Join the Virtual Ride for Major Taylor Project
Legendary Black bike racer Marshall “Major” Taylor began his rise to greatness by winning a 75-mile race at the age of 16. Cascade will celebrate that historic event with a seven-day virtual fundraising ride in November.
Five years before he became a world champion and cemented his status as one of the greatest bike racers of all time, Marshall “Major” Taylor began his ascent to greatness by winning a grueling, 75-mile race in Indiana on June 30, 1895.
Just 16 years old at the time, Taylor sprinted to the front of the pack to avoid threats of violence from his white competitors, persevered through torrential rain that turned the dirt roads to a muddy quagmire, and showed racing fans that a Black man could win the day despite prejudice and outright hostility from fellow racers.
To commemorate Taylor’s first major victory, Cascade Bicycle Club and its Major Taylor Project Program will hold a seven-day, 75-mile virtual cycling event to raise awareness of Taylor’s legacy, encourage more youths of color to take up bike racing and riding, and generate funds for Cascade’s educational programs. The Virtual Ride for Major Taylor Project will take place from Nov. 7-14. Register Here
“We hope to inspire everyone, but especially young people who have not been able to participate in our MTP program due to COVID-19 restrictions, to join us on this seven-day ride to support a good cause, learn about and reflect on racism in cycling, and engage in some healthy outdoor activity,” says Rachel Osias, Cascade’s education director.
The goal is to raise $20,000 for Cascade’s Education Department, which operates the MTP program. The credit union BECU has sponsored the program with a $2,500 donation. Cascade hopes to encourage at least 100 people to participate, with each raising at least $200. Participants can choose their own routes or ride indoors if the weather turns foul. Cascade will post suggestions for rides on favorite routes near schools with MTP clubs.
Participants in Washington Bikes’ Ride in the Rain Challenge are also encouraged to join the 75-mile fundraiser.
A Secret Start
Taylor had to overcome overt racism during his stellar career from the late 1800s to early 1900s, including on the day of his first big race, which began in Indianapolis and followed country roads to the town of Matthews. Taylor started in the back of the pack so that his white competitors would not see that he was Black.
This was an era of lynchings and segregation. One year after the 75-mile race, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case that segregation policies were constitutional and did not violate the 14th Amendment. The shameful ruling legitimized racial segregation laws, known as Jim Crow laws, passed by Southern states after the Reconstruction era following the Civil War.
Jim Crow laws barred Black people from white-only businesses, made it harder for them to vote, and disenfranchised Black citizens politically, economically, and socially. “This new legal codification of white supremacy was an attempt by the white power structure in the South to turn back the clock and prevent blacks from challenging white control,” wrote Andrew Ritchie, in the book, “Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer.”
It was against this backdrop that Taylor began the race, starting last among the roughly 20 competitors. While some white members of the bicycle racing community, including the organizer of the 75-mile race, encouraged Taylor’s participation, others believed Black people should be banned from competitions with white people. A year earlier, in 1894, the League of American Wheelmen, the largest cycling group of its day, had voted to bar Black people from its membership.
As the racers left Indianapolis, they became aware of Taylor’s presence. Some began calling him “vile names” and “threatened to do me bodily harm if I did not turn back,” Taylor recounted in his autobiography, “The Fastest Bike Rider in the World.”
“I decided that if my time had come I might just as well die trying to keep ahead of the bunch of riders,” Taylor wrote.
Taylor charged through the pack and took the lead, figuring he would be safer in front. He was literally racing not just to win, but also for his life and safety.
Racing for His Life
“When I took the lead, we had covered about half the distance and were on a weird stretch of road that was thinly inhabited,” Taylor wrote. “The thought ran through my mind that this would make an ideal spot for my competitors to carry out their dire threats. Spurred on by such thoughts I opened up the distance between my wheel and the balance of the field to make doubly sure that none of them caught up to me and got a chance to do me bodily injury.”
Taylor’s fear of violence was no exaggeration. Lynchings were common in that era. During his racing career, when he was hailed as the “Black Cyclone” in newspapers and won multiple national championships and the 1899 world championships, Taylor would be knocked from his bike, punched, spat upon and even choked to the point of unconsciousness by a racist white competitor.
As Taylor surged toward the finish in Matthews, the clouds opened up and a torrential rainstorm turned the roads to muck. Many of his white competitors couldn’t hack it, and one by one they dropped out. When Taylor finally arrived in Matthews, he was exhausted and covered in mud. He would be the only competitor to finish the race.
Taylor’s bravery and athleticism paid off. First prize was a house lot worth $300, a large sum of money in that time. When he presented the deed to his mother, who did not know her son would be racing that day, she made him promise not to compete in events that brought him far out into the countryside.
Taylor soon gave up road racing in favor of velodrome racing, where competitors pedal around an oval track in front of spectators. Velodrome racing was one of the biggest sports in the world at the turn of the 20th Century, and Taylor would go on to win competitions around the world--in the process becoming a sports celebrity whose name was as well-known as LeBron James or Serena Williams are today.
“Major Taylor’s story remains so powerful to this day because his life illustrates the obstacles Black people, and all people of color, must overcome to succeed,” says Osias. “We hope that many people of all ages will sign up for the Virtual Ride for Major Taylor Project to celebrate his story and help us in our work to lift up and provide opportunities for young people of color to ride and succeed.”
“The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World,” an autobiography of Marshall W. “Major” Taylor.
Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer.