A Forgotten Hero
About twenty years ago, I was browsing in a college library, looking for something interesting to read, when by chance I discovered Major Taylor's autobiography, next to a book on weightlifting.
I have never been much of a fan of bicycle racing; however, I was intrigued by this story of a sports hero I had never heard of before, who raced back in the golden age of cycling at the turn of the century, and I read his book completely absorbed. It was his personality, his struggle, and his open and unpolished writing style that made me his admirer, rather than his victories on the track.
In our involvement in cycling, Taylor and I did not have much in common. I go on long, slow rides to enjoy the beauty of nature; Taylor's cycling consisted of short, vicious, high-speed battles that seldom lasted much over four minutes; nowhere does Taylor even mention the pleasure of cycling outdoors.
On the other hand, as a cyclist and as a person, I have experienced undeserved attacks caused by ethnocentric intolerance just because I did not conform to the majority. Taylor happened to be born with a black skin and could never hope to satisfy people who chose to draw the color line. Yet, he had the tenacity to fight the battle again and again without hating his rivals, no matter how unfair they were to him.
Although Taylor was arguably the fastest rider in the United States from roughly 1897 to 1900, his greatest struggle was with "that monster prejudice." Time after time, he was refused entry into races, and he wasn't permitted to race in the South, which hurt his overall standings every year. He was not allowed to join the League of American Wheelman, the dominant cycling organization of his day, simply because of his color. He was turned away at hotels and restaurants, even on the evenings before major races. He was fined on numerous occasions for not racing when he had been the victim and not the cause of the problem. He faced a number of attempts to get him disqualified both because of his race and because of problems arising out of prejudices against him. He was sometimes fearful of other cyclists, and not without reason, as they sometimes threatened his life. He was personally attacked by the other racers, both before, after, and during the races, being choked insensible on one occasion and deliberately rammed at high speeds on another. During the race itself, it was more common than not for the other racers to all conspire against him, often trying to seriously hurt him, and otherwise trying to block him from winning. Even when he had won a race, the judge would often find the white man to be the victor when the race had been very close and, in the event of a tie, Taylor would lose. After the race, it was a rare occasion to have his opponents congratulate him. After Taylor's racing career was over, he found doors shut against him, for instance, being denied the opportunity to get a college degree.
One very telling although not important incident, told by biographer Andrew Ritchie, shows how uniform the prejudice was against Taylor. While in one city in Europe, Taylor found that he was not being given his favorite room, number 13, and he made attempts to correct the situation, only to discover that Room 13 was a janitor's closet. His attachment to the number was so strong by that time that he though about having the room fixed up for him. Now, why would Taylor be obsessed with the number 13 when it is regarded as an unlucky number in the United States? Very simply, Taylor had been assigned that number for so many races and so many rooms that he had overcome his prejudice against it and considered it to be his lucky number.
Taylor learned how to live with prejudice without letting it destroy him. He said he was proud of being a Negro. He did not hate white people in return, although he said that he had "no great admiration for White people as a whole, because I am satisfied that they have no great admiration for me or my group as a whole." On the other hand, he freely pointed out that his success in life would have been impossible without the support of white friends, especially Birdie Munger, who asked for nothing in return.
Major Taylor had four great weapons at his command in his numerous track competitions. First, the very fact that he was tricked and attacked again and again made him strong and absolutely determined to win. The others were racing for the money; Taylor was racing to prove that he was the equal of any man.
Second, Taylor used his brains and was considered to be a great tactician in a race. Time after time, he outsmarted his enemies, pretending he was tired when he was not, pretending to attack when he wanted them to attack first, having his subordinate mark the position where he would begin his sprint when he intended no such thing, attacking whenever his opponent would begin to climb the bank to prepare an attack against him, and deliberately allowing his opponents to get him "in the pocket," so they would relax, and so he could strike without warning.
Third, Taylor was a trick rider and could sometimes perform "impossible" feats to get into a better position or out of a jam. For instance, when racing against Edmond Jacquelin in France, the two men circled the track as slowly as possible to try to get the advantageous rearmost position. Finally, they were both standing still, and then Taylor began to pedal his bike backwards! Edmond laughed, accepted the front position, and was beaten in the sprint. Taylor used another great trick to get out of pockets. In this position, he would have one elbow on the edge of the track with one man ahead and one man on his other elbow. Taylor would deliberately strike his tire against the wheel of the rider in front of him, normally a suicidal move. The rider in front would jerk violently, the rider to the side would veer to avoid crashing, and Taylor would shoot through the opening.
Taylor's fourth great advantage was decisive: No one could beat him in a sprint. Time and again, Taylor would be the last man in the home stretch, and the others would be pushing for all they were worth, when suddenly Taylor would rocket by them, not only passing the whole field, but passing the lead rider by several lengths as well. Because of Taylor's terrific ability to shoot pass the other racers at the very last second, he was a great crowd pleaser and a great ticket attraction. It was for this reason that he was allowed to compete, in spite of the great hostility against him.
There was a sad end to Taylor's life, as told by Andrew Ritchie. Taylor died during the depression from heart failure at the age of 53, an impoverished and forgotten man. I cannot help but see his early death as a victory for prejudice and intolerance. A reasonable diet and a daily bicycle trip could have prevented his death. God have mercy on a society that will let such talent die rather than use it. Taylor should have been a spokesperson for tolerance and clean living, someone to encourage children to persevere. Hopefully, our society will continue to become more tolerant of differences and more sensitive to ability in the future.
Author's note: The books I read were "The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World," by Major Taylor, an abridged autobiography published in 1972 by the Stephen Greene Press, Battleboro, Vt., and "Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer," by Andrew Ritchie published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. The second book gives a clearer overall picture of Major Taylor's life; the first, although sometimes repetitious, is the more moving book.
Webmaster's note: My friend Ken Kifer died on
September 14, 2003, after being hit by an alleged drunk driver while cycling near his home in Scottsboro, Alabama. He was 57.