Sunday, April 20, 2014

The career of Mitchell (Major) Taylor has always intrigued me, particularly his two visits to Australia in 1903 and 1904.
Jim Fitzpatrick's book "Major Taylor in Australia" had me totally engrossed. It also introduced me to some of the Australians that have been forgotten from our early track racing history - in particular, Don Walker who was our first professional World Track Championship entrant in 1904. With the Major, other international riders were invited to compete with the "Black Flash" and our local boys during 1903 and 1904.
These events were staged at the Exhibition Oval track in Melbourne, the Sydney Cricket Ground and the Adelaide Oval.
The Major was unfamiliar with our large oval tracks in Australia compared to the banked wooden velodromes of America and Europe. Essentially our "OVAL" tracks were just that, a basically flat or slightly banked racing surface around a cricket or football ground. The tracks of Europe, even the large concrete 500 metre velodromes had straights and banked bends to hold the speed for the dare devil motor pacing events.

Text from the newspaper clipping above;

Major Taylor, the champion of the world, at present racing on the Sydney Cricket Ground has an unrivalled record on the path. What everyone is asking with interest just now is: Will Don Walker wrest the championship from him before his departure from our shores?
The world's champion is a magnificently built man, with a line physique, wonderful constitution, and a happy temperament and iron nerve. No combination of adverse conditions in a race ever affect his riding, and his marvellous skill on the bicycle make what would be to other riders situations of danger and difficulty mere trifling inconveniences. An instance of this was the manner in which he recovered himself after brushing Lewis' wheel in the sprint in the final of the quarter-mile championship.
Australians will be delighted if after having met and defeated the champions of all the countries of the world, he should meet his Waterloo in Don Walker, and Australia add another to the long list of splendid achievements which her sons have made in the world of sport and, judging by the performances of Don Walker on Saturday, this is quite within the bounds of probability.

Melbourne's Exhibition Oval track was built in 1891 and it was only in 1893 that the League of Victorian Wheelmen was founded to foster the professional ranks of racing cyclists. The first Austral Wheelrace was held in 1886 on grass at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. This new track on the edge of Melbourne's city precinct was easy walking distance or a short cable car ride to watch the great feats of the Major and his international and local competitors. Some of these meetings during the Major's two visits drew crowd's estimated to be as much as 30.000 spectators, all decked out in their best attire for an exciting night of top racing.

The Sydney Cricket Ground - the venue of several of the Major's appearances.
Melbourne's Exhibition Oval track.
The third venue that the Major competed at was the Adelaide Oval. The oval was actually more of a "D" shape much the same as the Bendigo track of today with the finishing straight but the rest being a large sweeping oval.

The Major with Australian Don Walker. A warm friendship developed between the two during the Major's two visits.
Walker was one of the very few Australians that was a true competitor for Major Taylor.
An early photo (1895) of Don Walker 3rd placed and George Broadbent 1st placed at the Adelaide Oval.
This would have been one of his very early races as far as I can determine and he possibly retired not long after returning to Australia after the 1904 World Championships.
On these to visits to Australia, The Major and his petite wife were warmly welcomed in Australia - a complete contrast to his situation in America where segregation was still prevalent. During the Major's 1904 trip his friendship with Australian grew to the extent that he was invited to America and stay at the home of Taylor to prepare for the 1904 World Track Championships being held at the Crystal Palace, London.
Unfortunately for Walker, he was eliminated in the early heats. The Sprint crown that year was won by American Iver Lawson who had also been racing in Australia during the 1904 season with fellow countryman Floyd MacFarland. Possibly one of the reasons that Walker and Taylor formed a close friendship was because Walker refused to be influenced by the ganging up tactics instigated by MacFarland. With the Major being so quick and his refusal to join the "Jokes" in the races, MacFarland would employ other riders to block the Major whenever possible. There was also that underlying racial tension with the Americans against the "Black Flash".
MacFarland with his "Jokes" earned a reputation as a top handicap rider and won much prize money in Australia. He extended his stay in Australia racing in most states including WA for the Westral Wheelrace.
MacFarland was also instrumental in the building and promotion of cycling at Melbourne's Saucer board track where the Victorian Arts Centre now is located.

Having researched a little of Major Taylor, Don Walker, Iver Lawson and Floyd McFarland, there is probably another three future blogs awaiting to be written. Hopefully I can publish future posts sooner than this one.

I suggest you get hold of a copy of Jim Fitzpatrick's book - Major Taylor in Australia and also a copy of the DVD based on Jim's research.