Who was Major Taylor

Cyclists Armstrong, Taylor
have much in common

By Albert B. Southwick

Worcester, Mass.
August 11, 2002

I found myself finishing Lance Armstrong's gripping biography just when he was rolling triumphantly down the Champs Elysee after winning his fourth Tour de France.

At about the same time, Worcester bicycle enthusiasts were staging a competition to see who could cycle up George Street, as Major Taylor did in 1897, shortly after he arrived in Worcester.

Lance Armstrong and Major Taylor, quite a coincidence, I thought.

Separated by exactly a century, they are two of the supreme bike riders in U.S. history. In 1902, Major Taylor was at the pinnacle of his career, recognized on three continents as the finest living cyclist. In 2002, Lance Armstrong is widely regarded as No. 1 in the world. They both surmounted huge obstacles on the way to their lofty achievements.

Their tracks diverge a bit. Mr. Armstrong specializes in the long, cross-country meets, epitomized by the grueling Tour de France, hundreds of miles long. Major Taylor was mainly a sprinter, holding world records in the short trials, from the one-fifth mile to the 5-mile. He seldom competed in anything over 25 miles.

Mr. Armstrong came from a broken home and poverty. He never knew his father. His indomitable mother was and is the main guiding influence in his life.

Mr. Taylor was one of eight children born to a black family in Indianapolis. But there are only fleeting references to his parents in his autobiography, which he dedicated to Louis D. Munger, a bicycle manufacturer and "my true friend and adviser." After Mr. Munger got to know Mr. Taylor and saw his promise, he sold out his business in segregated Indianapolis and moved to Worcester in order to better promote the career of his black protege, whom he accurately predicted would become "the fastest bicycle rider in the world." He was Mr. Taylor's mentor, guiding light, father figure and devoted friend.

Lance Armstrong has won the attention and applause of the world by his almost incredible recovery from cancer -- testicular cancer that had spread to his brain. One specialist privately thought that his chances of survival were 3 percent at best. Anyone who reads his harrowing account of his operations and near-lethal chemotherapy can only marvel that this man, 15 pounds lighter than he used to be, is still among the living, let alone one of the great athletes of the world.

Major Taylor was always blessed with a superb physique and never had to cope with crippling illness. But he had to confront something else that never went away -- racism. He first ran into what he called the "dreadful monster prejudice" when his friends tried to get him admitted to the YMCA in Indianapolis so that he could use the gym. That was one of the incidents that may have induced Mr. Munger to move to Worcester in 1896, along with his protege.

Things were different here. As Major Taylor recounts in his autobiography:

"I was in Worcester only a short time before I realized that there was no such thing as race prejudice existing among the bicycle riders as I had experienced in Indianapolis. When I realized I would have a fair chance to compete against them in races I took on a new lease of life, and when I learned that I could join the YMCA in Worcester, I was pleased beyond expression."

It was not long before he was put to the ultimate Worcester bike test:

"There was a saying at the time that any bicyclist who could climb George Street hill, one of the steepest inclines in Worcester, had the makings of a high grade bicycle rider ... There was a big crowd on hand to see me make my initial attempt ... I made it on the first attempt and within fifteen minutes I repeated the stunt, riding down on both occasions. That was the first time a bicycle rider ever turned this trick -- and very few have accomplished it in the intervening thirty-two years."

With no disrespect to the riders who recently climbed George Street, it was a more formidable challenge 100 years ago than it is now. I remember when the city regraded and lowered Harvard Street by several feet. Before that, the steepest part of George Street was at the summit. Most motorists avoided it. With standard shift cars, it was tricky getting onto Harvard Street. From Main to Harvard streets it was rough, rocky and unpaved.

Aside from Worcester, racism and foul play dogged Major Taylor from first to last. White riders ganged up on him, enclosing him in "pockets" to keep him from making his famed, last-second sprints. He was physically attacked, constantly abused verbally, and often threatened. He left one meet in Georgia to avoid being lynched. A few of the noted riders of the day refused to compete if he was listed on the card. For all his sparkling record -- which certainly entitles him to be called the finest cyclist of his era -- he lost many races because he was fouled in one way or other. Perhaps because of this, he became a national celebrity and was eagerly sought by promoters who otherwise would have given him short shrift.

His demeanor throughout was remarkable. He never publicly lost his temper and he was unfailingly polite and generous to his fellow riders when they allowed him to be. He emphasized that most white riders were fair and decent. It was only a minority who were prejudiced, he felt. Unlike the boxer, Jack Johnson, who scandalized the country with his "attitude" and affairs with white women, Mr. Taylor's personal life was exemplary. He lived with his wife and daughter in the Columbus Park neighborhood, he was a faithful member of John Street Baptist Church, and for years he refused to race on Sunday, despite tempting offers.

Some of his personal discipline may have stemmed from his boyhood, although his autobiography says almost nothing about his family years in Indianapolis. What seemed to have impressed him most were Mr. Munger's rules for success in life -- dedication, hard work, fairness and clean living.

In his autobiography he concludes that his success on the track "proves to the world literally, that there are positively no mental, physical, moral or other attainments too lofty for a Negro to accomplish if granted a fair and equal opportunity."

That was a radical thought 70 years ago. It is one of the reasons why Major Taylor is to be honored by a memorial statue in front of the Worcester Public Library.

Albert B. Southwick of Leicester, Mass., is the retired chief editorial writer for the Telegram & Gazette.

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