Imagine the sports world in 1902, long before there was an NFL, NBA or NHL – and decades before there were many non-white professional or amateur athletes. In the first Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., Michigan defeated Stanford 49-0, and a fledgling Major League Baseball featured such teams as the Boston Beaneaters and Brooklyn Superbas.
It was in this era that one of the world’s most successful and famous athletes was an African-American bicyclist, Marshall “Major” Taylor. According to Jim Fitzpatrick, author of the new book, “Major Taylor in Australia,” Taylor was a bona-fide, award-winning international sports figure at the turn of the 20th century.
As part of a national book tour, Fitzpatrick discussed Taylor at a Twin Cities Juneteenth event at the Center for Families in Minneapolis on June 16. Fitzpatrick’s appearance was sponsored by the Major Taylor Bicycling Club of Minnesota and the Cultural Wellness Center, through the support of the Minneapolis Department of Health and Family Support and Bike Walk Twin Cities.
As Fitzpatrick detailed, Taylor was like the Lance Armstrong of his day – so famous and highly regarded by sports fans that he would literally draw thousands to his practices and tens of thousands to his races. However, Taylor faced significant barriers because of his ethnicity, particularly in the United States. He was not permitted to compete in races in southern U.S. states, had objects thrown at him during races, nails scattered in front of his wheels and was often purposely boxed in by other riders who collaborated to deny him the chance to win.
Due to racial issues such as these, and the appeal of substantial appearance fees and race purses abroad, Taylor embarked in 1902 on a two-year tour of bicycle-crazed Australia, as Fitzpatrick chronicles. Along the way, Taylor experienced substantial racing successes and setbacks that took him to the peak of his career, but also ultimately presaged his downfall.
Taylor would eventually return to America and to bicycle racing, but would never again enjoy the successes he experienced living in Australia. His legacy, however, lives on in the form of multiple Major Taylor Bicycling Clubs worldwide, and the inspiration he provides to thousands of bicyclists, particularly those who are African-American.
If there’s a lesson that modern-day bicyclists might learn from the life of Major Taylor, it is this: that despite the profound racial barriers he experienced in his lifetime, Taylor persevered to become a world champion. Considering the comparative safety and appeal of today’s bicycling equipment and bikeways, consider yourself fortunate if your greatest barrier to bicycling is simply getting started.
2011 Twin Cities Juneteenth events continue with a Family Bicycle Walk and Ride, led by the Major Taylor Bicycling Club, on Saturday, June 18, starting at 9:30 a.m. at North Mississippi Regional Park, 5114 North Mississippi Drive, Minneapolis.