Just finished Andrew Ritchie’s Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer. There are various interesting Taylor bios out there, but, save for the Major's own, more obscure attempt, this was the first of the lot. When Ritchie started it, Taylor had been wiped from public memory for many decades. Ritchie quite rightly thought this was a crime, and it took him ten years to finish the book that would right this wrong.
If you are an avid cyclist and you live in New England, you’ve probably heard at least some of Taylor’s story, but the essentials bear repeating here. In a day when hyperbole has become so commonplace, there is no way to properly portray the scale his accomplishments – nor of his challenges. However, Ritchie tries to pare it down at one point: “He was almost certainly the first black athlete to be a member of an integrated professional team, the first to have a commercial sponsor, the first to establish world records. He was the second black world champion in any sport…”
Okay, good. On top of that, he was one of the the most dominant cyclists in history; so much so that, throughout most of his career, opponents were afraid they were simply competing for second.
But the kicker, the coup de grace, is that he achieved all this at a terrible handicap: he was the only black racer at his level of the most popular sport in America, at the turn of the Twentieth Century. At a time when lynchings were quite commonplace, Taylor traveled around the country to compete against people who literally wanted him dead. Nearly every time he raced in the United States, he was victim of the foulest play, vilest epithets, and even death threats and physical violence. Even competitors who admitted respect for him in one breath flatly rejected his right to compete in the next. Well, what can we expect? He was the only Black man who had the shocking boldness to challenge the white man in his own living room.
Of course, all the human rights-based objections were patent nonsense; I sincerely doubt the response to Taylor’s presence would have been so venomous had he lost every race. What the Southerners couldn’t stand (and it was mostly Southerners who hated Taylor) was being beaten by someone they considered less than human – and a dangerous example, to boot.
And yet, by all reports, Taylor was level-headed and even generous while dealing with all of this. He was a staunch Christian, refused to race on Sundays, and cotinually withstood waves of abuse. Yet he was not spineless. He had the strength to stand up and speak out against his treatment to referees, governing bodies, and in public newspapers, all in careful yet clear words.
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In all, Ritchie’s writing is good enough to get across the mythic scale of Taylor's successes. As a cycling fan, he also manages to convey the drama of key races. The fact that Ritchie was, first and foremost, a photojournalist is obvious in his repetitiousness, clear progressive bias, and sometimes purple prose. And, like many amateur writers tackling historic subjects, Ritchie threw in every detail he could get his hands on. I skimmed large portions, but that worked fine; it was easy to find the important segments.
I barely need note the pleasure of reading about a time when cycling ruled the American sports world, drawing far more spectators (and paying far better) than even baseball. If you're a history buff, you'll find plenty of treats here.
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There are annual Major Taylor rides in Massachusetts, his adoptive home state, one of them taking place next weekend. (I’m proud to say he came here for our tolerance, even in that day). There is also a memorial to him in Worcester. We are rightly encouraged not to forget this singular man (nor his interesting story). The comparisons to Jackie Robinson are inevitable and just, but the fact that Robinson had an equally hard journey integrating his sport a full fifty years after Taylor only underscores how courageous the Worcester Cyclone was. Few were able to follow his example until well after he had passed on.