Thursday, September 2, 2010

Lance Armstrong and Major Taylor: Two World Champions

Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz (left) and bicycling champion Lance Armstrong (right) at Ride the Drive in Madison, Wis., August 29, 2010.

As I was posting pictures from Ride the Drive to the Bike Fed's Flickr page this morning, I noticed Major Taylor on Lance Armstrong's t-shirt, captured here in this photo by Laura Whitmore of Madison Parks.

Major Taylor was a barrier-breaking American athlete on many levels. He was the 1899 world champion for the 1-mile bicycle sprint - an amazing feat on its own, but even more so considering that he was black, and sports associations in much of the country prohibited competition by black athletes at the time. (Later that year, he knocked down the one-mile world record to 1 minute, 19 seconds.) Taylor was America's second black world championship athlete.

Not until after he won the world championship was he allowed to participate in the U.S. national championships in 1900. In 1901, he went to Europe and beat every European cycling champion.

After he retired from racing in 1910, he was plagued by misfortune. At 53, he died in the charity ward of Cook County Hospital, Chicago, in 1932.

But Major Taylor's legacy has not been forgotten. A significant player in preserving his memory is the Major Taylor Association, based in Worchester, Massachusetts (where Taylor moved in 1895 and was pleasantly surprised by a lower level of overt prejudice than he had encountered in his home state of Indiana). A number of Major Taylor bike clubs throughout the United States encourage safe and fun cycling among African Americans through organized rides and events. (Check out the Web site of the Major Taylor Bicycling Club of Minnesota, which recently co-hosted a national summit of bike clubs made up of African-American cyclists).

An archive of period newspaper articles about Taylor is available on the Web site of the Major Taylor Society.

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