia. There are several lesser biographies. He is regularly the subject of features in American cycling magazines. The archives of the newspapers that widely reported Taylor's career are ever increasingly more accessible. His scrapbooks can be viewed in the Indianapolis History Museum. In short, there is no shortage of information available about Taylor, who at times seems almost as popular today as he was a century ago.
This new biography of Taylor comes from a pair of brothers, Conrad and Terry Kerber, who have invested considerable time and money in piecing together Taylor's story - as well as getting their own hands dirty they hired researchers in the US, Europe and Australia and the book has been five years in the writing - and trying to find a fresh angle from which to approach it. How they went about that search can, perhaps, be glimpsed toward the end of this 416 page biography in a brief review the Kerbers offer of Taylor's original autobiography, a key source for anyone who wants to retell the story of his life:
"Those who reached into their pockets for $3.50 to buy his memoir either did so out of kindness, unknowingly, or because of his impassioned sales pitch. The book is long, repetitious, and chronologically jumbled. Despite frequent racism, Taylor's career had been filled with moments of incredible excitement and levity. Yet his text, for the most part, lacks humour. As well, he had a hard time pacing himself, often announcing the results of big races before allowing for any dramatic buildup. He also relied heavily on the quoted words of others and overwhelmed the pages with his racing conquests without revealing the true colour and personality of those who surrounded him. This is unfortunate because those people who were part of his life, both good and bad, were some of the most colourful of the era."
Now really I should simply end this review here and say that that is almost a fitting review by the Kerbers of their own Major Taylor, a sprawling mess of a book. But having struggled through all 400-odd pages of this book I really feel I should try and explain what is actually wrong with it and not just dismiss it out of hand.
Where to begin? Let's pick one of my favourite topics, doping. Doping obviously features in the story of Major Taylor, it was a fact of life within the sport at the time, this was after all a time when doping didn't exist, not in the illegal sense. All the drugs riders used were freely available from the pharmacy, often without a prescription. When it comes to discussing doping, there are a number of bellwether stories that tell you the quality of the information being imparted. One such is Choppy Warburton. The Kerbers have Warburton definitively poisoning Jimmy Michael (which crime may actually have been committed by Tom Eck, with the connivance of Michael), they state that his "riders almost always won and nearly as often died young" (which is arrant nonsense), that Warbuton's little black bottle was "hidden in his shirt pocket" (it was usually ostentatiously pulled from his little black bag, a scene famously depicted by Toulouse-Lautrec) and that he was banned for life from the sport by the ICU (first, the ICU didn't come into being until several years after Warburton was banned, and secondly he was actually banned from British tracks by his national federation and then went on to practice his trade on the Continent). That the Kerbers could get so much wrong in such a few words is impressive and raises questions either about the depth and breadth of their research, or whether the Kerbers are willing to sacrifice facts in order to land an emotional punch.
The answer to that comes in, of all places, a footnote buried on page 244:
"During his fourteen year career, Taylor competed in hundreds of races. At each meet several preliminary heats were run. Nearly all match races including both against [French champion Edmond] Jacquelin [in 1901], were two out of three affairs. So as not to overburden the storyline with endless race descriptions and to maintain an even reading flow, the authors have described only the deciding heats of Taylor's most important races."
This comes at what is the end of the book's most important chapter, Taylor's first European races in which the American and World Champion was pitted against his French counterpart, Edmond Jacquelin (and actually only acknowledges half the crime, the Kerbers actually merging heats rather than simply describing the decider). Is telling your readers that the story you have sold to them as a biography is actually a biographical novel cum docu-drama - a book in which facts are of secondary importance to feelings - really something you do by way of a footnote buried on page 244?
