Byline: Lynne Tolman
A hundred years ago, when bicycle races drew crowds that filled Madison Square Garden, the biggest draw of all was Major Taylor.
The New York promoters who signed 19-year-old Marshall W. "Major" Taylor to their team in 1898 knew that fans would flock to see "the Worcester Whirlwind" compete. They also knew that controversy surrounding "the Colored Cyclone," whose star was rising in muscular defiance of the Jim Crow segregation permeating the sport, was sure to generate headlines.
And any kind of publicity would be good for the box office.
Today, Taylor's name is still an attraction. When the Seven Hills Wheelmen bicycle club of Worcester renamed its annual 100-mile ride the Major Taylor Century in honor of the 1899 world champion who lived in the city, the ride's appeal was suddenly extended.
"We came just because of the name," said Eloy Toppin of Hartford, who biked the Century in September with several friends from the Octagon Cycling Club, all wearing custom-made cycling jerseys with Major Taylor's picture on the front. "We wanted to be a part of it."
Toppin, 41, and three other African-American bicyclists formed the Hartford-area riding group two years ago as the See-Saw Cycling Club, using the name of Taylor's first racing team. The original See-Saw club was a black team formed in 1895 in response to the exclusively white Zig-Zag Cycling Club in Taylor's native Indianapolis.
The modern-day Hartford group, which is not a racing club and is now integrated, later came up with a new name "because we didn't want to step on history," Toppin said. "The feeling was that See-Saw should remain what it was."
What it was, primarily, was Taylor's springboard to races outside Indiana.
MOVE TO WORCESTER
His early victories with See-Saw helped convince his boss, former racing star and bicycle manufacturer Louis "Birdie" Munger, that he should take the teen-age Taylor with him to Worcester, where he was setting out to open a factory. Munger became a father figure to Taylor, as well as his employer and racing manager, and stood up for Taylor in the face of widespread racism.
"I was in Worcester only a very short time before I realized there was no such race prejudice existing among the bicycle riders there as I had experienced in Indianapolis," Taylor wrote in his 1929 autobiography, "The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World."
Worcester's hilly terrain provided challenging training ground. Locals were amazed to see Taylor biking up...