Urban Velo

Major Taylor’s Legacy

Major TaylorAlmost 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 VailsNelson “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 WhitemanKirk 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 SaundersErik 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.

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  1. erin nicoleFebruary 1, 2008 at 12:50 am

    erik is a nice guy, i met him in vegas a few years back.

  2. bradFebruary 1, 2008 at 9:09 am

    I met Nelson at Interbike ’06, Don Walker introduced me as I guess they raced together way back when.

  3. Lynne TolmanFebruary 1, 2008 at 2:41 pm

    The Major Taylor Association cordially invites you to the dedication of the MAJOR TAYLOR STATUE in Worcester, Mass., at noontime Wednesday, May 21, 2008.

    A number of today’s legends of cycling will be on hand, along with our honorary national chairman, three-time Olympic medalist Edwin Moses (400-meter hurdles, 1976, 1984, 1988). We’ll also have a morning bike ride and an evening panel discussion on race, sports, and Major Taylor’s legacy.

    We’ll announce the keynote speaker very soon. Meanwhile, check out the “making of the statue” slide show:

    — Lynne Tolman

  4. gwadzillaFebruary 1, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    thanks for the history less

    I am sharing the word on my page
    I am stealing the word to put some substance inbetween the fluff on my page

  5. Urban JeffFebruary 2, 2008 at 10:07 amAuthor

    Please, please, please… Repost our blog fodder, just link back to us. Everyone wins.

    And Lynne, thanks again for your help with this blog post, and for the work you folks are doing.

  6. CharlesMay 2, 2008 at 11:31 pm

    “Major Taylor’s Legacy” has played a big part in my life. I’ve been a member of Major Motion Cycling Club (MMCC) since 1978. The MMCC was formed around 1975 by a few local cyclist that just enjoyed riding bikes. Major Motion cycling is still very active in the community, riding and racing. Our club members live and ride in the spirit of Major Taylor. Thanks Major Taylor Association. Please check out our web site at


  7. A Forgotten Hero: Taylor “Major” Marshall | Handcar RegattaFebruary 10, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    [...] source: Urbanvelo [...]

  8. ElizabethNovember 9, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    Great article. Are there any documented African American female national or world cycling champions?

  9. CarltonJanuary 21, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    Sweet! There have been many African American cycling Champions. Currently, check out Shanaze Reade. She’s of African descent, but represents Great Britain.

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