Miscellaneous Sports

Who was considered the fastest bicycle rider in the world in the late 1800s?

Marshall W. “Major” Taylor (1878–1932), of Indianapolis, Indiana, was the first native-born black American to win a major bicycle race, in 1898. He began as a trick rider for a local cycling shop and participated in a few amateur events. Taylor won his first professional start, a half-mile handicap held at Madison Square Garden, in spite of racism in cycling. Taylor was also the first black member of an integrated professional team. Toward the end of the year, he compiled twenty-one first-place victories, thirteen second-place berths, and eleven third-place showings. Taylor was known as the “fastest bicycle rider in the world” until his 1910 retirement. His father worked as a coachman for a wealthy white family. Taylor and the son of his father’s employer became fast friends and it was through his friend that Taylor was tutored, learning to read and write, and became exposed to riding bicycles. Working for a bicycle shop, he rode in his first race as part of the shop team; he won the first prize gold medal at age thirteen. Taylor won more races but was also barred from the Indianapolis track after he broke a track record. By 1895 he was in Worcester, Massachusetts, having reached there by accompanying retired cyclist Louis “Birdie” Munger when he established a bicycle factory in that town. In Worcester, Taylor raced with a black club. In 1896 he raced against top amateurs in Middletown, Connecticut. Prejudice against him as a black rider continued after his 1898 win. He raced in Europe for a few months in 1901, winning twenty-one of twenty-five races; he became a celebrity after this performance. He had his last European season in 1909 and raced in Salt Lake City in 1910. After retiring, Taylor tried his hand at being an inventor, but his efforts to produce a more efficient wheel for cycling were unsuccessful. Several of his other business ventures also failed to catch fire. He resurfaced to race one more time in a 1917 old-timers’ race and won. Taylor fell upon hard financial times and spent his last years in Chicago, where he had gone to push sales of his self-published autobiography. The book had been published in 1929. He was in the charity ward of a Chicago hospital when he died, and he was buried in a pauper’s grave. In 1948 the owner of the Schwinn Bicycle Company had Taylor’s body reburied in a more desirable section of the cemetery. At the dedication ceremony, a bronze plaque commemorating his importance to cycling was installed.


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