The Life of the Fastest Man on Two Wheels
While often noted as a minor footnote in history, Marshall Taylor was a pioneer in the cycling field. Not only was he the first African-American athlete to be designated as a world champion, but he also set several longstanding world records, some of which took decades to break.
Born in 1878, Taylor’s father served as a coachman for a wealthy family, the Southards, in Indiana. Taylor befriended the Southard’s son and he eventually moved in with the family, who gave him his first bicycle when he was 12 years old. Developing a knack for doing tricks and stunts on his bike, Taylor was hired by a local bicycle shop owner to perform stunts in order to attract customers. He often dressed up as a soldier while performing, which gave him the nickname of ‘Major.’
His first brush with competitive racing came in 1891 when he was 13, winning a race in Indianapolis. At 15 he successfully beat the 1-mile track record at the time, where he was celebrated and then ejected from the event, due to his race.
Racism would haunt him throughout his career, yet he made headway when he won a 75-mile road race in Indiana at 16; he was so fast that he was dubbed “The Black Cyclone.”
Despite the odds against him at the time, Taylor went professional when he turned 18. He competed in an arduous six-day race at Madison Square Garden, which drew other well-known cyclists of the day such as A. A. Hansen, Teddy Goodman, Albert Schock, Frank Waller and Ed von Hoeg. With such tough competition, Taylor won the final heat of the race by 105 feet over his closest challenger, A. C. Meixwell. He followed this victory with a first place win in the 1-mile open professional during a Blue Ribbon Meet of the Bostonian Cycle Club in 1897.
Taylor was so fast that by 1898 he held seven world records at distances from .25 miles to 2 miles. He also placed first in 29 of 49 races in which he was a competitor.
He would continue this streak by winning the world championship in 1899, where he set seven world records. His record for the mile with a standing start in 1:41 was unbeatable for the next 28 years.
Taylor’s popularity led to a lucrative deal with the E.C. Stearns Company who designed bicycles for Taylor, using a gear chainless system that was designed by Harry Sager. These bicycles weighed 20 pounds and featured an 88-inch gear that helped with sprinting and a 120-inch gear for longer strides. Taylor would continue to dominate cycling, by breaking the 1-mile world record in 01:19 with a speed of 45.56 mph in 1899.
Needless to say, Taylor was still unbeatable; winning 22 first places positions in nationwide races.
As the world sprint champion, Taylor competed throughout the US with resounding success (President Theodore Roosevelt was one of Taylor’s biggest fans). Such success however, would lead to Taylor being banned from most national races, simply because he was African-American. During this time, Taylor received support from one of his competitors, Earl Kiser, who argued to have Taylor involved in the world sprint championships, which Taylor would eventually win in both 1899 and 1900, making Taylor the first African-American to ever win a world title in athletics.
Taylor then went to Europe where he competed in a 1902 tour where he was victorious in 40 of 57 races.
In the early 1900s, nitroglycerine was the rage for cyclists competing in arduous six-day races. While primarily used to help victims of heart attacks, nitroglycerine had the extra effect of helping riders with their breathing…yet one aftereffect was that they would tend to hallucinate from of mixture of the drug and from being exhausted. Taylor gave the drug a try during one race, but had to withdraw from competition as he claimed that another racer was coming after him with a knife.
While Taylor was celebrated in Europe, he was banned from racing in the Southern US. There were accounts of Taylor being pelted with ice from competitors, nails thrown in front of his tires and on one occasion he was tackled to the ground and knocked unconscious by a competitor. Clearly sickened by the racism and feeling that he was getting up in years, Taylor would retire from racing in 1910 when he was 32 years old.
The remainder of Taylor’s life was not a happy one. Fairly wealthy at the time when he retired to Worcester, MA, he squandered his funds on bad investments, losing a large part of it in the stock market crash of 1929 (the same year that he published his autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Racer in the World). Taylor died largely forgotten at the age of 53 in 1932 and was buried in a pauper’s grave. Despite the tragic ending to his illustrious career, Taylor always stayed positive to the end, once claiming: “Life is too short for any man to hold bitterness in his heart.”
But, Taylor was not entirely forgotten. In 1948, several former bicycle racers pulled enough funds with the help of Schwinn Bicycles to exhume Taylor’s remains and relocate them to a proper grave in Mount Glenwood Cemetery just outside of Chicago. A monument celebrating Taylor’s achievements can also be found outside the Worcester Public Library in Massachusetts. Taylor would be inducted into the Bicycling Hall of Fame in 1999.