1899 World Professional Sprint Champion Major Taylor
Updated: Mar 18
In the spring of 1981, I rolled up to the house of my soon-to-be life long friend Alan Cote. We had met at the Fitchburg Cycling Clubs’ monthly meeting the week before and were about to do our first bike ride together. Little did I know this simple bike ride was to change my life in many ways. Alan invited me in and gave me a tour of his house. It was about the same size as our house but was jam-packed with all things cycling. Alan’s Dad, Joe Cote started bike racing about the time my dad was born. He was really good. Trophies all over the living room kind of good. After getting the tour of the downstairs and thumbing through a pile of French Mirior cycling magazines Alan said there was one more thing I needed to see. He lowered the spring-loaded stairs to the attic and we crawled up. Somehow the attic was bigger than I imagined and filled with an array of boxes, bike parts, wheels, and assorted frames. Alan pointed over toward the side of the furnace flu and there were some old bikes without wheels interlocked between the bricks and the roof. These bikes were more than a little rusty with faded paint and odd-looking parts. I still remember the dust particles in the light cascading through the far window and illuminating the hard leather saddles and Copper rivets. These bikes were certainly not the glossy, polished campagnolo-equipped gems I drooled over at the local bike shops and in magazines. I thought they were cool but I was unimpressed. Alan pointed at one of the bikes and said, “That was Major Taylor's bike!”
“Who is Major Taylor?” I asked.
Then Alan proceeded to blow my mind and describe the “Worcester Whirlwind” and it turns out I was more than impressed. The world of bicycle racing and its deep and rich history had just opened for me and I was in love with it all. I am not going to give you a history lesson here but the most important thing you need to know is that Major Taylor was the first African American professional World Champion in any sport. For many years Major Taylor was the fastest human-powered being that had ever lived. All this in a country that went out of its way to deny him the chance to show everyone how amazing he was. Fortunately for us, Europe was far more advanced in some ways and invited him to compete with the world's best. It was far from perfect, especially when you read some of the language I found from in an article from that time that I will share below.
When I research Major Taylor I found a few good photos but quickly realized there are probably only 20 clear images out there in the world. Along with that almost every illustration or piece of Art I could find of “The Man” was based on those same images. I did not want to do that. There is already the photo. My goal is to focus on a moment not captured by a camera.
Let me set the scene for my illustration. In Early May of 1901, Major Taylor traveled to Paris to compete at the Parc des Princes Velodrome and race against the current World Champion Edmond Jaquelin. Taylor had won the World Championships in Montreal in 1899 but Jacquelin was not there. Taylor didn’t race in the 1900 World Championships because the race happened on a Sunday. He did not race on Sunday for religious reasons. The Velodrome was owned by Henri Desgrange, who was also the man who started and organized the Tour de France as a way to sell his yellow tinted newspaper L’Auto. Desgrange knew how to promote a race. On a chilly afternoon over 18 thousand Parisians watched Jaquelin trounce Taylor in two straight rides to win the event. Taylor was surprised by the Frenchman’s speed and tactics. He didn’t really throw down any excuses but Jaquelin’s style of only racing the last 200 meters and playing cat and mouse caught him out. Taylor was used to racing the whole distance. For those track riders out there their fastest 200 meter time was 11 1/3 seconds. That is crazy fast, especially considering the bikes they were on. Taylor said that if they were to meet again he had taken the measure of Edmond and would not be beaten in a rematch. Upon Hearing this Desgrange instantly scheduled an event for the 27th of May and started to promote the race.
By 7am the morning of the race folks started to line up at the velodrome. Some of these were some very smart entrepreneurs that were just there to save a place for someone willing to pay for their spot. Many hours later the event began with a record 20 thousand patrons packed in the stands. I found a few descriptions of this but the best was the bad translation I made after typing out the Article of the event that I found in the archives of Major Taylor’s scrapbooks. The first ride was a pretty straightforward affair. Jacquelin, feeling a little overconfident, took the lead and rolled slowly while looking over his shoulder and constantly keeping an eye on Taylor. Jacquelin accelerated hard with 200 meters to go and Taylor reacted to his pace but left a little gap. The crowd responded with excitement, thinking Major was struggling to match the speed. The whole mood changed as Jacquelin accelerated again because Taylor responded to this effort instantly and used the slipstream to gain extra speed. He silenced the 20 thousand in attendance by flying by Edmond and rolled over the finish line a length clear.
