By Bill Plock
It’s no secret that bike sales have boomed in the last year because of COVID. But what might be a secret is that this is nothing compared to the “cycling craze” of the 1890’s. Only 30 years after the civil war, America (and the world) ran on horse power, literally. It’s estimated that in 1890, as cities began to swell, 150,000 horses a day would cross bridges into New York City dumping twenty-two pounds of manure each. It’s not hard imagine the issues with that.
By 1890 spectator sports were on the rise. Basketball would be invented in 1891. Baseball was beginning to hit its stride in popularity but Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb were yet to take the field. College Football was popular, but not pro football, which started in 1892 and would become a brutal, thug infested game until Red Grange popularized it in the 1920’s.
In 1890 America was enthralled by boxing, horse racing and cycling. Yes cycling. Six day, grueling races were popular and 100 mile races between cities drew thousands of spectators. Track cycling was popular as well with venues in storied arenas like Madison Square Garden in New York.
There were cycling stars and in the book “The World’s Fastest Man” author Michael Kranish takes us on a journey to learn about America’s first black sports hero—Marshall “Major” Taylor. He would become the first black American to win a world championship of any kind. Jack Johnson, the famous boxer was second. This was all decades before Jackie Robinson “broke the color barrier”, but really Major Taylor did. He overcame blatant racism. He was targeted by white racers trying to restrict him on the track and keep him from racing all together.
At a time when Jim Crowe laws blanketed the country, Major Taylor excelled. He struggled to gain an even playing field but earned the respect of many and traveled the world, often to parades in places like Australia and France. He was a superstar. He was also forgotten by most.
Reading this book I learned so much about not only the sport of cycling, and obvoiusly about Major Taylor, but I learned a lot about history and even the roots of our current culture. At the end of the book I felt my emotions of sadness and exuberance fighting each other.
I was sad, first of all because the book ended—it was just so good. I was also sad how a champion was treated because of his skin color (not surprised mind you). I was sad at how history doesn’t give one of my favorite sports, cycling, its due. You have to dig pretty deep to find cycling history, but yet in the gilded age between 1890 and 1910, when Major Taylor dominated the sport, tens of thousands of spectators would pack the hundreds of velodromes all over the United States week in and week out. I felt exuberant because I learned so much about cycling, racing, Major Taylor and American and World history.
If Major Taylor had he been a baseball player or even a boxer, he would’ve gotten way more notoriety and credit for being America’s first black champion. Ask the average sports fan who America’s first black sports hero is and they will probably say Jackie Robinson. Possibly Jack Johnson who won his boxing title a year after Taylor’s. Or maybe Jesse Owens for his gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
It’s hard to say why bike racing has such an obscure seat at the table of history, particularly in the United States. My theory is timing. The height of its popularity was sandwiched between a decimated country because of the civil war and the age of invention, particularly the plane and automobile that quickly dominated industry and caused all sorts upheaval in supply chains and world politics. And because of our thirst for team sports with a ball, America seems more interested in learning history of those sports.
In this book you learn about all of that, and also how the bike played a key role in developing industries like rubber and tire production resulting in colonization in places like Congo and the genocide of natives.
For about 20 years bikes were the “thing.” You learn there where hundreds of makers of bikes and roads and paths criss-crossed cities and towns to accommodate cyclists. There were even people riding from coast to coast utilizing railroad beds and wagon paths. The craze was real—but short lived. Not only did attention focus quickly to automobiles and car racing, World War 1 drastically changed the burden of manufacturing to serve mechanized armies.
When bike design began to resemble modern bikes, with equal size front and rear wheels as opposed to the penny farthing bikes with the enormous front wheel, it was game changing. These bikes, called “safety” bikes became liberators for the common person as an efficient means of transportation, especially to women. Susan B Anthony said, “I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammelled womanhood.”
Another major breakthrough came from the invention of the pneumatic tire by John Dunlop in 1887 (there is some debate on this). This tire enabled bikes to go much faster with greater comfort than the solid wood wheel and fueled a new industry—the rubber tire.
During this time Major Taylor broke new ground every day. Securing the highest pay days of any athlete of any color. He bought a house in an affluent white neighborhood. He stood on his religious principals and refused to race on Sundays, sacrificing huge pay days. He was a man of conviction, of elegance and a true champion.
This book, is rich in detail of all that surrounded him and his challenges, but it also gives many glimpses into his thinking, his personality, his frailties and struggles and his determination to make a difference in the world beyond the bike.
If you want to learn more check out the Major Taylor Cycling Association at : https://www.majortaylorassociation.org
If you are interested in the book get it here: