Book excerpt: Taylor was one of America's early cycling heroes

This Wednesday, Marshall Walter "Major" Taylor will be honored by Tour de France champion Greg LeMond and Olympian Edwin Moses at a statue dedication at the Worcester Public Library in Worcester, Mass.

Despite being excluded from many races in the United States because he was black, Taylor set world cycling records and won the 1-mile track world championship three straight years (1899-1901) and broke many barriers in sports.

Here is an excerpt from Todd Balf's book on Taylor, "Major: A Black Athlete, A White Era, And The Fight To Be The World's Fastest Human Being."

  • Todd Balf's book "Major: A Black Athlete, A White Era, And The Fight To Be The World's Fastest Human Being" is available now. To buy the book, click here.

  • To read more on Major's accomplishments, visit the Major Taylor Association Web site here.

    "Six Days"
    December 1896
    Madison Square Garden
    New York City

    It was midnight on Dec. 10 when the 28 cyclists emerged from the eastern-most portico in the Garden like modern-day gladiators. They were wrapped in their old country colors, swaddled in velvety robes, buttressed by smiling, fist-pumping entourages. The native diehards catcalled the green-as-grass Irishman, Teddy Hale, but the near-capacity crowd of 5,000 practically stood as one in mock salute as Brooklyn's Charles Murphy waltzed before them in a dazzling racing suit of stars and stripes. The roar continued for Frank "Flying Dutchman" Waller, Peter "Stayer" Golden, and a rosy-cheeked lad named George Van Emburgh, whom the faithful had dubbed "Boy Wonder" for his stalwart debut performance at the same Six-Day race three years earlier.

    Eighteen-year-old Marshall Walter Taylor and manager Birdie Munger stepped haltingly into the Garden spotlight. They had no natural constituency, of course -- a black racer and a white trainer, after all. The Garden crowd reacted as promoters had known they would: nudging one another, whispering, titillated by the possibilities of a black racer in a rare sanctioned competition against white rivals. The newly installed electrical lights hung down from the high girders and bathed the tiny wooden track in celestial light, looming over the Irishman's heavy brow, the German's stiff jaw line, and, in Taylor's case, his oil-black skin.

    The popular Six-Day marathon wasn't about athleticism; it was about pain and the will to withstand it. The winner was the rider who at midnight on Saturday had covered the greatest distance. One doctor wrote that a single race took 10 years off an athlete's life. The other introduced racers were hard men -- lumpers, diggers, and barroom-brawling seamen. Taylor was clearly a boy, not a man: blade-thin shoulders, an anxious look of uncertainty as he gazed straight ahead. He stood 5-foot-6 and weighed little more than 130 pounds for his first professional race.

    When the gun blast signaled the start of the event, Taylor had never ridden a race more than 75 miles long. The beginning was marked, as everyone knew it would be, by high-speed pileups. Unaccustomed to the tight, steeply banked one-tenth-of-a-mile track, the racers flew over handlebars and crash-landed either on the track (where they were trampled by others) or in the rows of high-paying dignitaries seated an exhilarating few inches from the outer edge of the track. The crowd howled for more of the same. Noses were broken, spleens punctured and legs gored by the hard steel parts of a bike that became weaponry when airborne and aimless. The Flying Dutchman and Boy Wonder were forced to retire within the first two hours, the former trampling the latter as he lay prone and unconscious. "It is thought the little fellow is injured internally," the papers updated.

    As minutes turned to hours there were other novelties to keep the customers happy: bands playing, Coney Island–style concessions and vaudeville acts in the infield. Side bets proliferated. A former rider turned industrialist offered $50 to the "scorcher" who could beat his record of 236 miles, 800 yards without dismounting. Ned Reading, a soldier from Nebraska, turned the trick. Naturally, the most intriguing novelty, the one avidly charted in the papers in the succeeding days, was the progress of the "mascot Negro" rider.

    After Day One, Taylor was vying for first place, having amassed a staggering 300 miles in the first 24-hour period. He needed more sleep than the other racers, roughly an hour for every eight of racing, but when he rode, he rode sensationally fast. Taylor kept pace for two days, but after three, he quarreled with his manager Munger, complaining of fatigue and the need to rest. Munger gave him 15 minutes and told him to drink a glass of water mixed with a special powder. Though Taylor said the special powder was a cheap ruse -- bicarbonate of soda, not the strychnine- or cocaine-based pick-me-ups other riders resorted to -- he rode the next 18 consecutive hours without pause. After 72 hours, he was ninth, only a hundred miles behind the leader, Hale. "His popularity grows every minute," wrote a New York Times reporter. "He really thinks he will finish."

