Annie Londonderry: the first woman to cycle around the world
It took a remarkable woman to set off to ride a bicycle around the world in 1890s America: Annie Kopchovsky had a husband, three children and responsibilities as a housewife. It was not just a novelty for a young woman to leave those duties, but to do it in pursuit of a world bicycle tour was unheard of. The wager that set her off on her adventure might have been a myth: in a time of emerging world travel and public fascination with round-the-world efforts, inspired perhaps by Phileas Fogg in the 1873 novel Around the World in 80 Days, two men had reportedly made the claim that no woman could encircle the globe on a bicycle within 15 months while also earning $5,000. Annie took up the bet.
Perhaps it was an honest bet; perhaps she fabricated it as her token to adventure, fame and freedom from her home life – either way, she set off from Boston, Massachusetts, in June 1894 on a 42-pound Columbia women’s bicycle, with a change of clothes and a pearl-handled revolver. Incredibly, she had never ridden a bicycle before accepting the challenge; a couple of lessons were her only preparation. She was to seek out the American consuls in the cities she visited as proof of travel, and the required $5,000 earnings would come from carrying advertising boards. Her first sponsor was Londonderry Lithe Spring Water, whose payment of $100 had come on the condition that she adopt their brand as her name. This she duly did, and her alter ego was born: Mlle Londonderry, daring world-traveller.
Riding westwards she soon reached Chicago, where the whole venture nearly came to a premature end. Perhaps it was the exertion of riding as a novice, the heavy bicycle and even heavier skirts, or the looming mountains and plains, and the oncoming winter. It had taken several months to reach that point and the clock was ticking on her 15-month wager. The New York Times reported her decision to abandon the journey, and she turned back, ready to retrace her steps home. But before returning she exchanged her clunky bicycle for a man’s 21-pound Sterling and adopted a man’s riding suit. More suitably dressed, on a lighter bicycle and certainly physically fitter than when she had departed, she arrived back on the east coast once more dedicated to the task. She boarded a boat from New York to France to continue her adventure.
Bold, charismatic and beautiful, she captured the imagination of the world’s press: stories of her billboard-laden bicycle appeared frequently in news reports. Labelled the ‘intrepid traveller’, she sought sponsorship wherever she went, making public appearances, selling pictures and giving outlandish interviews where she would spin wildly improbable accounts of her travels. She proved to be an excellent speaker, enthralling audiences with her tales, and an excellent rider, reportedly joining in cycling events and races in the places through which she passed. Posters and placards covered her and her bicycle, and she was often dressed head to toe in ribbons advertising anything from milk to perfume.
But it had been a slow start and Annie had lost much time. In order to be home within the 15 months, she needed to pick up the pace, so after riding south through France, she boarded a boat across the Mediterranean to the Middle East, cycling through Saudi Arabia and Yemen before another boat trip landed her in China. Short cycle trips in Korea and Japan were followed by a Pacific crossing by steamer. ‘She has a degree of self-assurance somewhat unusual to her sex,’ reported the San Francisco Chronicle as she arrived back in the United States.
From San Francisco to El Paso on the Texan border she pedalled, then journeyed up through the mid states to Chicago by bicycle and train, finally arriving back to Boston 450 days after her departure. Though more a journey with a bike than a journey on a bike, she won her wager, and proved herself a master of self-promotion and grit. It had not only been a simple test of a woman’s physical and mental endurance, but a demonstration of how a woman could fend for herself in the world. On her return she moved her family to New York and wrote sensational articles for the New York World about her journey, calling herself the New Woman: ‘If that term means I believe I can do anything that any man can do.’ The New York World hailed the trip as ‘the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman’.
Her fame soon passed and she died in relative obscurity in 1947; her round-the-world ride was not even mentioned in the death notice placed by her family. It wasn’t until the beginning of the twenty-first century that her story came to light once more; after some sustained detective work, her great-grandnephew Peter Zheutlin painstakingly pieced together her tale: the legend of Annie Londonderry, the first woman to bicycle around the world.
This is an excerpt from my book ‘Pedal Power: inspirational stories from the world of cycling’