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    The most influential figures in American bicycle history

    Sophia Willmes
    Sophia Willmes
    Mar 4, 2024 9 min
    The most influential figures in American bicycle history

    buycycle has just launched in the US. This means that the marketplace for Europe's bike-community will soon be gaining new American cycling friends and we can't wait. But it also means that we want to give them a proper welcome and introduce our European bike buddies to this other cycling culture. That's why today we're going to take a deep dive into the history and into the present of American cycling in which we take a closer look at those who have significantly shaped and developed it. Allow us: buycycles Hall of Fame of the American cycling culture:

    1. Marshall Walter "Major" Taylor - the Pioneer.

    He was the first African American to ever win a world champion title in sports. He broke world records a whopping seven times, and did so despite the fact that every  pedal stroke meant an arduous resistance to racial prejudice and discrimination. In 1890, at just 12 years old, he began working in a bicycle store in his hometown of Indianapolis, which opened the door to the world of bicycles for him. Not long after, he was already beating several top amateurs, and in 1895 he won his first long-distance race.

    His career got off to a remarkable start, bringing him a lot of attention, but also a lot of hate. As a Black athlete, he was banned several times from participating in races, and if he was allowed on the starting line, he was all too often banned from hotels and public places - "whites only". Despite the exhausting struggle with racism, "Major" Taylor had an impressive career, winning 42 of the 57 races he competed in in Europe. Even by modern standards, Taylor remains one of the most gifted cyclists in history and was the first important pillar in the ongoing fight against racism in cycling.

    2. Katherine "Kittie" Knox - the unwavering one.

    Kittie is now the star of one of our blog articles for the second time already. The talented seamstress (we have her "Bloomer" pants to thank for the fact that women eventually no longer had to cycle in dresses) was one of the first Black female cyclists. As such, she too had to struggle with the racial segregation and discrimination that prevailed in America, and being a woman didn't necessarily make things any easier in the 19th century.

    The talented athlete made history with her appearance in the League of American Cyclists. In 1893, she had joined this predominantly white and male club but was denied entry to the annual club meeting in 1895. Despite her active membership card, she was told that she had no business being here as a Black woman. Knox, however, did not accept this and insisted on her right to admission. Whether she actually made her way in is unclear - what is clear however is that she set an important and lasting example for equality and resistance.

    3. Gregory James LeMond - The first male yellow jersey for the U.S.

    He is considered to be one of the greatest American road cyclists in history. After all, "Greg" LeMond was the first male American to win the Tour de France (the first American Tour victory was actually won by Marianne Martin in 1984 in the "Grande Boucle Féminine", the female equivalent of the Tour de France at the time).

    Nevertheless, LeMond is a pioneer of the globalized cycling of the 1990s: he was the first cyclist on the cover of the prestigious Sports Illustrated, the first professional cyclist to sign a million-dollar contract with his team. He won the World Road Race Championships twice and the Tour de France an impressive three times - despite nearly dying in a hunting accident after his first Tour victory in 1986. In a surprising comeback two years later, however, he proved his endurance, won the Tour a second time, and has been a vehement opponent of doping in cycling ever since.

    Connie Carpenter-Phinney and Rebecca Twigg at the 1984 Olympics.

    4. Connie Carpenter-Phinney - the surprising one.

    Actually, she had a career as a speed skater made out for her. At just 14 years old, she competed at the Olympics in Sapporo and finished seventh in the 150m speed skating event. In 1976, the American championship title followed, and surely she would have turned in another stellar performance at the Olympics.... Until an ankle injury put an end to this dream of hers.

    So Carpenter-Phinney switched to cycling, took up cross racing and eventually turned to it full time. In the same year she was injured, she won her first national championships in track and road races, and in 1984 she won the first American gold medal in the Olympic road race, the first female cyclist ever to do so. That victory made history.

    Also, because hardly any picture embodies sportsmanship as much as the one of her and her colleague Rebecca Twigg: Immediately after crossing the finish line, where they were separated by only a few centimeters and neither of them could be sure of having reached it first, they put their arms around each other while still on their bikes.

    5. Rebecca Twigg - the restless one.

    She is one of the most diligent and successful American cyclists. The highly gifted athlete began studying IT at the University of Washington at the age of 14 and saw cycling more as a distraction from everyday university life. The teenager did not feel comfortable in the lecture halls. She cycled for the university team until the famous coach Edward Borysewicz recruited her for the national team. That same year, she won the American Road Race Championships for the first time.

    This first national title was followed over almost two decades by six world championship titles in the single pursuit, two Olympic medals in the road race and a bronze medal in the track pursuit. However, when she crashed and suffered a head injury at the age of 25, she took an interim leave from cycling, finishing her studies and working as a computer programmer. But even after her final exit from the UCI cosmos, she didn't quite seem to find the right access to "normal" life. She has been living homeless in Seattle since 2014.

