America's first sporting superstar

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I was pedaling along, talking to a pair of Cat 5’s about racing. A dude on a fancy bike passed us like we were tied to a stump. “Damn,” I said, “who does he think he is? Major Taylor?”

Stringbean looked at me. “Who’s Major Taylor?” he asked.

I didn’t know what to say, so I thought about it. “Ever heard of Eddy Merckx?” I asked.

Stringbean laughed. “Uh, yeah.”

Stumpy chipped in. “Merckx was the greatest ever. The Cannibal.”

“Why do you think he was the greatest ever?” I asked.

“Dude,” said Stumpy. “He fuggin won it all. He was The Cannibal.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I heard you the first time. So you reckon he was better than Major Taylor?”

“Who’s he?” Stringbean repeated. “Was he better than Merckx?”

“Couldn’t have been,” said Stumpy. “Merckx was The Cannibal.”

“Yeah,” said Stringbean. “Who was Major Taylor? I bet he wasn’t no cannibal.”

Der Sieger schreibt die Geschichte

Among black cyclists, Major Taylor needs no introduction. But for many whites, he’s an ancient name at best, a blank at worst. This is weird because you don’t have to race bikes for long before you hear his name. Although I knew, or thought I knew, the rough outlines of his story, it wasn’t until I read “Major” by Todd Balf that I got an appreciation for the man who was unquestionably America’s first sporting superstar and who, judged by his accomplishments, remains one of the greatest American athletes ever.

Had Taylor been white, his palmares would have been incredible. But dominating the domestic and international competition as a black man in the late 1800’s who faced threats of violence, blatant discrimination, and machinations to keep him from even entering races testifies to a stony will and indomitable competitive lust that makes the accomplishments of Eddy Merckx pale in comparison.

In his prime, Merckx was the undisputed patron of the peloton with a powerful team that protected him and worked tirelessly for his victories. Just as crucially, very little happened without Merckx’s consent. In his prime, Taylor had to fight for every position in every single race, and could look forward to racial epithets and overt discrimination wherever he traveled in the United States.

I thought about all this as I pedaled along with Stumpy and Stringbean. “Boys,” I said, “if you want to know what it means to be a champion, a real one, get yourself a bio of Major Taylor. He wasn’t The Cannibal. He was far tougher than that.”

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