After a short rest, the two lined up for the second of three potential rides. Taylor made a very cheeky move for the day and offered his hand for Edmond to shake as they were being held at the line. Even though he didn’t have to respond to the gesture, Edmond sent murmurs through the crowd as he reached over and accepted Taylors hand. Taylor later said when interviewed that this was really part of his game because he intended this as an announcement to Jaquelin that this would be their final race.
As they set off both riders immediately came to a standstill as each tried to force the other into the lead. Taylor even rode his bike backward which forced Edmond to do a circle on the track. When this happened my translation from L’Auto said, “Severely called to order by the starter, friend Dreux, the men decide to walk straight and Jacquelin, as if resigned, takes the lead.” I am intrigued by the language of the day and this is how Desgrande describes the race as it unfolded. At first, it seemed like it was going to be a copy of the first race.
“But then something extraordinary happens: just at the entrance to the finish line Jacquelin takes off, starting off so violently that Taylor loses contact slightly. Twenty meters further on, he is on his rival's wheel and with an incredible ease, like a gentleman who walks, he stays there…. Until 60 or 70 meters from the post, while Jacquelin, not seeing his opponent's wheel appear, pushes with all the strength of his powerful muscles. Already the spectators are wondering what the black man is thinking when he is seen to free himself and jump on the leader like a cat would jump on a mouse. For ten meters Jacquelin seems to resist, but that's it and he is irresistibly overtaken. He stops struggling before the finish line, which the negro crosses three lengths ahead.”
In my illustration I wanted to focus on the moment when Jacquelin knew he was beaten but before his head went down in defeat. I also wanted to show that Taylor went by with such confidence he was able to look over at the Frenchman. Something difficult when cruising by under full power at 37mph. There is a bonus story that Desgrange was so upset that Major Taylor won the $7500 purse that he delivered it to him in 10 centime pieces. He needed a wheelbarrow to collect the coins and had to hire someone to get his winnings back to his hotel. I did some quick math and that is 1650lbs of coins. There is also a pretty good chance that whole story is made up.
When I was first thinking about this illustration I had the concept to find a race where Major Taylor beat a mustachioed Frenchman on the wonderful board track of the Buffalo Velodrome. The raw wood, steep turns, flashy advertising and rich history would make a lovely illustration. I wanted to draw Major Taylor out of the saddle and flying toward the finish but that concept pivoted when I talked to Alan and he mentioned that was really beyond the handling of those old bikes. I had assumed those images didn’t exist because cameras back then were only good at still images. Then I came across a photo of Taylor shaking Jacquelin’s hand and the gravitas of the moment and the story was too good to pass up. I still may need to do that original illustration for this reason though.
While I was looking through photos of his races on the Buffalo velodrome one of the images of the bike jogged a memory.
The head badge was lovely but I noticed the beautifully integrated headset, a very interesting chainring and unique wishbone rear stay. I texted Alan and asked who made the bike that his dad had since donated to the American Bicycle hall of fame. “It is a Peugeot.” He responded back. I searched for “Vintage Peugeot head badge” and found some great photos on Pinterest. You could almost make out the blurry lion in the photo I found but this image confirmed it was a Peugeot. I quickly got on the Bicycle Hall of fame’s website and found the photo of the bike under nice lights in the museum. Same frame, same headset, same crank, same seat post, ……Holy crap. That is “The” bike I saw in Alan’s attic all those years before.
I called Alan and told him what I discovered and he was pretty sure I was correct. Only recently had he regaled me with the story of how that bike came to be in his attic. He has promised to write that story down and when he does I will link it here. He needs to tell you the story, because it is amazing and you won’t believe it.
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