    6. Lance Edward Armstrong - the inevitable one.

    Of course he belongs on this list, he who shaped modern American cycling culture and the great buzz around it like no other. He first competed in a triathlon at 16, launched his career as a professional cyclist with the Motorola team at 21, won his first UCI world championship at 22 and the Tour de France victory in 1999 finally knighted him. He wore the yellow jersey on the winner's podium for an unsurpassed seven consecutive years.

    By now we know that this is too good to be true. Already at his first Tour de France he was accused of using doping substances. In 2012, the USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency) was finally able to prove the accusations and Armstrong later admitted his doping himself. Consequently, he has since been banned from all official cycling events, had to pay millions in fines to the United States and all of his victories have been revoked.

    These days, he is primarily involved with the Livestrong Foundation, founded in 1997, which supports cancer sufferers by providing assistance and education. Armstrong himself was diagnosed with advanced testicular cancer in 1996, when he was given little chance of survival, which made his spectacular return to cycling three years later even more impressive.

    7. Floyd Landis - the mountain king.

    Few have inspired today's generation of riders as much as he has; he is, after all, one of the most versatile American cyclists. Floyd grew up in a Mennonite community that considered his cycling a lewd hobby and wanted to prohibit it, or at least make it as difficult as possible for him. The teenager completed his first race in sweatpants, because shorts were forbidden in his religion, and in order to train he had to get up in the middle of the night in freezing cold so that he could do his laps on the bike quietly and secretly.

    Landis grew up to be one of the greatest athletes of the 2000s, playing a key role in Lance Armstrong's Tour de France victories as a domestique on the U.S. Postal team until he won the Tour himself in 2006. He was the king of mountains, an ace in time trials and technically gifted on descents like no other, in short: a perfect all-rounder. However, his Tour de France title was stripped from him after it was proven that he had been under the influence of doping drugs.

    8. Tyler Hamilton - the monumental one.

    He is the only American to ever win one of cycling's five monuments. In 2003, he won"La Doyenne," the oldest of the monuments, the Liège-Bastogne-Liège one-day race. It was a highlight of his career, also because he was able to once again demonstrate his impressive talent in climbing on this topographically highly demanding route.

    As a talented climber, but also an excellent time trialist, he rode alongside Armstrong for a long time on the U.S. Postal team and served as an important helper on Armstrong's way to the yellow jersey. In 2004, Hamilton won gold in the time trial at the Summer Olympics, and even though an initial doping test came back positive, no wrongdoing could be proven against him due to a missing B sample.

    9. Ayesha McGowan - the trailblazer.

    For years, McGowan has advocated for greater visibility for Black women in the bicycle industry, demanding and supporting diversity and equality. She does this not only in sports teams, but also behind the scenes at events, clubs, bike manufacturers and in media coverage.

    The first time she got on a bike was as a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston to get from one class to another more conviently. She worked in daycare centers after graduation and taught private music lessons. That is, until she took the plunge into cycling in 2014, debuting at the Red Hook Criterium in Brooklyn, the first edition of the race that had men and women compete separately. That same year, she won the New York State Criterium Championships with amazing attacks that earned her not only the "Most Inspirational" jersey but also considerable media attention.

    Today, McGowan is a professional road cyclist on the Liv Racing Team, the first African-American woman ever on a professional cycling team. She is an encouraging and inspiring role model, especially for the young female cycling scene.

    10. Justin Williams - the unstoppable one.

    We have him to thank for breakneck crit-performances and one of the most exciting American teams. Since 2019, L39ION of Los Angeles, which he founded with his brother Cory, has advocated for more inclusion and representation in cycling and is actively involved in helping young talent. In part because Williams, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, knows that young Black men aren't afforded many opportunities in his neighborhood. He sees cycling as a chance to escape conflict with racist law enforcement officers.

    At 13 years old, Williams got on a bike for the first time with his father, an amateur racer, and discovered his great passion. An avid track racer, he won several national championships early on and was recruited for the national team in 2006. He also raced with them in Europe but then dropped out of the UCI cosmos for several years. Instead, he returned to his favorite discipline in 2016: criterium racing. He won 16 races in his first year back and his Legion team is still the undefeated champion of the scene. Bicycling Magazine didn't name Williams the world's most important cyclist in 2021 for nothing.

    Of course, many more than these ten impressive personalities are responsible for how the American bike culture lives, breathes and cycles today. Nevertheless, this post is a good start to better understand this scene and also to follow one or the other idea in Europe a little better...
    We are really looking forward to the new adventure in the USA and are curious to see how cycling will develop there. If you have any questions about Armstrong, Taylor, McGowan & Co. please feel free to contact our team and for everything about cycling you can have a look at the blog. For now, we wish you, as always: Happy browsing, happy cycling. In the US and in Europe.