    After the fourth day, his mind wandered and he fought an almost insatiable hunger. At one break, he devoured "two fried chickens and four and half pounds of meat" and was still unsatisfied. Several cyclists had dropped out, and those that remained were hallucinating, a procession of the living dead. The wafting smell of grilled meats was overwhelmed by noxious salves slathered on knotted leg muscles and spasming backs. The Garden, its crowds waxing and waning in the days previous, was now jammed full. The irresistible spectacle rivaled the Bowery dime museums with their dwarfs and dog-faced boys and bearded ladies. The opening-night 50-cent admission ticket doubled to a dollar.

    On Day 6, Taylor erupted in several tantrums and begged to quit, first chiding Munger for being devious and trying to torture him, and next complaining that he was being chased around the ring by a man with a knife in his hand. Munger couldn't reason with him. Instead, Taylor wandered away drunkenly, stumbled next to the low rail, and seemingly before he hit the ground was asleep. Thousands screamed for him to wake and an assortment of stadium personnel rushed at him. When he got on his bike, he unaccountably raced "like a streak," all as if nothing had happened. The word circulated through the grandstand and onto busy Twenty-sixth Street. The refined Italian Renaissance arches of the Garden's façade were a bit of the Old World amidst the decidedly New World pandemonium. The rush to get inside continued unabated day and night. Major Taylor was "the wonder of the race," the papers trumpeted.

    With 24 hours to go, 15 of the original 28 riders remained, Taylor among them. The crowd had built to 12,000, roughly 1-1/2 times the Garden's intended capacity. Spectators were jammed between seats, in aisles, and along the supposedly off-limits spaces of the track's infield. The riders were more dead than alive in the last few hours, which made the viewing particularly invigorating. Joe Rice, a coal miner from Wilkes-Barre, had vowed not a minute's sleep until he passed 1,000 miles. Earlier in the race, he had been urged on by a legion of friends and a night's worth of songs ending:

    "Once, twice, thrice,
    R-i-c-e, Rice
    Who are we?
    Who are we?
    Rice's friends from Wilkes-Barre"

    At mile 968, he collapsed in a heap. Thousands of dollars changed hands. That was days ago. Now, he looked over his shoulder constantly and dismounted in fits of panic, convinced the rest of the riders were armed with bricks and sticks and preparing to murder him.

    In truth, the others were semiconscious and moving so haltingly they often fell at each rise in the track, unable to maintain any sense of equilibrium. Food handoffs had long since become too difficult due to their impaired coordination. Laps that had taken seconds days earlier now took minutes and sometimes hours. The riders looked like corpses, skeletal, hollow-eyed and bloodless. As per tradition, the fans offered tribute in the final agonizing stages with grand bouquets of flowers. The florist's buggy deposited fresh arrangements for most of the riders, including floral harps sent by the Dublin Club for the leader, Hale. Though Taylor got nothing, he doubtless didn't notice. He had collided with other riders twice in the final 24 hours. The first time a wild sprint resulted in a 20-foot skin-to-lumber skid on the Fourth Avenue turn. His second crash, hours before the race's close, was unrecoverable and his helpers scraped him off the track and into the dressing room. He was unconscious; his condition was such that the following day's paper would duly announce that he probably wouldn't survive.

    At 9:58 p.m., the pedaling stopped and a winner was crowned. Teddy Hale, the charismatic Irishman who smoked a cigarette while riding a day or two before, had amassed 1,910 miles, eclipsing the previous Six-Day record by more than 300 miles. Taylor, the eighth-place finisher, had also bested the record with his 1,732 miles. In the next day's paper, a captivated promoter named Billy Brady noted how Taylor's game riding "won for him many friends among people ordinarily opposed to the colored race." It turned out that Brady was, in part, talking about himself. On the strength of what he saw at the Garden, Brady would set in motion a plan that surprised even himself: making Taylor his next great champion.

    Taylor was nowhere near dead. He found himself recognized now; in fact, at the Amphion Wheelmen's Ball in Brooklyn, an actor impersonated Taylor as part of the entertainment, recreating his courageous Six-Day ride. In February, before thousands at the annual Madison Square Garden bicycle trade show, he promoted Munger's dream bike and displayed, like a piece of armament recovered from a Civil War battlefield, the rawhide chain he'd used in the Six-Day.

    Some cycling writers questioned whether he'd recover to be the same promising sprinter, but Munger was hopeful. He oversaw Taylor's recuperation after the race, bringing the boy back to his new home on Washington Street in Middletown, Conn. The old bachelor was newly married, but no less involved. Running his own sprint with a new life and a demanding, high-risk business, Munger tried to think ahead. On the calendar, he circled two Boston-area events in the spring and desperately hoped Taylor would be ready for the sprint race that America and the world was about to fall head over heels in love for -- the flying mile.

    Unlike foot racing, where the four-minute mile was already in place as a human threshold, bicycle racing had no such benchmark. The future was wide open; the limitations of a slender bike and a handsome flyer were as mysterious and alluring as the blank places on maps where men simply wrote, "Here be dragons."