In the midst of an Internet search for an antique bamboo bicycle, brothers Terry and Conrad Kerber stumbled upon a blurb about Marshall "Major" Taylor, a black cyclist from the early 20th century.
The Kerbers, who live in Excelsior and Chanhassen, respectively, were so intrigued that they ordered a rare copy of Taylor's unabridged autobiography. Despite the book's flaws, "we could not believe what we were reading," Terry Kerber said. "We both agreed we had to dig deeper."
That was a decade ago. As they continued to research Taylor, the brothers, who are also partners in the Retirement Advisory Group in Eden Prairie, found a tale "even more profound and newsworthy" than they'd expected, Terry said. Taylor was surrounded by many colorful characters from the era. And they hadn't realized the degree to which bicycling had "captivated the sporting public in differing ways for about a half century," Terry said.
Today, little is known about that scene, or of Taylor, a world champion cyclist from Indiana. The Kerbers hope to change that. They've co-authored a 418-page book — "Major Taylor: The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame."
Terry Kerber will talk about the book, and Taylor, at the preregistration event at the Tour de Tonka from noon to 1 p.m. Friday, Aug. 1, at Minnetonka High School.
The Kerbers spent a decade working on the volume, which recounts Taylor's struggles and triumphs. "We wanted it to read like a novel," Terry said.
Besides online sources, they synthesized newspaper articles from across the globe, paying translators 10 cents a word to supply English versions. The Kerbers also visited an Indianapolis museum to check out Taylor's scrapbooks.
They read plenty of books about other aspects of the time period, too, including the impact that bikes had on everything from music to clothing. For example, bloomers came out at that time, and they were liberating for women. And many popular songs of the time referred to romances blossoming via bike.
In the middle of the writing process, Conrad broke his back in a boating accident. So he penned most of the book on his back, Terry said. Skyhorse, an independent book publisher based in New York, released the book on May 6.
Now the authors hope to see it turned into a movie. They are in talks with Hollywood connections about that possibility, he added.
Adulation and obstacles
Taylor was 18 when he raced in his first professional race, held indoors at Madison Square Garden. He defeated Eddie Bald, the American sprint champion, in the half-mile race. "This gave him his first real international exposure," Conrad said.
In the next two years "he challenged for the overall title of American Sprint Champion, but white riders refused to race against him," Conrad said. Track owners wouldn't let him in.
In 1899, Taylor became the first black world champion in track cycling. The next year, he racked up the title of American sprint champion. "The American people loved him, and they rooted for him as the underdog," Terry said.
Taylor got all kinds of offers to relocate to France, where cycling was very popular. At one point, he turned down a $15,000 offer from overseas. A man of faith, he'd promised his mother he wouldn't race on Sundays, a big race day in Europe. Years went by, and after unsuccessful attempts to change his mind, Taylor was able to go abroad without competing on Sundays, Conrad Kerber said.
People flocked to get a glimpse of Taylor, especially when he competed against Edmund Jacquelin, the French Triple crown winner. "It was hysteria," Conrad said.
The Velodrome was packed. Le Velo, a cycling magazine in Paris that had a circulation of 25,000, sold 750,000 copies in a few days surrounding one match, according to Conrad Kerber.
And when Taylor raced in Australia in 1903 during his honeymoon, he "dominated like never before," Conrad said.
A quarter of a century later, people were still talking about Taylor. Yet when he returned to San Francisco in between races, he couldn't get a hotel room and restaurants refused to serve him, Terry said.
At 26, he had a mental breakdown. He didn't race for more than two years. Once he started recovering, his wife, Daisy, encouraged him to return to it. Taylor lost his first six races, but "then he proceeded to defeat multiple world champions," Conrad Kerber said.
Taylor retired a wealthy man, but during the Great Depression he lost just about everything, and his marriage fell apart. He penned an autobiography that he peddled out of a car.
When he died a pauper in 1932, nobody claimed his body for a week. Sixteen years after his death, the Schwinn family, of the Schwinn Bicycle Co., "found out about the circumstances of his undignified burial and financed exhuming his body and moving it to a more dignified location in Chicago," Conrad Kerber said. "They also held a heartfelt ceremony at the new grave site."
Staying 'true to who he was'
Pam Hile, an employee of Quality Bike Products in Bloomington who helped organize the Kerbers' talk, said the authors showed how Taylor influenced the sport — even the world.
The story is inspiring, what Taylor achieved as an athlete and in a time in which it wasn't easy to be a black athlete. The fact that he wouldn't race on Sundays, and that he stuck to his value system, "it spoke so highly of his character," she said. He was wined and dined in Australia, with ships to greet him, yet he always came back to America, even though he wasn't well received.
"He continued to show up and rise above all of that and to stay true to who he was," Hile said. "What a great story to get out there. It's compelling and motivating and inspiring."
David McNally, an author who lives in Chaska, read the book before it was published. He wasn't familiar with Taylor, but the book is "so eloquent, that's what grabbed me," he said. "It got better and better and more gripping and more interesting.
"It's such an extraordinary example of people who are willing to fight the system, to create a better world for all of us," McNally said.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.