At the turn of the 20th century, hundreds of handsome, lightning-fast racers won the hearts and minds of a bicycling-crazed public. Scientists studied them, newspapers glorified them, and millions of dollars in purse money was awarded to them. Major Taylor aimed to be the fastest of them all. A prominent black man at a time when such a thing was deemed scandalous, his mounting victories, high moral virtue, and bulletlike riding style made him a target for ridicule from the press and sabotage by the white riders who shared the track with him.
Taylor’s most formidable and ruthless opponent—a man nicknamed the “Human Engine”—was Floyd McFarland. One man was white, one black; one from a storied Virginia family, the other descended from Kentucky slaves; one celebrated as a hero, one trying to secure his spot in a sport he dominated. The only thing they had in common was the desire to be named the fastest man alive. Their rivalry riveted first America, and then the world. Finally, in 1904, both men headed to Australia for a much-anticipated title match to decide, beyond dispute, who would claim the coveted title.
Major is the gripping story of a superstar nobody saw coming—a classic underdog, aided by an unlikely crew: a disgraced fight promoter, a broken ex-racer, and a poor upstate girl from New York who wanted to be a queen. It is also the account of a fierce rivalry that would become an archetypal tale of white versus black in the 20th century. Most of all, it is the tale of our nation’s first black sports celebrity—a man who transcended the handicaps of race at the turn of the century to reach the stratosphere of fame.
According to Balf, at the turn of the century the invention of the bicycle "democratized transport." But as Balf also points out, despite the bicycle's ability to break down society's social structure, it couldn't make the prejudiced world of segregation, lynching and Jim Crow disappear. This new biography chronicles the life of the unlikeliest of stars in the early years of cycling: Marshall "Major" Taylor. Taylor was an incomparable athlete, poet and celebrity, but he was also a black man living during a time when the scars of the Civil War and slavery were still fresh in the minds of Americans. Balf, who writes for Men's Journal, does great work presenting the complex nature of Taylor's life, including his up-bringing in poverty in Indianapolis, the years he was treated as a son by a rich white family, the fans who both worshipped and vilified him and his close relationships with his white trainer and promoter. Much of the book revolves around Taylor's rivalry with the pugnacious, bigoted Floyd McFarland to be the fastest rider in the world, with their stirring final battle in Australia serving as the book's inspiring climax. Balf's prose is both evocative and informative, as can be seen in his description of the feeling one gets on one's first bike ride: the moment when doubt and fear release in a simple, fundamental expression of emotions. Despite all the injustices, injuries and obstacles he faced, Taylor never lost that feeling and that's what makes this a truly engaging narrative. Photos.