"In a word I was a pioneer, and therefore had to blaze my own trail."
So said Marshall Walter "Major" Taylor, cycling's first African-American world champion, whose incredible story still isn’t as well known as it should be.
Born just 13 years after the end of the Civil War, Taylor got his nickname as a youth for wearing a military uniform while performing bike tricks outside a local shop in his hometown of Indianapolis. A few years later he was winning his first pro race at Madison Square Garden, then traveling the globe, beating the best that Europe, Australia and New Zealand could throw at him and setting seven world records, one of which lasted 28 years.
His growing fame and fortune made him one of the sport's early superstars — and one of the first Black sports celebrities of any kind. This despite not competing on Sundays due to his devout Baptist beliefs — and in the face of ugly, brutal racism. Tracks and leagues banned him for the color of his skin. In the South, restaurants and hotels would refuse to serve or host him. During races, he had ice water thrown on him and nails scattered before his tires. Competitors bumped, elbowed and purposely crashed into him. One even choked him after a race.
"I always played the game fairly and tried my hardest,” Taylor later reflected. “Although I was not always given a square deal or anything like it.”
And none of these roadblocks kept him from reaching his goal: becoming the fastest rider alive. He was worthy of that honor for a substantial span of time, but most indisputably in 1899, when he claimed the title of world champion.
And though his legacy was largely forgotten for decades, that changed in 1982, when Indianapolis opened the Major Taylor Velodrome as part of the city’s hosting of the U.S. Olympic Festival. Part of his story was dramatized a few years later in the 1992 miniseries Tracks of Glory — and during a 2018 Hennessey ad campaign.
These days, structures, scholarships, apparel lines and cycling clubs across the country bear his name. Heck, he's even the inspiration for St. Augustine's University, which with Canyon's assistance rolled out the first HBCU cycling team (see video at bottom).
But even those who know his story might not fully appreciate one other remarkable fact: the bikes pro cyclists rode back then were a far, far cry from the streamlined, super-technical, ultralight marvels they straddle today. Here’s a sampling of what we know about the cycles of yesteryear, a.k.a. three more reasons to celebrate a man, athlete and icon who told the competition — and ignorant ideas about race — to eat his dust.
Carbon fiber? Please. Bikes of the time were made of relatively heavy metal, which was of course much more durable than the wood used just a few decades before. Keep in mind that it wasn’t until the late 1880s that the diamond-framed “safety bicycle” — with wheels of the same size and an actual chain — gained widespread popularity. Before then the bike of choice was the now ridiculously comical penny-farthing, so named because the difference in wheel size mirrored that of two British coins: the penny and the farthing.
Speaking of wheels, they were also much different in the late 1800s. Rims were typically made of wood; aluminum rims would not become standard until the late 1930s. By Taylor’s time they were, mercifully, no longer encircled solely by protective iron. John Dunlop developed the first real pneumatic rubber tire in 1887, saving countless early cyclists from what we can only imagine was a butt-numbingly painful ride.
Last but not least is perhaps the most fascinating part about racing bikes of this time. Despite the fact that derailleurs were actually developed as early as the 1900s, they were rarely used for racing. Riders saw them as unreliable and a source of excessive drag. They still employed multiple gear ratios, though. Rear free wheels sometimes had up to three gear cogs, and gears could be changed via this multi-step process.
- Get off bike
- Loosen wingnuts
- Slide rear wheel in frame dropout to release chain tension
- Place chain on new cog
- Reposition rear wheel for ideal chain tension
- Tighten those wingnuts
- Get back on and ride!
Alternative: a badass brakeless single-speed such as the one Taylor is rocking in the photo above. Probably a good call, considering derailleurs were not even allowed in the Tour de France until 1937, five years after Taylor pedaled off to that big bike race in the sky.