Professor of History Robert Turpin presents research at International Cycling History Conference

During the 2020−21 academic year Robert Turpin took a sabbatical from his many responsibilities as Assistant Director of the Honors Program, Assistant Dean of Arts and Humanities, and Associate Professor of History to focus on writing his second book. Now, two years later, his researching, writing, and editing is coming to fruition.

This new book will build on many of the topics he covers in his courses—including gender, race, issues of power, and the way all these things change and are represented throughout history—and examine them through the context of cycling.

“What I'm getting to with the conclusion of the book, the big, overarching thing is that today cycling is still a very white sport. I was a competitive cyclist before graduate school, and teaching, and kids, and all that, and one thing I noticed is that very rarely did I see Black people competing,” Turpin said. “It's seen as a very white, middle class, male-dominated sport. That's changing, I believe, but it hasn't always been that way. It's not always been this very white sport.”

With this new book Turpin seeks to challenge the idea of cycling as a sport that has always been strictly Caucasian, focusing on the history of the sport and specifically homing in on Black cyclists and the impact they have had on the sport throughout its history.

Now that the book has been sent off for peer review and is in the final stages of production, Turpin is presenting the research behind the book at the 32nd annual International Cycling History Conference which was held July 16–20 in Indianapolis, Indiana.

At this conference academics from all over the world gather to present their cutting-edge research within the world of cycling. This year the conference will center around Indianapolis-native Marshall “Major” Taylor, a historic Black cyclist who competed and rose to the top of the sport in the 1890s and early 1900s.

“He was the first international sports superstar, and the first Black superstar cyclist. He was world champion in 1899 and was a really big deal. He traveled to Paris, he traveled all around France, he went to Australia, he raced all around the world and made a lot of money,” Turpin said. “There are several biographies about him already, and he wrote an autobiography, so we know quite a bit about him, but what my research is focusing on is the other Black cyclists before Major Taylor, some of whom were fairly well known regionally in the United States.”

The first chapter of Turpin’s book begins before Taylor’s rise in the cycling field, and before the advent of the triangular bicycle, or “safety bicycle,” that most cyclists use today.  Before the safety bicycle, people rode an older version of bike with one large and one small wheel referred to as “high wheelers,” “penny farthings,” or “ordinaries.” This early history, and the Black cyclists who rode during this time, will be the focus of Turpin’s presentation at the conference.

“If you rode a bicycle in the 1880s you were seen as daring and athletic. It was kind of dangerous, and the people who did it showed off how brave they were, but it was also a demonstration of class. To have a bicycle in the 1880s showed off not only something that's expensive, but something that's a new piece of technology,” Turpin said. “Bicycles were seen as a huge technological advancement, and African Americans were buying and riding bicycles to show not only, ‘Hey, I've got the means, I’ve got financial security,’ as a demonstration of their freedom, but also that they were technologically savvy.”

By focusing on this early history of cycling before the safety bicycle and the success of Taylor, Turpin hopes to challenge some of the ideas held even by his fellow academics at the conference.

“I'm sure Major Taylor will be talked about a lot since he is the focus for this one, but I’m going to say some things that might challenge the people who are there to talk about Major Taylor, because one of the things that people say about him is that he broke the color line, and I'm going to argue he didn't,” Turpin said. “Yeah, he got to race, but he was the only person and I think his success actually made it harder for other Black cyclists to compete.”

The “color line” was a line of demarcation drawn by the League of American Wheelmen (now known as the League of American Bicyclists) in 1894 that segregated Black and white cyclists in competition. This line established Taylor as the only Black cyclist allowed to race professionally, barring all other Black cyclists from competing in the sport at the highest level.

This new ruling came at a time when many Black cyclists were becoming successful in the sport, and effectively made it impossible for them to continue professionally or to make a career out of cycling. According to Turpin, this ruling stayed on the League of American Wheelmen’s books until the 1990s, although it stopped being enforced earlier.

“We have to face these skeletons in the closet; that's part of history. We have to face these things from our past, and I think cycling as a sport and an industry needs to look in the mirror,” Turpin said. “Even though this happened a long time ago they need to think about why it is such a white sport today, and to talk about how it has this history of being intentionally exclusive. When we talk about growing and healing, we need to look at the past and the injuries we have caused and face that before we try to move on.”

While Turpin believes the research presented in his book is important to the field and sport of cycling, it is also important to the study of history more generally. He often brings his personal research into the classroom and said that the history of racial segregation in cycling is one that can be applied to other fields, industries, and events throughout history.

Not only does he plan to bring his research back into the classroom to enrich his lessons at Lees-McRae, but Turpin said doing this research reignites his passion and excitement for the field of history.

“This is what keeps me excited about history. Pursuing my own research, doing my writing, making original arguments, contributing to the field—all that is what fuels my fire. If I want to get students excited about history, then I need to be excited about it,” Turpin said. “I've taught a cycling history class before, we have a Cycling Studies minor, and that helps our school not only be a school where you can come to ride bicycles, but a school where you can come to learn about bicycles and their history. If you want to go into the industry in the future, it's really valuable to know the history of the thing you're trying to be a part of.”

Photos courtesy of Cyrille Vincent.

By Maya JarrellJuly 21, 2022