As an Indianapolis teenager, Marshall “Major” Taylor climbed aboard a bike and became one of the city’s original icons of speed and resolve. By the end of his career, he was a world champion and earned the popular title “the World’s Fastest Man” as a pioneering African-American athlete in an era of harsh racism.
On July 13 you—no matter how much or little you ride—can climb aboard a bike to honor Major Taylor in the city where his inspiring story began.
The Major Taylor Community Ride is open to people of all ages, skills, and levels of ability. The group will start at Meridian Street just north of Monument Circle and follow a 14 mile round-trip route to the Indy Cycleplex—home of the Major Taylor Velodrome—and back. The Major Taylor ride begins at 9am, kicking of a day of bicycle racing and festivities at the annual IU Health IndyCrit.
The ride to honor Taylor (1878-1932) is part of a growing effort in Central Indiana to celebrate the legacy and lessons of Taylor as a pioneering African-American athlete. Marshall W. Taylor was born in Indianapolis in 1878. He picked up the nickname “Major” as a teenager because he wore a soldier’s uniform while performing bicycle tricks outside of an Indianapolis bike shop to help attract customers. He won the 1-mile cycling championship in 1899 and set world records in distances from one-quarter mile through 2 miles. During his career, Taylor competed internationally including in France, Belgium, Italy, and Australia. Called the “Black Cyclone” and the “Worcester Whirlwind,” he retired from racing in 1910 and died in 1932.
“As an athlete, Taylor had a gunpowder sprint, fast and powerful, one that transformed races within sight of the finish line and delighted audiences on three continents,” said cycling historian Peter Nye, author of Hearts of Lions: The History of American Bicycle Racing. “As a person, he had a jaunty personality, which kept him going despite racial adversity in his youth. There were no team tactics in his era, but white riders would conspire to box him in against the inside rail to permit someone else to pass on the outside. His sprint was so sharp that often he could drop behind, swing outside, and overtake everyone.”
Taylor was religious, and early in his career he promised his mother that he would not race on Sundays. Nye said he honored this for most of his career, a commitment that undoubtably cost him many important and lucrative victories. “Studying his career, I realized that over time the racism wore down the edges of his patience,” Nye said. “In his last few years of racing, 1908 to 1910, he gave in to compete occasionally on Sundays.”
Although Indianapolis was not always kind to him, Taylor remembered his hometown fondly. Three years before his death, Taylor signed a copy of his autobiography for an Indianapolis resident with this hand-written inscription:
“Many pleasant recollections of the good old bicycle days in around Indianapolis.
Yours very truly
Marshall “Major” Taylor is an inspiration and model for today, not only for his athletic achievements in the face of unrelenting racism, but also because of his integrity, generosity of spirit, concern for others, and invaluable contribution to America’s struggle for equality with a steely resolve and a strong commitment to non-violence. A growing local effort in the Indianapolis area is seeking to #HonorMajorTaylor in his hometown including community events, educational materials and promotions, and planned public art.
Daniel Lee is a board member of the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame and author of the book “The Belgian Hammer: Forging Young Americans into Professional Cyclists. If you would like updates and be part of the local effort to honor Major Taylor in Indianapolis, please email firstname.lastname@example.org