It’s hard to imagine in our car cluttered culture of today, but before the turn of the (20th) century, bicycles ruled the day. Bikes were, with the exception of locomotives, the fastest vehicles on earth. Among the fastest riders was one of the first black athletes to go head to head with the white athletic establishment. Major Taylor.
The fever around bicycle racing in the late 1800’s can probably only be compared to modern day pro-sports like Football, Baseball, Basketball. Congregations of tens of thousands of people would amass to cheer on racers as they spun around the velodrome night after night, in every major city in the US. A grueling race called the Garden 6-Day happened each year in New York. Lapping the velodrome hour after hour, day after day, the top riders covered nearly 2000 miles in 6 days, and by the end of the race were in varying states of hallucination and fatigue. Something of a mix of the horrors of the Roman Coliseum and Olympics drew massive crowds and honed the finest athletes.
American bicycle manufacturing was booming, and racing bikes were weighing in at 20 lbs. Fixed gears were all the rage. Leather chains were common. Come on people, can it get any better than this?
This uplifting era of cycling was matched in almost complete contrast by the pervasive racism against which Major Taylor and other blacks struggled their entire life. Nearly everywhere Taylor traveled, he could scarcely forget that he was distinctly an other, as racers and promoters sought to elbow him out of contention (especially as he threatened to trounce white racers on the track). Nevertheless he persisted, commanding new world records year after year.
Reading Major has presented me with an inspiring vision for a time before cars, a time when the bicycle was revered as the perfect marriage of form and function – nothing extra. Nothing missing. A functional object worthy of reverence. An American industry of intense pride and intrinsic worth.
No one could have predicted how successful cycling would prove to be in paving the way (quite literally) for the rise of the automobile. Bicycle racing in particular evolved into pacing experiments with prototype automobiles that ran on steam and were as temperamental as a wild mustang. As these pace vehicles helped bicycle riders set incredible records, they also began to draw attention of their own – crowds began to fantasize about the speeds attainable by the pace vehicles. What better way to explore the limits of speed than a race? Enter: the automobile racing, and automobile culture.
Fast forward one century, it seems we are facing the brutal realities of our obsession with internal combustion and speed. The bicycle emerges as a hearty source of entertainment, transport, style, pride and adventure, and consequently we are faced with a choice that we didn’t have to make a century ago: can we actively work together to create our communities around the inspiring bicycle as a core mode of transportation? Can we hold the space for the automobile to find it’s rightful place in our portfolio of transportation options, thereby creating room (both figurative, and quite literal) for more community oriented solutions to revive?
2008 marked a profound step forward in America’s understanding of the role of race in our society. The election of a mixed race president has shaken up the status quo and opened up remarkable new possibilities for each of us – regardless of our individual backgrounds. The possibility of seeing beyond race hovers on the horizon in a way that was unthinkable a century ago to Major Taylor or his rivals.
I believe that many other tyrannical ideas about ourselves and our future that we have clung to out of tradition, or fear, are also beginning to erode. Perhaps the revival of the bicycle in our consciousness is not just a function of economic constraints. Perhaps there is something bigger at stake than saving money. Perhaps time is doing what it does well: refine.
This holiday season marks a strange and tumultuous time full of uncertainty and hope. I am proud to be in such great company as we work to refine ourselves, our culture, our planet. I do believe we are crafting something of immense chaos and immeasurable perfection to pass on to the next generations. I salute our efforts and yours.
I entreat you to fill up the comments section on this post with victories, personal, community or otherwise that 2008 presented for the bicycle – I’ll start with a few, click on the comments [Inserted: Click here to go to the Xtracycle comment section] below to see them.
–Nate Byerley, Xtracycle Inc.
Thanks for publishing this and allowing many readers to know Major Taylor. I learned of Major Taylor in December 2007 from cyclist Michael Davis at FestiVELO de Charleston.