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Professional bicycle racing was at its peak in the United States when Marshall Walter (Major) Taylor, one of eight children of a Negro Civil War veteran, won the 1899 world championship and the U.S. title a year later. Newspapers hailed this remarkable young sprinter (he was 21 years old when he became world champion) as the "Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World." Taylor, one of the earliest of his race to become a national champion in any sport, then spent the next four years touring Europe and Australia. He rode wherever bicycle racing was a major sport and beat every national champion he met.
Although he competed against the best sprinters and middle distance men of the world in open competition (paced and unpaced), match racing was Taylor's forte. This was a style of riding in which each rider jockeyed for a position that would force his opponent to set the pace. At times, both riders came to a standstill, balancing on their wheels without a foot touching the track. The jockeying could go on up to a few hundred yards from the finish line before either rider tried for a breakaway. Then, with feet dug into pedals, backs humped and hands gripping handlebars tightly, the riders tore around the last turn and into the homestretch. Over the finish line they flashed, maybe inches apart, while the stands rocked with hysteria.
It was only by accident that Major Taylor, the speed phenomenon of his day, became a bicycle racer. After his service on the Union side in the Civil War, Taylor's father became a coachman for the Southards, a wealthy Indianapolis family. As a young boy, Taylor helped his father exercise the horses. The Southards took a fancy to the bright young lad and employed him to be a companion and playmate for their own son, who was the same age as Taylor. All clothes were provided and the two dressed like twins.
Most of the boys on the Southard side of the tracks had bicycles, and some would let Taylor take turns riding. In no time at all he could ride with the best of them. Then young Southard insisted that his companion have a wheel of his own, and it was bought for him. Shortly afterwards, the Southard family moved to Chicago, and the coachman's son skidded from the dream life of a "millionaire kid" to the prosaic job of errand boy. But he still had his bike.
Taylor was a born trick rider, and he evolved his own routine. He did so well teaching himself that the fancy stuff helped get him out of jams when fighting for championships on the tracks of the world. But its immediate reward was a better job. Appropriately, it was in a bicycle shop. His morning chore was sweeping out and straightening up. His afternoons were devoted to trick riding in the street in front of the store in a fancy uniform. The stunt worked out better than Taylor and his boss anticipated, for both received a calling down from the police for drawing crowds that blocked traffic.
One day a beautiful gold medal was put on display in the window. It was to be first prize in the annual 10-mile road race promoted by Taylor's employer, and as Taylor later wrote in his autobiography, "I just couldn't keep my eyes off it." Once he got up the nerve to pin the medal to his lapel and strutted before a mirror, envying the lucky pedaler who was going to cross the line first.
The big day came and young Taylor took his place among the excited spectators. Suddenly his boss had an inspiration. He stepped over and took the boy by the arm: "Come here, young man, you've got to start in this race." Taylor was scared. He had never even seen a bicycle race, to say nothing of riding in one. But he was game, and with tears in his eyes he was shoved off with the limit handicap, 15 minutes.
His boss had persuaded the 13-year-old Taylor to enter by telling him all he had to do was ride up the road a little way just to please the crowd and then come back when he got tired. But Taylor stayed in the race against dozens of crack riders, and to everyone's astonishment, won it, crossing the finish line with but six seconds of his 15-minute handicap left. He then collapsed in the middle of the road, but the gold medal was his to keep.
That race was the start of Major Taylor's riding career, and after five years of highly successful amateur road and track racing in various parts of the country, he turned professional and made his debut in the old Madison Square Garden. In a half-mile meet prior to the annual six-day race Taylor won his first cash prize, and almost lapped the field as well. Failing to hear the bell for the last lap, he tore around three more times, winning the $200 purse the hard way. At midnight he entered the six-day grind. That was in the days when it was each man for himself, eating, resting as best he could, and even falling asleep on his wheel. At that point, a rider would be wakened by a dash of cold water in the face, or would be carried off by his trainer to be dumped on a cot for a short nap. Taylor finished eighth, with 1,787 miles to his credit, an exceptional feat for a sprinter. In performing this tour de force he demonstrated his extraordinary versatility.