What is the fastest bicycle rider in the world? If you are a huge fan of the Tour de France, you might be forgiven for assuming that the fastest cyclist in the world has to be Mark Cavendish, the Manx missile, but in fact this is not the case: the fastest cyclist in the world is widely considered to be a man called Marshall W. Taylor.
What makes this generally unknown fact so amazing is that Marshall W. Taylor, also known as Major Taylor, was an African-American cyclist born in 1878 in Indianapolis, Indiana. At the turn of the century, professional cyclists were the fastest men on the road and successful ones became very rich and famous—rather like the premier league footballers of today. But unlike today’s professional cyclists, being an African American meant Major Taylor had an uphill fight against as he had embarked on a career in cycling at a time when black people were treated like second class citizens, which makes his subsequent success so remarkable.
In 1899, Major Taylor became world champion as well as American sprint champion; a feat that he repeated once again in 1900. He soon became an international cycling celebrity and thousands of fans came to watch him race—he was the Lance Armstrong equivalent of the cycling world back then—and in 1901 he set off on a tour of Europe where his accomplishments were applauded at every turn.
Despite his immense success in the field of professional cycling, Major Taylor was still forced to continue fighting for his achievements every step of the way as he continued to face discrimination from those who did not believe he was entitled to compete with other athletes because his skin was black.
Rather sadly, even though he had made such tremendous gains for black athletes in American sports, Major Taylor died broke and alone during the Great Depression, forgotten by the country who had never really appreciated his accomplishments on the bike.
It is only recently that his story has once again sparked a renewed interest in the man who changed professional cycling forever. As a result, a monument has been erected in his honour and a velodrome in his home town was named after him in celebration of his immense achievements.
During his lifetime, Major Taylor wrote a book called: Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World, and subtitled The Value of Good Habits and Clean Living. Despite his experiences, Major Taylor appears to have borne very little resentment to those who tried to hold him back during his remarkable career and indeed, he appears to feel almost sorry for the white men who were so eaten up by their own prejudices.
“I trust they will use that terrible prejudice as an inspiration to struggle on to the heights in their chosen vocations,” he wrote.
For the most part, Major Taylor appears to attribute his incredible success to clean living and modesty.
“Of course an athlete must have ability to reach the top, but many who have ability and who do not live clean lives never have and never will be champions for obvious reasons.”
There is clearly a lesson to be learned there for many modern day sports stars.