Why the Kerbers chose to do this one can only guess (the pacing point is utter nonsense - the whole book has the pace of a club-footed camel and it would take more than the editing out of a couple of rounds of racing to fix that). But you have to wonder if perhaps the Kerbers may somehow be hoping that someone in Hollywood will read this book and finally decide to make the Major Taylor film many would like to see being made (in one interview I have seen with them they reference the Seabiscuit book and film and note that an option on one of the other Taylor biographies appears to have lapsed). Certainly in their docu-drama style the Kerbers try to craft scenes that would suit such a screenplay (though I can't imagine anyone in Hollywood struggling through a near-500 page book when they've already passed on the five word pitch: Chariots of Fire, with bikes). Consider this moment which you can almost imagine making one of those silent scenes marking the end of Act I in a Hollywood script, the incident coming from 1895, by which time the sixteen-year-old Taylor had just about done as much as he could in his hometown and is preparing to spread his wings:
"Restless and uneasy, Munger began seeking greener grass, further prosperity, and greater freedom for himself and his young friend. He ambled up to a large map of America that hung from his factory wall. He looked at its open frontier, the vast Pacific to the West, the mighty Atlantic to the East, and everything in between. He marvelled at its sheer breath (sic) and its seemingly endless possibilities. He surely debated, meditated, and brooded before jamming a pin in the center of Massachusetts. With little to lose except closeness to his family, Taylor nodded his head. They rounded up their belongings, bought red-eye train tickets for the East, and braced themselves for the great unknown."
(Massachusetts was at this time the Coventry, Paris or Milan of the American bicycle industry: in other words, it was just about the most logical place to go if you were planning on opening a new bicycle manufacturing facility, which is exactly what Munger was planning at that moment.)
Now in fairness it must be acknowledged that telling the story of Major Taylor is not easy. His professional career spanned from 1896 through to 1910 and those fourteen years are packed full of incidents. Work backwards and you have 1907 through 1910 as the final hurrah, the fading of the light as Taylor tried to once more woo his European fans. Between 1904 and 1907 you have the wilderness years, when Taylor - shortly after becoming a father - fell into a slough of depression and retreated from the world. In 1903 and 1904 you have his Australian odysseys, two seasons in which he competed across the length and breadth of the continent. Between 1901 and 1903 you have his defining European years, the period in which the real legend of Major Taylor, champion of the world, was crafted by men like Victor Breyer, the journalist and promoter who lured him to the Continent. The five years between 1896 and 1900, they are the hard backbone of the story, Taylor's rise, his struggle against racism in America. Those five American years, each is itself practically a major story as the sport pulls itself apart - the NCA splitting from the LAW - and then reconstitutes itself and Taylor struggles to come out on top.
To all of this you have to add another difficulty: between 1896 and 1910 the sport of cycling - even just the discipline of sprinting - changed radically. The 1890s in particular was a decade of rapid change, both on the mechanical side (advances in the bicycle itself) and the structural (the relative popularity of racing on the roads and racing on the track, and the relative popularity of cycling compared to other sports). Keeping track of these changes is no easy task. On top of which you also have to look at the similarly rapid societal changes America itself was going through, particularly those that impacted a black man in a white world.
So I am willing to make allowances for the Kebers, acknowledge that even others would struggle to hold this story together. And acknowledge that the Kerbers have tried to add something, adding colour to some of the men who played meaningful roles in Taylor's career, in particular his first mentor Birdie Munger and the promoter Bill Brady (who, at times, is portrayed as a rather stereotyped Irishman, a fact that amused me no end given that this is a book in which racism is a central theme).
The fact is, I would love to be able to support this book. I like the story of Major Taylor, I like most things that add colour to what is known of those years in the sport's early development. Maybe I could acknowledge that while the prose set my teeth on edge and made me want to punch myself, others may actually appreciate the colourful and idiosyncratic style adopted by the Kerbers. Maybe I could acknowledge that other concerns I have about this book are just mine, and may not be considered important by others. Maybe if you do choose to give this one a try you will feel totally different about it, find the goodness in it. All I know is that, for me, this was not a happy reading experience.