His specialty was the "jump"—a lunging sprint within a sprint. Warily watching for a gap in the ranks of his persecutors, the little black bike rider would put his nose even closer to the front tire than it had been, raise his haunches higher into the wind and wiggle through to break the finish tape. At the turn of the century such tactics won the man known as "Major" Taylor a lot of money, the adulation of thousands and the hearty dislike of most of his fellow competitors.
In the rugged world of professional bicycling circa 1900, Marshall Taylor was a rarity not only because he was black but because he was a teetotaler who deplored the use of tobacco and would not race on the Sabbath. He was, besides, a sensitive battler for equal rights and wrote touching verse in which he compared his "white" inner being with the "black" souls of the men his ambitions forced him to compete against. All this at a time when his country was tightening rather than relaxing the rules of Jim Crow.
Acknowledged as the "fastest bike rider in the world" 10 years before Jack Johnson won the world heavyweight boxing championship, Taylor was, however, a darling of the sportswriters in the '90s and his appearances at the steeply banked cycling ovals brought warm cheers from thousands of spectators. Yet, because of his color, he was held in contempt by most of his racing rivals and, of course, regularly barred from restaurants and hotels.
Marshall Taylor was born in 1878 in Indianapolis, one of eight children of the coachman for a wealthy businessman. A son of the family in the big house occasionally let the black child borrow his bike, and in no time Marshall showed the white boy tricks he never dreamed of. Soon Marshall proved he could excel in all sports except swimming, which he could not learn properly because he was routinely barred from the YMCA swimming pools.
Taylor's first job was sweeping up the store and demonstrating trick riding for a bike dealer in his home town. Without Marshall's knowledge, the dealer entered his name in a 10-mile race, which he easily won, thus getting his first gold medal on a "standard" with solid rubber tires when he was just 13 years old. The new type bicycles, like those we see today, with pneumatic tires, drop handlebars and other modern gadgets, were just coming into fashion, and bicycling itself had become the newest craze. Eager amateur and professional cycling leagues, indignation over "scorchers" on the public highways, and Major Taylor all arrived on the American scene at about the same time.
Sport bicycling attracted a host of paying spectators and became a fast-buck business with the inevitable superstructure of roguish agents, raffish track managers and other hustlers. Tough, young athletes trained hard to master the new advances in cycling technology. Taylor himself experimented with all sorts of new styles of handlebars to lower wind resistance and once had a bike that weighed only 15 pounds. He and his fellow racers competed for purses that ranged to $1,000 and more as the promoters tried to outbid each other for the stars.
In keeping with the segregation that was standard in American society, there was one racing circuit exclusively for blacks that had its own schedules, heroes and betting apparatus. Called the Negro Cyclists' League, it was especially strong in the South, but Major Taylor would have nothing to do with such minor league cycling (with its correspondingly smaller purses). He much preferred to battle the color bar on the white folks' tracks. Once he was cheeky enough to register for a race in Savannah, Ga., but before he could be strapped into his pedals some so-called White Riders ran him out of town.
Even up North Taylor lived with threats against his life. Once in Boston, W. E. Becker, a cyclist Taylor had just nosed out, choked the black man into insensibility as thousands watched. Usually, however, the Major could depend upon crowd sentiment to favor the principle of nondiscrimination. Often, when a combine of cyclists who "drew the color line" (to employ a phrase of the time) used technicalities to bar Taylor from a chance at the large purse, his partisans would enter his name secretly. Taylor had many partisans, particularly in the press. Editorial writers condemned the rawest conspiracies against him and, using various point systems to back their case, sports reporters determined that Taylor was the American champion of professional cycling from 1898 to 1901. But he was never officially proclaimed as such.
Taylor attracted sympathy because, superficially at least, he gave the impression of being a modest underdog. In fact, his handicaps were but skin-deep. He was a clever tactician who broke to take the lead very late in races because he liked to use his competitors as windshields for as long as possible. After tailgating along in their wake, he would use his last reserves of power to jump through for final victories. His adversaries bumped him openly, but he would elbow them deftly in passing. Faced with their taunts and menacing gestures, the Major would retort by smiling with forbearance and quoting some psalm or other.
A physiologist once examined Taylor's body with care and declared his physique perfect for the sport he chose. He had small shoulders, a thick chest holding a strong heart and heavy thighs, with the rest of his body pared narrow. His ankles and wrists were elegantly slim, and the fact that his dark brown skin was shiny smooth seemed evidence of some kind of genetic conspiracy to pass him through the air even more slickly.