Major Taylor, the 'Worcester Whirlwind' Commentator Lynne Tolman tells the story of Marshall J. "Major" Taylor, an African-American who became a champion bicycle racer in the 1890s and 1900s despite racial barriers and obstacles. Taylor is remembered annually at an all-uphill bike competition in Worcester, Mass.
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Major Taylor, the 'Worcester Whirlwind'

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Major Taylor, the 'Worcester Whirlwind'

Major Taylor, the 'Worcester Whirlwind'

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ED GORDON, host:

This is the one time of year many bike riders dismount and sit still to watch the Tour de France. American Lance Earmarking is battling competitors determined to keep him from a seventh straight victory. Contributor Lynne Tolman says with all this attention on biking, now is the appropriate moment to remember a great cyclist from the past.

LYNN TOLMAN reporting:

At the turn of the last century, when bicycling was a new sport with wide popular appeal, a black man dominated the field. Sportswriters in his day dubbed Major Taylor the `Colored Cyclone.' In those days, before the Tour de France existed, cycling was more popular in America than baseball. Crowds would fill Madison Square Garden for track racing events that lasted six days. Savvy promoters knew fans were clamoring to see bursts of speed like Major Taylor's sprints. Despite a Jim Crow ban on blacks in the sport, Taylor was given a license to race. He left the competition in the dust.

Ten years before Jack Johnson defended his heavyweight boxing title and nearly half a century before Jackie Robinson played ball with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Major Taylor was the first African-American to become an international sports superstar. When he won the World Sprint Championship in 1899, Taylor became the second black world champion in any sport. He was one of the wealthiest blacks in the country pulling down $10,000 a year at the height of his career.

Taylor was also a steadfast Baptist who refused to race on Sundays. Today, despite his dramatic uphill climb, not many people beyond bike circles know about Major Taylor. Very few black cyclists have followed in his slipstream. The non-profit Major Taylor Association is at the forefront of efforts to keep this pioneer's name alive. The organization is raising money to erect a statue of Taylor in his adopted hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts. Major Taylor retired from racing in 1910 at age 32. He died in poverty and obscurity two decades later. Former pro bike racers later marked his grave near Chicago with a bronze plaque that honors him as an honest, courageous and God-fearing, clean-living, gentlemanly athlete.

GORDON: Lynn Tolman is a journalist and a board member of the Major Taylor Association. You can learn more about the association on our Web site at npr.org.

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