Events and Activities

July 2, 2004
The Durango Herald
Off and Running
Long before Lance, cycling had another "Major" hero
By Marc Witkes
The Tour de France begins in Liege, Belgium, on Saturday. While Lance Armstrong is attempting to ride into history with a sixth consecutive tour victory, it might be interesting to look at a forgotten cycling hero.

Marshall "Major" Taylor was a world-champion cyclist in 1899 in the one-mile event. And he was black, only the second black person after boxer George Dixon to win a world championship. The "Worcester Whirlwind" raced all over the world in events ranging from one-quarter mile sprints to Six-Days. Taylor fought against prejudice and discrimination 50 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in Major League Baseball.

I first became acquainted with Major Taylor while visiting my hometown of Worcester, Mass., which became his adopted hometown. I saw posters, pictures and memorabilia at a local sports hero's display at an Applebee's restaurant.

When I returned to Durango after my visit, I went to the public library in search of more information about Taylor. Chap, a librarian, and I struck up a conversation. Chap, like me, was a bike fanatic, and he knew all about Taylor.

"Yes, I can get his book, The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer, for you through a library interloan," Chap said.

Three weeks later, the book arrived and I read it with fascination and admiration. I've been a Major Taylor fan since.

Lynne Tolman, a Worcester journalist, is involved with the Major Taylor Association and a fund-raising effort to build a statue in Taylor's honor to be erected in front of the Worcester Public Library.

Recently, Tolman wrote me about the George Street Bike Challenge in Worcester on July 25. It's a fund-raiser where racers of all ages climb a disgusting grade of 18 percent on the same road where Taylor used to train.

Bridging history, I noticed that current Tour de France rider Tyler Hamilton was listed on the entry form as a donor and sponsor.

"Part of the Tyler Hamilton Foundation's (THF) mission is to provide opportunity and access to aspiring young cyclists, so the George Street Bike Challenge for Major Taylor is a natural fit," Tolman said. "In addition to THF's financial contribution to the Major Taylor Association, THF has donated a George Street raffle prize - a Pedal for Progress bike jersey."

Watching Hamilton win a Tour de France stage and finish the race last year after suffering a broken collar bone was a heart-warming experience.

"One hundred years ago, Major Taylor, too, was a worldwide inspiration by virtue of his remarkable strengths - both strength of character and physical prowess," Tolman said. "An American in the European hotbed of bike racing at the dawn of the 20th century faced different challenges than the ones faced by an American cyclist in Europe at the dawn of the 21st century. But the inner strength required is the same: Determination and perseverance in honing one's physical talent and proving oneself where the rubber meets the road.

"Comparing Tyler Hamilton and Major Taylor is apt, and we're delighted and proud to list THF among the Friends of Major Taylor," she added.

"THF believes in supporting junior cycling and the George Street Challenge is a great race for all, not to mention that Major Taylor is a local hero and keeping his spirit alive is important to Tyler," said Deidre Moynihan, executive director of the THF.

Hamilton will be in Denver as part of his Pedal for Progress Colorado on October 22-23.

Marc Witkes is president of Durango Motorless Transit. He writes a bi-weekly running and outdoors adventures column and can be reached at (970) 247-3116.

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