Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Rarest Cyclist?

When I was in high school during the early '80s, during my first torrid love affair with the road bike, I had a classmate named Larry who was a racer, a more serious rider than I. Larry occasionally offered cycling advice to me out of the goodness of his heart. He was a decent guy, another in the legion of city riders who would file out over the Bridge on a weekend morning and tool up the Jersey shore, the only place they could get decent miles and challenging terrain.

Nothing unusual about this story: High school acquaintances, both cyclists, connect.

Well, there was one thing: Larry was Black. A Black road cyclist is a rare thing.

It's Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday weekend, and that's got me thinking: I have never seeen many Blacks in any discipline of cycling. Neither back in the '80s, nor in the years since. What is it about our sport that seems to exclude black people? Is there anything we can do to change the situation? I'm certainly not the first to ask this question; legions of others seem to be wondering the same thing. As interesting as that subject is, it's for another post. This post is about history; it's the story of an astonishing man.

It really is a remarkable tale. Even though cycling has always been predominantly white, there was a man, not only extremely talented but also outrageously courageous and transparently upstanding, who broke the color line in cycling in a very out-sized way. I'm speaking of the late 1800s, when blacks in the U.S. were freely and routinely terrorized or killed by Whites as a matter of whim. His name was Marshall W. "Major" Taylor, and he lived much of his professional life just an hour's drive east of my home, in Worcester (pronounced WOOS-ter), Massachusetts.

In those days, cycling was king, and attendance at baseball stadiums suffered terribly by comparison, especially if there was a concurrent race in a nearby velodrome (and there were scores in the U.S., not to mention Europe).

By most reports (including his own, although there are plenty of others both in print and on the Web), the Worcester Whirlwind was the best there was at this very popular sport. Yet he not only withstood unending mistreatment at the hands of miscreants everywhere, but did so with dignity and a positive attitude. He was, according to many, the fastest man on two wheels anywhere, but was never able to fully prove this because of abhorrent exclusion from key races, mainly in the American south.

He was at least as courageous, and certainly 40 years ahead of, Jackie Robinson. (Nothing against the outstanding Robinson, who is a hero in my family. Both my parents separately got to meet him during his Major League peak in the late 1940s.)

Long story short, Taylor finally succeeded in becoming only the second Black world champion in any sport.

I exhort you to check out this fairly readable, if quite cursory, review of his life, and if it peaks your interest, feel free to dig around on the Web, Amazon, and so on. There's plenty out there on him.


suitcaseofcourage said...

Great - and very timely - reminder. Be sure to check out "Major: A Black Athlete, a White Era, and the Fight to Be the World's Fastest Human Being by Todd Balf" It just came out in paperback.

And I think there's an annual memorial race too. Very cool.

Velosopher said...

Thanks for the tip, SoC! I'll put it on my list and see if the Western Mass library system has it on the shelves. Unlikely, but a first step.

No One Line said...

I'm a huge Major Taylor fan. A couple of months ago I read the book that SOC mentioned. The author isn't the best writer, but his research is thorough. A quick read.

Velosopher said...

Thanks, NOL, helpful comments always appreciated!

I look forward to schooling up on the Major. What I posted is all I know so far.

Vicious Cycle said...

inspiring, riding is the only thing he got and with plenty of HTFU attitude.

Velosopher said...

Right you are, VC -- he had plenty of HTFU. But somehow managed to remain a thoroughly decent guy -- I'm sure I could not have managed it. Which is why I find it inspiring, I guess!