News

April 26, 2005
Los Angeles Times
A New Spin on an Old Sport
Major Motion trains young cyclists for stardom. The program, which started with black riders, is open to all.
By J. Michael Kennedy
 
The bicycle racers whipped around the course of the Redlands Classic at breathtaking speed a 30-minute exercise in going for broke.

Their leg muscles burned from the exertion of the race on a tight criterium course around the heart of the picturesque city of Redlands, which has the San Bernardino Mountains as its backdrop. In the lead pack of cyclists was Justin Williams, the only black rider, who flashed around hairpin turns on his crimson racing bike.

Williams' coach, Damon Turner, yelled orders as the cyclists streaked through the back side of the course.

"Work together," he barked to his team of young riders, known as Major Motion. "If someone makes a break, go get him."

Major Motion is perhaps the preeminent Southern California training ground for young riders with professional aspirations. It was started in 1975 as a way of bringing black riders together for both recreational riding and training. The unusual name is derived from Marshall W. "Major" Taylor, one of the most overlooked black athletes in American history. As the joke goes: He's one of the greatest sports stars that no one knows.

Yet because of the lack of black riders in Southern California, the team has had to branch out to other ethnicities, even as it continues to reach out to promising African American cyclists. Though Williams is an upcoming star who went on to win the criterium in the 15- and 16-year-old category, all his teammates in that classification are white and Latino.

"It's tough to compete with basketball and football," said David Pulliam, one of Major Motion's directors. "It's just hard."

Not to mention that cycling scholarships are virtually nonexistent and that the road to riches almost always passes through Europe.

At least since Nelson Vails won a silver medal on the velodrome in the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, blacks have had few role models in a sport that is dauntingly expensive, requires vast amounts of training time and gets scant sponsorship or media attention.

Like Taylor, Vails made his mark on the track and came up via the gritty urban bike messenger route. Most competitive cycling, however, is road racing, a sport better practiced on open roads, on bikes that usually cost a minimum of $1,500 and can go for up to $5,000.

So, although African Americans have made strong inroads in sports traditionally associated with white athletes think Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters cycling has to go all the way back to the turn of the last century to come up with an African American world champion: Major Taylor.

What irks those who have discovered Taylor is that so few people realize that he transcended the color line long before boxer Jack Johnson or baseball's Jackie Robinson, only to be forgotten in the musty pages of history. Taylor died a pauper in Chicago in 1932.

His story, however, is undergoing a resurgence in popularity as more black athletes look to him as an example of what can be done in the sport.

Numerous websites are devoted to Taylor; one, http://www.majortaylorassociation.org, is operated by the Major Taylor Association of Worcester, Mass., where the cyclist lived during the prime of his career. And the ADT Event Center velodrome in Carson displays one of Taylor's track racing bikes from more than 100 years ago, along with grainy photos and a summary of his remarkable career.

Born in rural Indiana in 1878, Taylor was raised and educated in the home of a wealthy Indianapolis family that employed his father as a coachman. That family gave him his first bicycle.

By 1896, Taylor was unofficially breaking world track records in a sport that was as popular at the time as baseball. Thousands of fans crowded the banked wooden tracks of velodromes that were springing up around the country. The original Madison Square Garden, opened in 1879, was designed for cycling, and one track event, the Madison, is named for it.

By 1898, after overcoming the racial barrier that for a time banned him from competition, Taylor held seven world records, despite white cyclists who conspired to block his path or knock him from the saddle. One even choked Taylor and left him unconscious after a race.

In the following years, Taylor raced in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the United States before retiring in 1910, at the age of 32. Then he vanished from the public eye, as cycling faded almost completely with the advent of the automobile.

"What happened to Taylor was because he was a superstar in a sport that declined dramatically, and he retired at a time when race relations were not good," said one of his biographers, Andrew Ritchie. "For the last 20 years he was living in Worcester and was just trying to survive."

Taylor spent his last days living in a Chicago YMCA trying to hawk his autobiography, "The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World." He died in the charity ward of Cook County Hospital in Chicago and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Only with the resurgence of cycling did Taylor return to the fore and his name become synonymous with black cycling.

"I think he's been coming into his own for the past several years," Ritchie said. "I think he was a sufficiently outstanding athlete and interesting person that he's going to make his own way. His name has become kind of democratized."

For Major Motion, Taylor's story offers a way to help young riders understand what can be accomplished against the odds.

"When you tie in what he did and where we are right now, it's a great story," Turner said.

Turner and Pulliam are at the heart of the racing team, which they see as a feeder for cyclists who want to move on to the next level and eventually turn professional.

"They are the best in the state," said Jay Wolfe, the manager of Helen's Cycles, which each year donates about $7,000 in equipment to the team. "They've got the talent. We're just excited to be a part of the team. We want to keep the kids off the street and racing their bicycles."

Neither Turner nor Pulliam has much by way of racing credentials, although Turner once was a bike messenger in downtown Los Angeles. Pulliam worked for years with the Los Angeles Unified School District. About 10 years ago they turned their attention to the development of the youth program, seeing it as a way to introduce young riders to the sport.

One of their first stars was a kid named Rahsaan Bahati, who got his first exposure to cycling as he was growing up in Compton, Carson and the Crenshaw district. First he trained as a track racer at the former Olympic Velodrome at Cal State Dominguez Hills before coming under the tutelage of Major Motion for road racing. In all, he has won seven national titles on the track and road.

"It was huge, really, really huge," he said of Major Motion's influence. "I hooked up with that team and it was just perfect timing."

Bahati ended up attending Indiana University, got married, had a child and is back in Southern California, where he is planning a comeback. Earlier this month, he finished second in Ojai's Garrett Lemire Memorial Grand Prix, which superstar Lance Armstrong entered as well.

Bahati sees costs and culture as a reason why more blacks are not attracted to the sport.

"It's the money, and we're not exposed to it," he said. "If it were a household sport, it would be different."

"It's hugely expensive," he said. "If you join a basketball league in the inner city, you pay $50 and you might even get shoes."

Mike Fraysse, past president of the U.S. Cycling Federation, said there is a large number of black cyclists but that most of them come from countries where the sport is more popular.

"But if you go to the weekend races in [New York's] Central Park, maybe 20% of the riders will be black," he said. "That's because there's lots of immigrants."

At Redlands, the race was over and the Major Motion team was sitting under a canopy that Turner had set up. It had been a hectic morning, including a flat tire for one of the racers only two minutes before the start.

Peter Boyd, whose family moved to Southern California from St. Louis recently, said he and his brother looked around carefully to find the best club for training and found Major Motion.

"We all have something in common," he said. "We're all bike racers."

Standing nearby, Deborah Downing of Whittier cooled down her son, Jared, after the race. The family had chosen Major Motion because of its diversity, she said.

"I wanted there to be a mix, which is what this country is all about," she said. "Damon and David have put their lives into this team."



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