Saturday, 12 November 2016

The Worcester Whirlwind

Worcester celebrates Ernest Payne, the local cyclist who won gold at the 1908 London Olympics.  But there is another ‘Worcester’ cyclist who, 9 years earlier, became world champion and held seven world track cycling records.

Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor was born in Indiana in 1878. His father worked as coachman for a wealthy local family. Aged 12 his father’s employers gave him a bike. He quickly became such an expert trick rider that a local bike shop paid him to perform stunts wearing a soldier’s uniform - hence his nickname ‘Major’.

 Marshall won his first race aged only 13 and by 15 he’d beaten the one-mile track cycling record, before being barred from his local track because of his colour. A year later he won his first big road race, but after racial threats and being banned from competing in Indiana he moved north to a more racially tolerant Worcester, Massachusetts.

In 1896, aged 18, Taylor turned professional and was soon known as ‘The Worcester Whirlwind’. President Roosevelt was one of his biggest supporters.

Over a six-week period, in 1899, he set seven world track cycling records and went on to become world champion after completing a mile from a standing start in 1min 41secs - a record unbroken until1927.  In doing so, Taylor became the first African-American world cycling champion and only the second black man to win a world championship in any sport.

Taylor participated in a European tour in 1902 winning 40 of his 57 races and beating the English, French and German champions. He was still breaking world records when Ernest Payne won his Olympic gold in 1908, but retired in 1910 aged 32.

Earning up to $30,000 a year by the time he returned to Worcester at the end of his cycling career, Taylor lost it all in bad investments before dying a pauper in 1932, aged 53.

Worcester’s US twin town, Worcester, Massachusetts, still commemorate his achievements. In 2006 they renamed one of the City’s main streets Major Taylor Boulevard and in 2008 a statue (see photo) was erected in his honour in front of their Public Library.

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