Cycling, if cycling media, events and companies are to be believed, is a man’s game. Obviously, that perception is absolutely wrong – after all, cycling was central to the emancipation of women – but sadly that’s a perception that persists in so many people’s lives.
Susan B Anthony, a suffragette, said it best: “I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. It makes her feel as if she were independent. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
For this reason, I wanted to do a series of posts, identified with SheCycles, to highlight some incredible women, starting with the first woman to cycle around the world – Annie Kopchovsky, a.k.a. Annie Londonderry. You can read all the SheCycles posts by clicking this link.
There’s a great deal of misinformation about her, with at least some of it apparently having been started by Annie Kopchovsky herself. In a time when anti-semitism and blatant sexism was openly, often proudly displayed in all walks of life, being a woman, and a Jewish woman at that didn’t make for the smoothest of starts, but Annie was a remarkably determined and tough woman.
Annie was an immigrant from Latvia, who was 23 when she set off on her ground-breaking ride in 1894. For the sponsorship of US$100, she changed her name to Annie Londonderry, and displayed a board advertising the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company of New Hampshire on her bicycle.
Though married, with three young children at home, she hid that fact for most of her journey. It is doubtful that she travelled around the world on her bicycle, but rather that she travelled around the world with her bicycle. We know, for example, that Annie did part of the journey between Marseilles and Paris by train.
One of the most remarkable facts about her journey around the world was that Annie had first ridden a bicycle only days before setting off on her journey, which began in June 1894, and ended in September 1895. Well, that, and the fact that she finished the journey with a broken arm, sustained (she said) in a bike crash a few weeks earlier.
Annie was known to be exceedingly good at sensationalising her journey, which was needed to help her fundraise during her trip. After all, though US$100 was a fair amount of money in 1894, it wasn’t enough. We know that many of the stories she told weren’t actually true, but far from that making her a liar, to me it simply proves she was astute at getting newspapers around the world to pay her for outrageous stories of her adventures.
There were stories, widely reported, of a bet of US$10 000 that two businessmen had made on it being supposedly impossible for a woman to cycle around the world, and in those days, that sure was a headline-grabbing amount. We know today that the bet was most probably another work of fiction from Annie, but also that it had the desired effect of raising her profile significantly.
When Mark Beaumont 1st set a world record for the fastest circumnavigation of the world by bicycle, in places he needed a police escort, to guard against bandits, and the very real risk of abduction. Now consider that the world was a far more lawless place in 1894, and it’s a sad reflection of our society that women were, and still are, physically more at risk.
Annie Kopchovsky completed her incredible journey during a time that simply circumnavigating the world, by any means, was a huge accomplishment. To have done so by bicycle, as a lone woman, without much funding, and on top of it all, still a novice cyclist when she set off simply underlines what an exceptionally tough and determined human being she was.
It is women like Annie that led the charge to prove to the world that women are equal to men (a lesson that so many men still seem unable to grasp). As such, obviously, she’s a brave and shining example of women’s emancipation. Alongside that, and equal to it, I think she was simply an incredible human being, and that the world would be better off with more people like her.
Annie, from the bottom of my heart, I salute you, and I wish I can be just 10% as hardcore as you were.
The book about her life, written by a relative, is available here: https://www.worldofbooks.com/en-gb/books/peter-zheutlin/around-the-world-on-two-wheels/