Wheels of Change

Major Taylor Cycling Club carries on the spirit of an oft-forgotten hero

By Dwain Hebda

Sheila McDonald is one of those rare individuals for whom no athletic activity presents too steep a challenge. A self-described gym rat and all-around fitness enthusiast, the Pine Bluff native wears well the nickname she picked up some time ago, “Wonder Woman.”

But while McDonald has never found a sport or trail that could defeat her, the cycling community she found in Little Rock when she was just getting into the sport was enough to make her give up on it altogether—temporarily.

“I originally started (cycling) in the summer of 1984 when I was working in Chicago,” she said. “An uncle of mine introduced me to road cycling and I did some riding with him that summer. But when I came back to Arkansas, I didn’t see anybody who looked like me cycling around here. I pretty much put my bike up and didn’t really do anything with it until 2011.”

That was the year that McDonald, Ron Sheffield and a handful of other individuals met to form a new cycling club dedicated to providing camaraderie and a shared love of riding, a group that has grown in more ways than one.

“All that we were talking about at that time was just a club to ride our bikes together and have fellowship and everything,” McDonald remembers. “We were trying to come up with a name for it and people were throwing out different things and Ron proposed that we name it after Major Taylor. That was the first time I had ever heard of [him].”

Forming the Major Taylor Cycling Club of Little Rock as a locally organized chapter of the Major Taylor National Association, Inc. – to say nothing of tagging the club after one of the sport’s earliest and oft-forgotten superstars – was more identity than mere name. Carrying on the legacy of Major Taylor inspired early club leadership with a clear beacon and example for what the group would stand for. 

“The fact that [Major Taylor] had been a pioneer in a sport that had no pioneers, he had nobody to gauge himself off of,” Sheffield said. “He was a very spiritual man, he was very health conscious, he was a family man. And I said, ‘Why would we not want our cycling group named after him?’”

Sheila McDonald rides lead on a recent outing with the Major Taylor Cycling Club of Little Rock.

Sheila McDonald rides lead on a recent outing with the Major Taylor Cycling Club of Little Rock.

The all-inclusive membership of the group, also known as Rock City Riders, lives this purpose, on the bike and off. The club promotes cycling as a means of fitness and works to provide bikes to underserved youth by volunteering with North Little Rock’s Recycle Bikes for Kids. 

“We’ve got members who are 72 years old to some who are in their late 20s,” Sheffield said. “We’re constantly looking for teenagers and younger people that we can teach how to cycle and how good cycling is, health-wise.”

McDonald and other club members also sit on various boards and commissions dedicated to helping improve and expand trails and cycling facilities in Central Arkansas. As a result of this work, McDonald said local cycling amenities have come a long way and, with them, local cycling’s reputation.

“The pedestrian bridges are, of course, the major accomplishment because that’s what allowed the event rides and the popularity of the event rides,” she said. “Once the Big Dam Bridge was built, there was nothing else like it. And with that ride, it brings people from all over the country and even overseas, and they love it.”

“The trails have been developed so much better and continue to be. And with clubs like ours and some of the others, when you go out and people see you with your gear on, riding in formation, people are inspired. They tell us we may have ridden by them one day, and it made them want to get a bike.”

Who is Major Taylor?

Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor was born November 26, 1878, in Indianapolis, one of eight children. His father, a Civil War veteran, worked as a coachman for a wealthy Indianapolis family and it was this clan, the Southards, who gave the 12-year-old Taylor his first bicycle, and tutuored him during his primary years. 

As a young teen, he was known for his trick riding and was employed by a string of bike shop owners and manufacturers in various capacities. One of these employers, Louis D. “Birdie” Munger of the Munger Cycle Manufacturing Company, in Indianapolis, and later the Worcester Cycle Manufacturing Company factory in Worcester, Massachusetts, saw to it he received a high school education while training him as a racer. 

As a competitor, Taylor was without peer, particularly in the sprints, winning his first event at age 18. He also established lasting fame as one of the finishers in the 1896 Six-Day Bicycle Race, covering more than 1,700 miles on a 0.1 track in Madison Square Garden. As the name implies, the brutal events forced riders to compete for six days straight, and as many spectators were there to witness casualties as to salute the survivors. 

Ron Shefield, another founding member of the riding club.

Ron Shefield, another founding member of the riding club.

Taylor’s appeal to the cycling world was similarly multi-faceted. Newspapers capitalized on his being one of the only black athletes in the sport, with such tags as the “Black Cyclone” and “Ebony Flyer,” and President Teddy Roosevelt was said to have been an ardent supporter. But racial prejudice outstripped appreciation for his athletic ability, resulting in some racers refusing to compete with him and some race promoters banning him altogether. Death threats and hostile crowds followed in training and competition throughout his career.

Despite this, Taylor would establish seven world records in 1898 and 1899 alone, was national champion in 1898 and world champion in 1899, the first black cyclist and only the second black athlete in any sport to win a world title. He’d tour and race worldwide, at one time being the highest paid athlete in sports, only to die penniless in Chicago in 1932. 

It would be 15 years after his death before Schwinn Bicycle Company founder and others paid for a proper burial and a monument to Taylor and 60 years before he received his due accolades from American cycling governing bodies and halls of fame.

Taylor was brought into the public consciousness in the 2000s with a limited-edition Nike shoe and the occasional book on his life. This year, a short-form documentary and Hennessey cognac ad also revived his tale, the latter tagged, “What is it that you’re fighting for?”

Those interested in riding with the Rock City Riders chapter of the Major Taylor Cycling Club should visit the organization’s website at mtcc-lr.com.