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Major: A Black Athlete, a White Era, and the Fight to Be the World's Fastest Human Being Hardcover – February 26, 2008

3.6 out of 5 stars 15 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

According to Balf, at the turn of the century the invention of the bicycle democratized transport. But as Balf also points out, despite the bicycle's ability to break down society's social structure, it couldn't make the prejudiced world of segregation, lynching and Jim Crow disappear. This new biography chronicles the life of the unlikeliest of stars in the early years of cycling: Marshall Major Taylor. Taylor was an incomparable athlete, poet and celebrity, but he was also a black man living during a time when the scars of the Civil War and slavery were still fresh in the minds of Americans. Balf, who writes for Men's Journal, does great work presenting the complex nature of Taylor's life, including his up-bringing in poverty in Indianapolis, the years he was treated as a son by a rich white family, the fans who both worshipped and vilified him and his close relationships with his white trainer and promoter. Much of the book revolves around Taylor's rivalry with the pugnacious, bigoted Floyd McFarland to be the fastest rider in the world, with their stirring final battle in Australia serving as the book's inspiring climax. Balf's prose is both evocative and informative, as can be seen in his description of the feeling one gets on one's first bike ride: the moment when doubt and fear release in a simple, fundamental expression of emotions. Despite all the injustices, injuries and obstacles he faced, Taylor never lost that feeling and that's what makes this a truly engaging narrative. Photos. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"Balf revels in the bicycle’s bone-shaking evolution and the top-gun fraternity of daredevils who literally risked life and limb to race."
Entertainment Weekly

"With Major, Todd Balf has given us an astonishing book about race and racing in Gilded Age America. This is literary sports writing at its finest. In the tradition of David Halberstam and Frank DeFord, Balf painst intimate portraits of young athletes at the top of their game- and takes us on an epic ride to a nearly forgotten world of sport."
–Hampton Sides, author of Blood and Thunder and Ghost Soldiers

"If a literary magician could somehow combine the longshot thrill of Seabiscuit, the groundbreaking nobility of Jackie Robinson, and the dramatic flair of Babe Ruth, the result would be something close to this book. Major Taylor is perhaps the greatest American underdog story ever told; I couldn't put it down."
-- Daniel Coyle, author of Lance Armstrong's War and Hardball

In Major, Todd Balf has given us the true story of a fascinating, vanished sports world, and one of America's first, great black champions. It reads as fast and as beautifully as its heroes spin."
-- Kevin Baker, author of Paradise Alley and Dreamland

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; 1 edition (February 26, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307236587
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307236586
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,179,581 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Bruce Epperson on May 30, 2008
Format: Hardcover
There is nothing wrong with Balf's new book, and for someone not familiar with either Major Taylor or the history of American bicycle racing, it is an interesting, pleasant read. However, it simply is not as good, nor as in-depth, as Andrew Ritchie's previous (and still in print) "Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Life . . ." As good as Ritchie's book is, it, in turn, is still not as good as getting your hands on a copy of Taylor's own autobiography "The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World," either in the original edition at a mind-blowingly expensive cost, or in a current print-on-demand edition at a still irksome cost.

Taylor had an iron will and an unbreakable spirit; was a clean-liver in an era when the average professional was a brawler and a dissipate; he could be a world-class whiner; he was obsessive and paranoid. He called his most bitter rivals bigots and rubes; they shot back that he was a professional scab and a self-rightous sob sister. The truth, of course, was somewhere in the middle. It's hard for both Balf and Ritchie to discuss the less heroic parts of Taylor's personality, but these come out in his own writing. You can learn a lot about Taylor by reading Balf and Ritchie; on the other hand, you can learn OF Taylor only by reading his own words.
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Format: Hardcover
I was wandering through the bookstore when this intense yellow cover with a crouched black rider (Marshall "Major" Taylor) caught my eye. I had an idea who Major was -- an early black cyclist -- but had no idea how great and popular he was in his heyday.

The book succeeded for me on several levels. First, Todd Balf has done his historian's work, culling from many sources, including newspapers, period magazines, diaries, etc, to give the reader a deep, balanced view the lost work of 90th century track racing. He begins with the bicycle itself, from its mechanical evolution to its impressive impact on society. Then it is on to racing. I found this world utterly riveting, with such events as the 6 day races in Madison Square Garden, where racers battled one another as well as sleep deprivation over 6 days straight, ending with spectacular crashes, hallucinations, and death, or the match races set against huge grandstands in every major American city, or the speed record attempts where riders would draft behind locomotives or other large machines, often getting crushed in the process. It was a frenetic time, the nexus of Victorian sensibility, the rise of the machine, urbanization, racism, the rise of professional sports.

Out of all this emerges the character of Marshall "Major" Taylor, a black superstar who rises to the pinnacle of the sport. To me Taylor was less interesting than the milieux he was apart of. The author works hard to create a narrative structure of good vs evil, with Taylor on one side and McFarland (his nemesis) and the rest of white America on the other.
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Format: Hardcover
I recently began riding with a Major Taylor bike club in Milwaukee. Like most people I had never heard of Major Taylor, and, indeed, had no clue about the brief period in the late 19th and early 20th century when bike racing ruled the world of professional sports.

I picked up this book hoping to be illuminated about the man Major Taylor and the period in which he lived and raced. Unfortunately, the book's sloppy writing severely detracted from the story it was aiming to tell. The job of an author is to tell a story in a convincing manner that draws the reader in. This book is full of awkward similes, bad grammer and questionable historical references. It is full of pop-psychology speculation and bold departures from established historical fact into the realm of what can only be described as fantasy.

Major Taylor died a forgotten man, but his legacy is being renewed 100 years after his departure from the world stage. His is a story that deserves to be retold. I would not recommend this book to those with an interest in Major Taylor due to the author's sloppy handling of the subject matter.
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Format: Paperback
Todd Balf's book is ostensibly a 'definitive biography', yet is laden with errors, and some things simply appear to be made up. Here are a few quick samples from just a few pages about his Australian tours, and I could list several times this many from the same pages.

Page 205. Re Taylor's 1902 trip from San Francisco to Sydney. Balf wrote that Taylor. `... had 15,000 nautical miles to wonder if he'd be welcomed or chased away.'
The great circle distance from San Francisco to Sydney is just under 6,500 nautical miles, not 15,000.

Page 233. In discussing Taylor and MacFarland facing off in Adelaide, and contrasting it to where their rivalry had begun (presumably the eastern U.S.), Balf writes: `Taylor and MacFarland were some 15,000 miles from where it had started.'
Not true. Adelaide to New York City is 10,600 miles.

Page 206. Re Sydney Harbour: Balf notes that although Capt James Cook saw the headlands at the entrance to Sydney Harbour in 1770, `... the Harbor would be discovered a few decades later...'
Not true. It was discovered just 18 years later. As plural, decades refers to at least two.

Page 208. `In McIntosh Taylor would eventually see an awful lot of Billy Brady--the orphan upbringing, the winning smile ...'
McIntosh was not an orphan. Though his father died when he was only four, his mother lived another 51 years.

Page 208. Balf refers to the `boiling Tasmanian sea'.
There is no Tasmanian sea. There is a Tasman Sea, commonly referred to by Australians and New Zealanders as `the Tasman', but not the Tasmanian sea. That would be like an American referring to the Pacifican Ocean.

Page 209.
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