As the 2015 UCI Road World Championships roll out in Richmond, Virginia, an especially historic presence will be looking out over this year’s competition — in spirit, one artist says, as much as in his art.
Painted by James Thornhill, a Richmond-based artist, the intersection of 1st and Marshall in the Virginia city will be splashed with a visual celebration of Marshall “Major” Taylor, the African-American cyclist at the late-19th-century historic vanguard of competitive cycling. In 1899, when the sport itself had barely existed for thirty years, Taylor would win the one-mile world championship title.
115 years ago, Major Taylor, as he came to be known, won some of the world’s earliest bike races, becoming one of the first true sports heroes in U.S. — and world — history. It’s that legacy, Thornhill said, that he wants to celebrate in Richmond through a campaign titled “I Am Major Taylor: 115 Years a Champion.”
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“I was fascinated because most people don’t know about him,” Thornhill said of Taylor in a filmed interview. “He was the first world-champion biker, African-American biker. He won over 160 races and he came in second place at over 33 races.” A pioneering athlete on so many fronts, Taylor’s story, Thornhill says, is one with which the world should be better acquainted. Above all, that’s the rationale for unveiling history in mural form, before a global audience following the UCI Road World Championships.
“The bike race is bringing the whole world to Richmond, Virginia,” Thornhill said, “so what better platform, or opportunity, that we have to introduce this champion, this unsung hero to the world than this bike race?” Visible to the cycling world — if not the world itself — the mural, Thornhill and others say, is a chance to get people asking and talking about a figure in sports history so towering, and indeed so inspiring, that his achievements often broke the ice of the prevailing racism of his times.
An example of his appeal and popularity, in fact, occurred in Ottawa in 1902, when Major Taylor arrived in Canada’s capital for a bike race. As Canadian Cycling Magazine described in the October/November 2014 issue, Taylor had just rolled into town, ready to compete, but his bike didn’t. Downcast and discouraged, he wandered among the other racers, eventually encountering William “Doc” Morton, a Toronto racer and mechanic with a Massey-Harris bike — a whip notably similar to Taylor’s own. Explaining the situation, Taylor asked Morton is he could borrow it for the race. Morton, reportedly, “was only too happy to accommodate his world-famous peer.”
“If you can win this championship on my bicycle, it will be a wonderful souvenir for me of your visit to Ottawa,” Morton said to Taylor. Taylor not only won, he kept using the same model of bicycle as Morton during a following tour in Australia.
The UCI Road World Championships get underway on September 19, with racing continuing until September 27. And with the spirits of Morton and Taylor together in one place once again, who knows? Perhaps fortune will smile on Canada’s invasion of top-ranked riders hitting the asphalt.
Not that fortune needs to intervene, of course.