Without a Major Taylor, Oliver “Butch” Martin or Herbie Francis, there would be no Rahsaan Bahati, Nelson Vails or Justin Williams.

Despite the numerous challenges that stood in their way — from discrimination, to structural inequalities, to being denied access to biking events due to their race — Black bikers of the past persevered through the hardship, knowing that the future they envisioned exceeded the present struggles they faced.  

Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor, largely considered the greatest American cycling sprinter of all time, is credited as the man who broke the color barrier in bike racing. His path to notoriety was nothing short of extraordinary, setting numerous track cycling records en route to being the first Black American world champion in the sport.

Taylor was once quoted saying he had to “blaze his own trail” (no pun intended) in bike racing because he had no Black cyclists to offer him advice or guidance. His notable accomplishments, which came at the turn of the 20th century characterized by a grim era in American history, would leave a lasting impact and opened doors for not only Black cyclists, but Black athletes as a whole. 

Francis came along during the Civil Rights era. The New Yorker made history in 1960 as the first Black Olympic cyclist competing for the United States. 

Francis, who was born in Miami and raised in Harlem, competed for Union Sportiva Italiana and Continental Sports Club before going on to make history at the Olympic Games in Rome. 

A well-regarded sprinter who raced locally during the early 1960s, Francis lost to Jackie Simes in the quarterfinals of the 1963 U.S. Nationals in Northbrook, Ill., before reportedly fading off the biking scene.

Francis later competed in the Flushing Velodrome but did not go to the 1964 Olympic Trials. He later joined the Army and served in the Vietnam War. He passed away in 1988 at the age of 48.

Though some may argue his cycling success was short-lived, Francis’ achievements would chart a path forward for Black cyclists at the international level. 

Accordingly, Martin built on the success of his  predecessor and mentor, Francis.

The prominent Olympian-turned race promoter was the second Black American cyclist to compete in the Olympics. Esteemed a pioneer in cycling, Martin began riding in 1963 with Unione Sportiva Italiano, where he was tutored by Francis, according to some accounts. He raced as a pro until 1973, also competing at the 1971 Pan American Games. 

He officially left his mark on the sport by appearing in the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, followed by the 1968 Games in Mexico City. His Olympic appearances were supplemented by four wins in races in Europe in the mid-1960s. Martin won more than 50 races in his career that included international wins in Italy, Canada and Mexico.

Shortly after retirement, the New York native coached the 1974 Montreal World’s Championship men’s U.S. 100 K Team. Martin was the first U.S. National Road Coach for the USCF from 1975 to 1977 and coached the U.S. Road Team at the Montreal Olympic Games in 1976. 

In addition to serving as the race director of the 1988-1989 Tour of the Americas, Martin directed two more biking events in 1990 and 1993. Martin, now 77 years old, reportedly resides in Portland, Oregon. 

After leaving an indelible legacy on the sport, Martin was inducted into the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame in 2005.

Martin, Francis, Taylor, Katherine Knox and other Black heroic sports figures who might have been lost in the annals of time manifested Black excellence in cycling while demonstrating the fight that continues.

Demetrius Dillard
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