On the evening of the first Saturday in December, 1896, Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor made his professional cycling début in front of 5,000 paying punters, in a half-mile handicap race that served as part of the hors d’oeuvre for that year’s Madison Square Garden International Six Day Race.
Barely a week had passed since Taylor’s eighteenth birthday but the young sprinter had already been racing as an amateur for four years and had a hard-earned reputation in the shorter races, where speed trumped stamina. In his professional début, Taylor was up against Eddie ‘Cannon’ Bald, Nat Butler, Tom Cooper, Arthur Gardiner and others, riders with names recognised by many.
At the end of five laps of the Garden’s temporary track, the whole thing came down to a sprint between Bald and Taylor, the whole thing came down to a sprint between a two-time sprint champion and a neo-pro. Taylor triumphed.
Taylor’s story is – or ought to be – pretty well known to regulars round here by now. Two very different books about him have been reviewed and Andrew Ritchie has been interviewed a couple of times now, by both myself and by Lynne Tolman from the Major Taylor Association. Most, then, will know that Taylor did not just have to overcome Eddie Bald to take his first professional win, that Taylor had to overcome a society that struggled to accept that black lives matter, a society that struggled to accept any black athlete could be as good as – let alone better than – a white one. Taylor had to overcome a society filled with racial prejudice.
Taylor’s story has been inspirational to a lot of people for a long time at this stage, as the work done by the Major Taylor Association attests. Now, his story is set to be told to a wider audience: the LVMH-owned cognac maker Hennessy has appropriated it as part of its ‘Wild Rabbit’ advertising campaign. And they’ve done it in style:
Shot in Ukraine, with Londoner Melvyn Akins portraying Taylor, no expense has been spared in terms of production values. In addition to the ad itself, Hennessy have also released a making of short:
They have also teamed with ESPN to release a brief, biographical featurette which sets Taylor’s story against that of the 1896 Garden Six:
Taylor became a star in Europe, and raced in Australia and South Africa, where he generally received a warmer reception than was ever afforded to him at home. His story is one that doesn’t just cross oceans, it crosses the sporting and cultural divide: Taylor’s time in Europe in particular is a story of a brilliant athlete while his life in America is about overcoming prejudice. Hennessy have celebrated the former part of the story, Taylor as an athlete, while making it abundantly clear that the other part is as relevant today as it was when Taylor was racing. In so doing they have taken the story of an inspirational athlete and given it to a new generation, ready to be inspired.