With winter's official arrival I've been reading more about bicycles than actually riding them. Most recently "Major" by Tod Balf (2008) -- the true story of the American cyclist Marshall "Major" Taylor -- more or less the original PRO.
Major Taylor ruled the velodromes at the start of the 20th Century, which was the dawn of a short-lived golden age where cyclists were the most admired athletes in the world and there were seemingly tracks in every town. Major Taylor's era, from about 1895 to 1905 was a truly remarkable time for bicycle racing and the book paints a vivid picture: the League of American Wheelmen numbered 75,000 with member names like Rockefeller and Carnegie; velodrome battles were attended by 20,000 spectators in places like Coney Island and Madison Square Garden and Americans spent nearly $500 million dollars on bicycles, accessories and repairs in 1896 alone. There were essentially no automobiles and the bicycle, as piloted by the men of the velodromes, represented the pinnacle of human progress. Seriously. The world was transfixed.
Major Taylor reigned over this world with class, dignity and other-worldly talent. Winning championships from Montreal to Australia -- but refusing to race on Sunday -- Taylor and his support staff were inventing the sport with every race. When he was too fast to be paced by a four-person bicycle his team set out to invent an early version of the motorcycle. When the motorcycle tires began to slip at high speeds on the track -- 75kph -- Taylor's manager developed a pneumatic tire. When six-day racing in Madison Square Garden got simply too dangerous the state Governor Theodore Roosevelt -- later to become the 26th President of the United States -- signed into law the current rule requiring two person teams. Teddy "walk softly and carry a big stick" Roosevelt helped define modern track racing!
Taylor was quite literally the fastest thing on the planet. Trains, automobiles, motorcycles? Nope. If a person wanted to see what was possible he or she looked to the velodromes and a 20 year old kid named Major on a steel bike with a shaft drive and wooden rims. In fact his times in some events are still impressive over 100 years later. His fastest 200 metre effort, for example is apparently only one half second slower than today's world record. For his efforts he was paid handsomely: while Cy Young -- one of the greatest baseball players ever -- earned $2,500 in 1901 Major brought in well over $20,000.
So the world, America particularly, was bicycle crazy for a few years. And it was good. But that's not the whole story: Major Taylor was a black man. Given the extreme prejudice of the day -- there were 400 lynchings in the U.S. South in 1899 alone -- it's a wonder Taylor ever made it to a start line anywhere. But there was just no keeping this man down and despite strict colour lines limiting his access to tracks, a racist media and collusion among mean-spirited rivals he took on all comers and came out on top. Before Jesse Owens, Joe Louis and Jack Johnson there was Major Taylor -- Champion of the World.
"Major" is a history lesson about bicycle racing, certainly, but also about turn of the century America in general. The bicycle's role in such rapid societal changes, as laid out in the book, is fascinating and the examples seem to come on every page. The larger picture of a black man ruling an otherwise oh-so-white-sport at a time when that could be life threatening is where the true meaning in the story comes from and why its retelling is vital. Read this book. Give it to someone for Christmas.
He was even sponsored by CCM for a while.