Major Taylor’s Legacy
Almost everyone knows the story of Marshall “Major” Taylor, the world one-mile track cycling champion in 1899. Taylor was the one of the first African-American athletes to win a world championship in any sport, and overcame more than his share of racism en route to becoming one of the highest paid athletes of his day.
Major Taylor’s legacy continues in numerous ways, including historical organizations, cycling clubs, racing teams and The Major Taylor Velodrome in Indianapolis, IN. What few people realize is that Taylor’s legacy continues in the form of inspiring other athletes—especially those of African-American decent. So in recognition of Black History Month, we present three lesser-known cyclists who followed the road paved by Major Taylor.
Nelson “The Cheetah” Vails is best known for winning a silver medal in the 1000-meter sprint at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. A native of Harlem, Vails grew up riding in Central Park, and eventually landed a job as a bike messenger in Manhattan. His Olympic success and outgoing persona landed him a role in the 1986 classic, Quicksilver. (He’s the messenger wearing the burgundy beret.)
Kirk Whiteman followed directly in the footsteps of The Cheetah. After seeing Vails on television, Whiteman took up cycling and soon went to work as a NYC bike messenger, as well. He eventually joined an amateur cycling team and began his ascent into the ranks of the cycling elite. In 1996 he won a national championship in Tandem Sprints, and in 1997 he won a world championship in the Individual Match Sprint. In 1998 he successfully defended his title, making him the first African-American to win a cycling world championship since Major Taylor. Whiteman is known for his community involvement, and continues to support young athletes to this day.
Erik Saunders, the outspoken sprinter, turned pro in 2001 and captured his first national championship in the Madison event at the 2003 U.S. National Track Championships. His road-racing career included numerous trips to the podium and even more stage wins. An avid writer, Saunders published a cycling blog from 2004 to 2007. Today, Saunders is the director of the Time Pro Cycling team.