A Cycling Club That Carries a Proud Black Legacy

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

There are remarkably few minority riders in the upper tiers of professional cycling. For example, there are only five Black riders among the 743-rider World Tour, less than 1 percent; and there was only one Black rider in the 2020 Tour de France. 

Clearly, the sport has a diversity issue, one that is rarely acknowledged by the race organizers or the UCI, which has undertaken nothing to make the sport more popular and accessible to minority youth.

This is all the more surprising when you consider the fact that there has already been an Afro-American champion rider. More than 120 years ago, in 1898-99, Marshall (aka ‘Major’) Taylor established seven world track cycling records, at distances from the quarter-mile to two miles. His one-mile record from a standing start stood for 28 years.

Major Taylor
Major Taylor, the legendary racer.

In 1899, he won 22 major championships around the US, and in 1900 he became the American sprint champion and set world records in the half-mile and two-thirds-mile sprints.

His legacy is being carried on today in New York City by a racing club named after him and the US Army’s all-Black 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps, known as the “Iron Riders”. The Major Taylor Iron Riders consists of cyclists of all levels from around the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Founded in 2006, it describes itself as a high-performance cycling club whose mission it is “to promote the joys, the health benefits and the camaraderie of cycling.”

Membership is open to anyone regardless of race, creed or gender who owns or rides a road bike. The club is made up of two branches, a touring team and a racing team. It undertakes a large number of varied rides around the region every year, such as the Major Taylor Montauk Legend Ride, 120 miles from Brooklyn’s Prospect Park to Montauk on Long Island, or the Port Jefferson Ride, which is over 85 to 90 miles, depending on your starting point. “The pace will be brisk,” the club warns. “This isn’t for the faint of heart, so bring your A game!”

They mean it. According to club member Malik Graves-Pryor, his first ride with the club, in 2009, taught him why they called themselves the Iron Riders.

“When I first met the Iron Riders,” he writes in VeloNews, “I had been riding consistently for about three months in an effort to get back into shape. I thought I had everything figured out about cycling.” But he soon learned that, well, he had a lot to learn:

“In the ensuing hours, my fitness and ego were thoroughly dismantled as I was taken through parts of New York and New Jersey I never knew existed. Harrowing climbs, eye-watering descents, and brutally high pace line speeds were on the menu that day… I suffered immensely, yet I received a lot of encouraging words on the ride, as well as instruction on how to ride in a pace line, how to smooth out my cadence, when to shift gears effectively, and more.”

The lessons he has learned with the club since then have not just been about cycling. “The power of representation in the sport of cycling is something that cannot be underestimated,” Graves-Pryor concludes. “As we value the importance of diversity in all areas of our lives, we look back and realize that the trail was first blazed by Marshall Major Taylor, the first brick upon which we now all stand and walk down when joining one of his namesake clubs.”

For those living in the region, the Major Taylor Iron Riders club membership costs $40 a year. You can sign up here.