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WTIU to premiere Major Taylor documentary, sharing inspiring life story of the ‘world’s fastest man’

Feb 23, 2024

Indiana native and cycling great Major Taylor, left, prepares to race against Edmond Jacquelin in Paris. The new documentary Major ... Indiana native and cycling great Major Taylor, left, prepares to race against Edmond Jacquelin in Paris. The new documentary "Major Taylor: Champion of the Race" premieres Feb. 26 at 8 p.m. on WTIU. Photo courtesy of Indiana Public Media

Residents of Indianapolis may recognize the name Major Taylor from driving past the historic Major Taylor Velodrome along I-65 on the northwest side. What Hoosiers may not know is that Marshall “Major” Taylor, the namesake of the velodrome, was once the most famous athlete in the world.

Born in 1878 in Indiana, Taylor persevered through racial discrimination to become a world champion track cyclist, setting more than 20 world records and garnering global attention and acclaim.

Major Taylor, pictured here in 1906, persevered through racial discrimination to become one of the world's greatest athletes. Major Taylor, pictured here in 1906, persevered through racial discrimination to become one of the world's greatest athletes. Photo courtesy of Indiana Public Media

It is only fitting that the university that hosts the Little 500, the largest collegiate cycling race in America, would tell the story of one of the greatest cyclists of all time. “Major Taylor: Champion of the Race,” a new documentary about the Hoosier athlete’s extraordinary life, premieres on Feb. 26 at 8 p.m. on WTIU.

Todd Gould, senior television producer and director at WTIU, has produced several documentaries for the IU station and other national PBS affiliates during the past 30 years. He said he was drawn to the largely overlooked story of Taylor for several years before producing the documentary, an effort more than three years in the making.

“I’ve often thought that this has been a largely overlooked story about an influential Hoosier who, at the turn of the 20th century, was one of the most celebrated and famous people in the world,” Gould said. “Yet, so few people really knew or understood his story, not only as an accomplished athlete, but also as a civil rights pioneer who fought for greater social and economic opportunities in the heart of Jim Crow America.”

According to Gould, Taylor’s inspiring life story aligns with the station’s programming goals.

“Our mission at WTIU is to help shed a spotlight on Indiana’s social and cultural leaders who help elevate the conversation about the most important issues in America today,” Gould said.

I was inspired that (Taylor) didn't let the negativity that he faced throughout his life penetrate his spirit, said Marie... “I was inspired that (Taylor) didn't let the negativity that he faced throughout his life penetrate his spirit,” said Marietta Simpson, the documentary's narrator. Photo courtesy of Indiana Public Media

The project attracted three-time Grammy Award-winner and jazz legend Branford Marsalis, who provides the voice of Taylor in the documentary, reading lines from the cycling phenom’s autobiography “The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World.”

Gould also tapped leading talents from IU to contribute to the documentary, including the film’s narrator, Distinguished Rudy Professor of Music at IU’s Jacobs School of Music and world-renowned mezzo-soprano opera singer, Marietta Simpson. Emmy-winner Tyron Cooper, associate professor of Folklore and Ethnomusicology and director of the IU Archives of African American Music & Culture, composed and performed the score.

Simpson said she was inspired by Taylor’s story and surprised that she had not learned of his contributions before Gould asked her to narrate the documentary.

“There was a joy of cycling, a faith in something bigger than himself and a work ethic that kept Major Taylor going throughout his life,” Simpson said. “He broke his own records, and even when his body was badly broken, he fought back to race again. I was inspired that he didn’t let the negativity that he faced throughout his life penetrate his spirit.”

Cooper said he was inspired to convey a sense of forward movement in dynamic ways as he composed the documentary’s score.

(Taylor) was one of the most celebrated and famous people in the world, said Todd Gould, the film's producer. Yet, so fe... “(Taylor) was one of the most celebrated and famous people in the world,” said Todd Gould, the film's producer. “Yet, so few people really knew or understood his story, not only as an accomplished athlete, but also as a civil rights pioneer.” Photo courtesy of Indiana Public Media

“The music always thrusts forward, as it was with Major Taylor’s life experiences,” Cooper said. “From my perspective, Taylor’s is a life that says in simple terms to all of us, ‘Why complain? Just put your hand to the plow and move forward despite naysayers.’ Major Taylor, while certainly a feather in the cap of African Americans, is a lifeline to broader humanity if we all can learn from his work ethic, resilience and heart for others.”

The documentary also features interviews with several notable athletes, activists and historians, including ESPN’s Kevin Blackistone, track and field Olympic medal-winner Edwin Moses and Taylor’s great-granddaughter, Karen Brown Donovan. The interviews offer insights into Taylor’s impact on sports and on the world during the turn of the 20th century.

The crew spent more than three years researching archival newspaper articles and photos of Major Taylor from locations across the world.

“We are showcasing a number of rare historical archives that have never been shared with the public before,” Gould said. “This documentary will help shed a spotlight on many of these very rare artifacts, photos and personal letters from Taylor and other competitors throughout the world who help to tell his amazing story with remarkable color and deep historical insight.”

An official trailer and additional information about “Major Taylor: Champion of the Race” can be found on the WTIU website. The program will also be available to stream online for free and through the PBS App starting Feb. 26 at 8 p.m.

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Julia Hodson

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