Brian O'Neill: A forgotten champion brings bikers together
March 15, 2017 12:00 AM
Marshall W. "Major" Taylor: Barred from racing in Indianapolis, he went on to world fame.
An undated file photo of Marshall Taylor.
In 1903, Major Taylor finishes first in the final of the one-mile international championship during his inital visit to Australia.
By Brian O'Neill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
To understand how big Marshall “Major” Taylor once was, you have to understand how big professional cycling was in the 1890s.
Before there was an NFL or NASCAR, there was something called the L.A.W. The Pittsburg Press sports pages of 1898 (an era when the city’s silent H was on hiatus) could make repeated reference to these three letters with the assumption that the readers knew what they meant.
I looked it up. Turns out L.A.W. was the League of American Wheelmen, which had more than 100,000 members in 1898. Taylor was the first black star in its galaxy and the first black American to win a world championship in any sport.
The University of Pittsburgh has archived Taylor’s scrapbooks. They were a gift from his only daughter Sydney Taylor Brown of Schenley Heights, a psychiatric social worker for the Veterans Administration Hospital who died at 101 in 2005, having lived in Pittsburgh for more than 65 years.
The Pittsburgh Major Taylor Cycling Club holds an annual birthday ride for its namesake each fall on the Saturday before or after his Nov. 26 (1878) birthday.
Yet I couldn’t remember hearing about the guy. I found out about all of the above after a cycling friend handed me a copy of Taylor’s 1928 autobiography, “The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World,” subtitled “The Story of a Colored Boy’s Indomitable Courage and Success Against Great Odds.”
My friend thinks we should name some section of our riverfront trails after Taylor. One can be an agnostic on that question and still believe the man who broke an athletic color line a half-century before Jackie Robinson deserves more recognition.
Bruce Woods, 58, president of the 13-year-old Major Taylor club, said I shouldn’t feel bad about my ignorance of the champion’s exploits. About 10 years ago, Mr. Woods and his wife, Shelia, having cycled for years without seeing many other African-Americans on bikes, thought about starting a club. When they heard about the Major Taylor Club, they went to their first meeting hoping to meet him.
He was just about to ask where Taylor was when then-President Mario Browne gave the newcomers a short history lesson.
Reading his autobiography, it’s impossible not to admire the man. The son of a Civil War veteran who had migrated from Louisville to rural Indiana, Marshall Taylor was one of eight children. His father was coachman to a wealthy family who had a son Marshall’s age, and they were inseparable until the family moved away when the boys were 12. By then, the family had given Marshall a bike.
He taught himself so many tricks that he was able to give up his newspaper route for a higher-paying job performing cycling stunts for a local bike shop. He won his first race in 1891 at age 13, but eventually the racial backlash against his record-breaking success left him barred from competing on any track in Indianapolis.
He moved to Worcester, Mass., in 1896, and made his professional debut in Madison Square Garden in New York. After winning a half-mile race, he entered the six-day race where riders slept when they chose. He’d pedal for 18 hours a day, logging 1,787 miles — and he finished eighth.
In that highly competitive age, “The Black Cyclone” became a big drawing card. Contemporary sportswriters bemoaned how he was often fouled by competitors — he was choked into unconsciousness by a rival whom he’d bested in a Boston race — but Mr. Taylor was widely considered the nation’s best cyclist before he turned 20. He was barred from competing in the South, but he won the world’s one-mile sprint championship in Montreal in 1899. He’d travel to Europe three times and Australia twice — where daughter Sydney was born in 1904 and named for the city of her birth.
About the only thing that could stop this man was a race on a Sunday. He would not compete on the Sabbath.
Jerry Coleman, 69, a retired letter carrier in Manchester, got a copy of the autobiography some years ago. Mr. Coleman started cycling as a college student in the 1970s and was taking 210-mile, two-day rides by the 1980s. He’d ride to work Downtown when he used to deliver to skyscrapers in the Golden Triangle. And he had the same reaction I had when he first learned of this unknown champion.
“I never heard of this guy. How could this be?”
Like all its chapters, the Pittsburgh Major Taylor Cycling Club is open to everyone: men, women, black, white, young, old, whatever. Mr. Woods said that sometimes, when they’re out for a group ride and stopped at a red light, someone in the next car will ask, “Is there a race today?” Because why else would such a casually integrated group assemble?
“No race,” he’ll tell them. “We’re just out for a ride.
“Those are some of the proudest moments I have,” he said.
It’s a safe bet Marshall Taylor would be proud, too.
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