The most dominant bicycle racer in the world at the dawn of the 20th century was the incomparable Marshall Walter Taylor. Born to a black couple in rural Indiana, Taylor was raised and educated in the home of a wealthy white Indianapolis family who employed his father as a coachman and gave the youngster his first bicycle. He became so good on it that by the age of fourteen he was hired to perform cycling stunts outside an Indianapolis bicycle shop. Dressed as he was in a soldier's uniform Taylor earned the nickname Major.
By the time he was eighteen Major Taylor had broken two world records, but his feats offended white sensibilities with the result that he was often banned from racing at many events. Despite this and the illegal tactics employed against him by many of his competitors by 1898 Taylor held claim to seven world records.
On August 10, 1899, Taylor used his Massey-Harris Silver Ribbon to capture the world 1-mile championship in Montreal to become only the second black athlete to hold a world title.
When Taylor toured Australia in 1903 he won over the crowds and the Australian cyclists with his geniality and generosity. "What particularly surprised the local riders was the Major's willingness to train with them, side by side. They had expected him to do much of his work in secret. Contrary to all expectations he unhesitatingly displayed his Massey-Harris bicycle and allowed them to size it up for themselves, the gearing, the cranks, the frame, and the pedal reach. These were commonly considered secrets in the trade. Of considerable interest were his adjustable handlebars. They were new to the country; and for decades afterward Australian cyclists commonly referred to adjustable ones as 'Major Taylors'" (James Fitzpatrick - Major Taylor in Australia)
Despite the shadow of racism that dogged his career, Major Taylor went on to beat the best that Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the States had to offer. Taylor retired from competitive racing in 1910, but after two decades of illness and unsuccessfull business ventures died in the Charity Ward of the Cook County Hospital in Chicago in 1932 and was buried in an unmarked grave. In 1948 a group of former pro bicycle racers had Taylor's remains exhumed and reburied in a more prominent part of Mount Glenwood Cemetery in Illinois.
"Dedicated to the memory of Marshall W. 'Major' Taylor, 1878-1932. World's champion bicycle racer who came up the hard way without hatred in his heart, an honest, courageous and god-fearing, clean-living, gentlemanly athlete. A credit to the race who always gave out his best. Gone but not forgotten."
Inscription on the gravestone of Major Taylor