America’s first sporting superstar

March 1, 2014 § 21 Comments

I was pedaling along, talking to a pair of Cat 5’s about racing. A dude on a fancy bike passed us like we were tied to a stump. “Damn,” I said, “who does he think he is? Major Taylor?”

Stringbean looked at me. “Who’s Major Taylor?” he asked.

I didn’t know what to say, so I thought about it. “Ever heard of Eddy Merckx?” I asked.

Stringbean laughed. “Uh, yeah.”

Stumpy chipped in. “Merckx was the greatest ever. The Cannibal.”

“Why do you think he was the greatest ever?” I asked.

“Dude,” said Stumpy. “He fuggin won it all. He was The Cannibal.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I heard you the first time. So you reckon he was better than Major Taylor?”

“Who’s he?” Stringbean repeated. “Was he better than Merckx?”

“Couldn’t have been,” said Stumpy. “Merckx was The Cannibal.”

“Yeah,” said Stringbean. “Who was Major Taylor? I bet he wasn’t no cannibal.”

Der Sieger schreibt die Geschichte

Among black cyclists, Major Taylor needs no introduction. But for many whites, he’s an ancient name at best, a blank at worst. This is weird because you don’t have to race bikes for long before you hear his name. Although I knew, or thought I knew, the rough outlines of his story, it wasn’t until I read “Major” by Todd Balf that I got an appreciation for the man who was unquestionably America’s first sporting superstar and who, judged by his accomplishments, remains one of the greatest American athletes ever.

Had Taylor been white, his palmares would have been incredible. But dominating the domestic and international competition as a black man in the late 1800’s who faced threats of violence, blatant discrimination, and machinations to keep him from even entering races testifies to a stony will and indomitable competitive lust that makes the accomplishments of Eddy Merckx pale in comparison.

In his prime, Merckx was the undisputed patron of the peloton with a powerful team that protected him and worked tirelessly for his victories. Just as crucially, very little happened without Merckx’s consent. In his prime, Taylor had to fight for every position in every single race, and could look forward to racial epithets and overt discrimination wherever he traveled in the United States.

I thought about all this as I pedaled along with Stumpy and Stringbean. “Boys,” I said, “if you want to know what it means to be a champion, a real one, get yourself a bio of Major Taylor. He wasn’t The Cannibal. He was far tougher than that.”


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§ 21 Responses to America’s first sporting superstar

  • Rick says:

    So True.

  • Jon Landes says:

    And the sad thing, is that non cycling blacks (most) know nothing of the man and his accomplishments.. Dominant is an understatement! Every February, I wait for his name to be brought up, and similar to you here, I remind some of my black friends (to include my family – married to a black woman) about him in March.. I also include in that George Washington Carver, and his Greatness!

    Coming from a 40somrthing white spare – cyclist…(used loosely)


  • Brian in VA says:

    He was beyond description as a competitor and, especially, as a man.

  • Badbrain says:

    Simply the best cycling history lesson,i have read.

  • Worldchamp says:

    And what’s odd is that he is all around us and people still don’t know. Major Motion (and many other teams/places/etc.) is named in honor of the man. Thanks for making sure that Major Taylor isn’t forgotten or overlooked.

  • John Howard has a killer Major Taylor bike. I don’t know if it is a replica or original but it is so cool with the wooden wheels and all. Loved Major Taylor I wish they would make a real high budget movie about him. Gracias Seth.

  • Dan says:

    Thanks for the reminder Seth, for the lazy there are a few youtube videos out there just type in Major Taylor it’s worth the time.

  • awhitlow2 says:

    Ah, being new to cycling, I am not familiar with most competitive cyclists. So glad to have had this opportunity to read about him after reading your blog! Thanks so much 🙂

  • spinner says:

    Great post, again! I “discovered” Major Taylor when I first started riding (oh, let’s see…that was in 1964+/-) when I came upon his autobiography in the local library. I spent the next 12 days reading the Major’s book cover-to-cover! He wrote about RACING!!! No whining about racism; he let his riding speak for him. Ever think you could beat a road full of riders riding against you? The Major could do it ON THE TRACK in short or long races! He was also a master of motorpacing, sprinting, and even running (he once raced another rider, for money, in a running sprint! He won…). He could even beat other riders when the officials were against him. How? He did it with clean and smart tactics that were above dispute even by his enemies which were 95% of the white riders.

    We can thank the Major for the forward reaching stem that we ALL have on our bicycles. He was also the father of the modern racing position with the use of the dropped handlebar. He was not the first to use these things but he developed them and other riders quickly adapted them.

    I had the privilege of actually talking to some old-timers that witnessed the Major’s riding and they all said the same thing “OUTSTANDING”. To a man, they all were complimentary. One of them even took me to the Major’s gravesite…….

    Major Taylor was my hero in 1966 and he is even more of a hero to me now. I hope the readers of this blog/comments will spend some time getting to know the Major.Andrew Ritchie’s outstanding books are unbeatable for learning about both Major Taylor and early cycling history.

    WOW, enough from frozen ILL where we read cycling history books while we ride our trainers in the “well-lite” cellar…..

  • Dan says:

    Cool post wanker. Here in colorado back in the 80s there was a guy named Otis Taylor (not sure of any relation) who ran the colorado black cycling club. As part of being a club in colorado each team had to put on a race. His was the major Taylor sprint race. In downtown boulder they would block off the street for a 200 meter sprint. As you could imagine all the boulder pros attended. The end of the night was the slow race which was a full contact track stand contest. I actually took 2nd to stevetilford which I thought was pretty cool. Anyways Otis is a semi famous blues player around here in colorado but he for sure did his part to keep the legacy of major Taylor alive

  • sibex9591 says:

    I was doing my first Brooklyn to Bear Mountain and back ride last year when somewhere south of Nyack we hooked up with a few Major Taylor Iron Rider juniors. Mainly a development club. Me, I am a mature 50ish white male who has been around the cycling block more than a few times, so I knew who their inspiration came from and who they aspired to be.

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