“The world’s fastest human being”—that’s how Marshall “Major” Taylor was acclaimed by people around the world a century ago. He earned the title because of his powerful kick and blinding speed on the oval tracks that dominated competitive cycling in the years when the “safety bicycle” with pneumatic tires had replaced the high-wheel ordinaries as the machine of choice.
I stumbled across Major’s autobiography in the mid 1970s in the Indianapolis Public Library on St. Clair Street across from the Indiana War Memorial. New to cycling as a serious activity for serious adults, I was eagerly reading serious books on the subject and to my delight found not only Major’s narrative but also Dervla Murphy’s first bicycle book in which she told about bicycling from Ireland to India soon after the close of World War II.
One of the reasons why the Major Taylor autobiography interested me was the fact that he had grown up in Indianapolis, the same city in which I lived. That an African American kid from my town could rise to such international prominence as a cyclist was a source of considerable satisfaction to me, especially since many evidences of the city’s history of racist attitudes and practices could still be seen.
I remember three things about Taylor’s autobiography: 1) It made considerable use of news reports, stitched together with the author’s own account of what was taking place; 2) The story was dominated by his achievements despite the determined efforts by competitors to keep this black man from having a chance to win; and 3) Taylor’s deep sense of personal integrity and determination showed through.
Todd Balf is to be commended for retelling the story. In his book Major, he provides a richly detailed account of the social context within which the drama of Taylor’s life took place, with the result that the remarkable character of his achievements can be seen and appreciated more fully. Balf details some of the break throughs that Taylor achieved in those early days of cycling before training patterns were understood and when the bicycles themselves and the competitive venues were still in a relatively primitive state of being.
Especially distressing to me is the detail that Balf gives of the blatant character of racist practice and the blood lust that seemed to dominate the spectator world, especially in the six-day races that were widespread. It is painful to read about the way that promoters would play the race card, pitting white and black cyclist against one another, almost as though the honor of the white race depended upon the its ability to best people of color in public spectacles.
Fortunately,Taylor was befriended by people who recognized his ability and character. They supported him as a person and as an internationally acclaimed cyclist. While this support in no way diminished Taylor’s own achievement, it provided the enabling structure that to an even greater degree in our own time makes possible the achievements of the great cyclists on the world scene.
Balf also fills in much of the detail of Taylor’s personal life. Especially interesting to me is his conversion to a strong, demanding version of Christian faith and the effect that this had upon his cycling career. Also important is the nuanced accounting of the courtship and married life of Major Taylor and Daisy Morris.
Toward the end of his book, Balf describes how racism continued to be presence in Indiana into recent times, with special focus upon the Little 500 bicycle race that has long been an annual event at Indiana University. Only during the past decade has Team Major Taylor become a vehicle for redeeming the IU event in Bloomington. Across the nation Team Major Taylor cycling clubs have extended that influence.
I have often noted that rarely does one find African Americans participating in the cycling events I enjoy. Despite the achievements of Major Taylor a century ago, cycling is an athletic activity and socializing practice that has not yet opened itself to widespread participation by people of color. I hope that Todd Balf’s book will not only lift high the record of the first American to attain international acclaim as a competitive cyclist, but that it will also make cycling a genuinely inter-racial way of life.