More than a century ago, Indianapolis excluded its homegrown world cycling champion from racing. But in the last two years, the city has been welcoming Marshall “Major” Taylor home with fanfare.
Prominent murals downtown and at the Indianapolis International Airport. An Indiana State Museum exhibit. And now, this Juneteenth weekend, June 18-19, the first-ever gathering of Major Taylor cycling clubs from throughout the country.
“The city didn’t embrace him … until recently,” said Damon Richards, executive director of Bike Indianapolis. “Maybe this giant explosion is sort of a make-up for lost time.”
The weekend of rides, walking tours and expos includes a ride to the Major Taylor Velodrome on Friday, a reception at the State Museum and tour of its Major Taylor exhibit Saturday, and a group ride commemorating Juneteenth Sunday.
The festivities will be hosted by the Major Taylor Cycling Club of Central Indiana, a program of Bike Indianapolis. It will also serve as an introduction of sorts to an organization that spawned this year to bring together all of the Major Taylor cycling clubs: the Major Taylor International Cycling Alliance.
“The event in Indianapolis will be kind of our coming-out party,” said Bill Gaston, a club captain with Major Taylor Cycling Club Chicago. “It only made sense, when we do it the first time, let’s take it to his home.”
Taylor, a cycling prodigy, encountered stifling racism in his early racing years. Before he was 20 years old, “separate but equal” became the law of the land through the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, and the Capital City Track in Indianapolis refused to let him race. He and his cycling instructor had moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, the previous year. Shut out from the Indy racing circuit, he toured and broke world records in Europe.
Cycling clubs named after Taylor have cropped up separately over the last 40 years, starting in Columbus, Ohio. In 2008, the nonprofit Major Taylor Association formed in Worcester. The association’s goal is to educate the broader public about Taylor’s significance, and to make him the kind of recognizable household name that Jackie Robinson, for example, is today.
“He was the Jackie Robinson of cycling,” president Lynne Tolman said. “We should be saying it the other way around: Jackie Robinson is the Major Taylor of baseball.”
But baseball had long superseded cycling as America’s pastime; velodromes, once found everywhere around the country, have been torn up or repurposed. Madison Square Garden, now a preeminent concert venue, was originally a velodrome.
Until this year, cycling clubs loosely knew of other clubs’ existence through being listed on the Major Taylor Association website.
The first pandemic summer brought a surge in interest in cycling across the country. Gaston estimates he’s seen about 20 new Major Taylor cycling clubs pop up across the country and internationally — in places like Taiwan, Kenya, the United Kingdom.
“It’s something about the time that we live in — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, COVID, — everything just kind of changed,” Gaston said.
Amid the national reckoning with the country’s history of systemic racism, there’s also been a recognition of Black historical figures long ignored.
“I think people are eager to find stories they didn’t know about before,” Tolman said.
As interest surged, Gaston decided to create a Facebook page for club leaders to connect. From there emerged the idea to have some sort of national gathering.
The hope, organizers said, is to make this national gathering an annual occurrence on Juneteenth weekend.
“We’re going to put on an event that will set the bar for future events,” Richards said.
The 31st International Cycling History Conference, which has been held in places like France, Portugal and Australia, is also being held this summer in Indianapolis. Later in the summer, Momentum Indy will host a Major Taylor group ride.
“Major Taylor’s having a moment right now,” Tolman said.
To find out more, sign up or volunteer at Indianapolis’ Major Taylor invitational, go to bit.ly/3NmYogc.
Contact IndyStar transportation reporter Kayla Dwyer at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @kayla_dwyer17.