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The Fastest Man in the World

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In honor of the last dwindling hours of the last day (thanks to Mr. Leap Year) of Black History Month, the Bike Blog presents this honorific post to one of the greatest bicyclists of all time, Marshall W. “Major” Taylor.

Taylor was born in Indiana, to poor, African-American farmers on November 26, 1878. He got his start in cycling as a kind of stunt performer outside of a bicycle shop in rural Indiana and, when he was seventeen, moved to Worcester, Mass and started competing.

He was fast as hell. Within a year, he is said to have unofficially broken two world records for track bike racing – a feat which earned him banishment from the Indianapolis race track.

From that point on, his career was marked by great successes – he held seven world records by 1898 – and the great setbacks he faced because of the color of his skin. In 1897 he had had to abandon national championship aspirations because southern race promoters - as well as his home state of Indiana - refused to let him compete. The League of American Wheelmen – a professional racing association - refused to admit him as a member. Major Taylor spoke of being attacked on the track, and purposefully held back by one opponent, while a teammate raced ahead.

But he was popular anyway, and his racing career made him one of the wealthiest African-Americans in the county, allowing him to retire at 32. Unfortunately, the money didn’t last – after a series of bad business ventures, Taylor died a pauper in Chicago.

There have been a few, predominantly black Major Taylor bike clubs - one (now defunct) in East Palo Alto and another in Minneapolis. There's a Major Taylor Association, a Major Taylor Society, and Indiana eventually faced up to its racism by naming its bicycle track the Major Taylor Velodrome.

The Major left behind an autobiography, “The Fastest Man in the World.” Here’s a quote from its final chapter:

Now a few words of advice to boys, and especially to those of my own race, my heart goes out to them as they face life's struggles. I can hardly express in words my deep feeling and sympathy for them, knowing as I do, the many serious handicaps and obstacles that will confront them in almost every walk of life. However, I pray they will carry on in spite of that dreadful monster prejudice, and with patience, courage, fortitude and perseverance achieve success for themselves. I trust they will use that terrible prejudice as an inspiration to struggle on to the heights in their chosen vocations. There will always be that dreadful monster prejudice to do extra battle against because of their color."

Rest in Peace, Major.

-- Isaiah Thompson

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