At the dawn of the 20th century, cycling was the most popular sport on three continents, North America, Europe, and Australia. Tens of thousands of spectators were drawn to the tracks and Velodromes to witness mass start racing and the new dangerous and sometimes deadly off-shoot, motor pacing which bore little resemblance to bicycle racing today. In motor-paced racing, cyclists would draft behind motorcycles, reaching speeds over 60 miles per hour on high-banked tracks intended for half that speed. Blown tires, broken chains, and wheel overlap routinely produced spectacular crashes and deaths of both riders and spectators. In brutal six-day races of endurance, well-paid competitors often turned to cocaine, strychnine, and nitroglycerine for stimulation and suffered from sleep deprivation, delusions, and hallucinations.
Yet one of the first sports superstars emerged from this curious and sordid world. Major Taylor was a deeply religious young man who turned professional while still a teenager and began winning races on the world stage. President Theodore Roosevelt was one of his greatest admirers. But it was not Taylor’s youth that cycling fans first noticed when he edged his wheel to the starting line. Nicknamed “the Black Cyclone,” he would rise to fame as the champion of the world almost a decade before the African-American heavyweight Jack Johnson won his world title. As with Johnson, who was Taylor's friend, crossing the color line was not without complication, especially in the United States, where he often had no choice but to engage in physical jostling with his competitors at high speed in order to win.