In 1899, Marshall “Major” Taylor became the first African American to win a cycling world championship.
His success defied all odds. He faced violence from competitors, racism and prejudice from the sport’s governing bodies, and threats from competitors—but none of that stopped him from becoming one of the most dominant athletes of his era.
Today, his story is a testament to the power of his determination and character. He’s inspired countless athletes the world over, and dozens of cycling clubs across the country bear his name. We see his impact everywhere today, but to truly understand the legend of “The Worcester Whirlwind,” you have to understand where his story began.
The son of a Civil War veteran, Marshall Walter Taylor was born in rural Bucktown, Indiana, November 26, 1878.
He was one of eight children. As a child, he’d accompany his father, Gilbert, who worked in nearby Indianapolis, as he drove the coach for the Southard family. Through his father’s work, Marshall befriended the young son of the Southard family, and when he was eight years old, he moved in with them.
The Southards gave him a bicycle. By 1891, he’d become such an expert rider that the owner of the Hay and Willits Bicycle Shop hired him to perform stunts in front of the store. Taylor performed in military uniform, and it is likely that this is when his nickname “Major” was coined.
When he was a teen, Taylor had a chance meeting with former high-wheel bicycle racer Louis D. “Birdie” Munger, which led to a job with the Munger Cycle Manufacturing Company, where Marshall would train area cyclists and promote Munger’s line of racing bicycles. During this time, Munger coached Taylor and saw in him the potential of a great racer. That potential began to emerge in 1895 when Taylor won his first significant race, a 75-mile road race near his hometown of Indianapolis. It was in that same year that Marshall relocated to Worcester, Massachusetts, along with his friend, coach, and mentor Munger, who had decided to move his factory. Worcester is regarded as the late 19th century home of the American bicycle industry. When Taylor moved there, the town had a half dozen manufacturers and over thirty bike shops. The move to the northeast brought greater opportunities for training and by 1896, Taylor was racing professionally in road and track races.
After three years of racing across the United States in various events, Taylor traveled to Montreal for the 1899 World Championships, where he won the one-mile and two-mile sprints and became the first African American to win a world championship in cycling. Because of the way professional cycling was governed in the era, the validity of the world championship was challenged. But Taylor’s times and results were impossible to ignore. He’d accumulated 22 first place finishes in a wide range of events, and his fame soared internationally as fans flocked to see “the fastest man on earth.” In a head-to-head one-mile race held at Madison Square Garden against his most notable rival, 60,000 people cheered the World Champion to victory.
Taylor’s career flourished in the years following Montreal. He competed in two European tours and raced in Australia and New Zealand. These events led to his becoming one of the modern era’s first globally recognized athletes. His travels only served to build on his legendary status as he dominated international competition, recording in one tour a stretch of 40 wins in the 57 races he entered. In an age when the world’s most popular spectator sports were horse and bicycle racing, Taylor is regarded as one of the era’s most dominant and famous athletes. Taylor retired from professional cycling in 1910, citing age and exhaustion as the two major contributors.
Taylor’s story is remarkable in itself, but its power lies in what he overcame in his rise to success. He was barred from racing in events or on certain tracks, competitors refused to race against him, and it wasn’t uncommon for fellow racers to try to intentionally crash him out during the race. But none of this stopped him. He persevered against all odds, paving the way for generations. It’s a life and a cause worth remembering and celebrating.