In 1887, Thomas Stevens became the first man to circumnavigate the globe on a bicycle. A few years later, two wealthy Boston gentlemen became the first men to make an extravagant bet about whether or not a woman could perform a similar feat. It was an interesting question for the time. Could a woman, without exceptional means and without a male escort to protect her, rise to such an extreme physical challenge? The gentlemen needed only to find a woman who would be willing to try.
Annie Cohen Kopchovsky may not have seemed like a likely candidate. First of all, she was a young wife, responsible for three small children. Secondly, she had never ridden a bicycle. Still, no one could argue that Mrs. Kopchovsky had spunk. Convinced that anything a man could do, she most certainly could do, she volunteered for the trip.The rules of the bet stipulated that she must make stops in several specific world cities, complete the trip in just fifteen months (it had taken Stevens three years), begin the journey penniless, and through sponsorship raise $5,000 above her expenses.
Ms. Kopchovsky was well up to the task. First, she got herself an endorsement deal. The Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company provided her with $100 and she agreed to carry a placard for them and to ride under the name “Annie Londonderry.” Then a few days before her scheduled departure, she took a bicycle riding lesson or two. I might have done that in the other order, but then I don’t have Ms. Londonderry’s spunk.
With only her placard (and, I’m hoping some bottles of Londonderry), a change of clothes, and a pearl handled revolver, she started out on June 25, 1894 for the first leg of her journey, from Boston to Chicago.
By the time she reached Chicago, Londonderry had learned a few things. For one, she decided it made more sense to travel the other direction. Also, it was around this time that she traded in her skirts for bloomers (hopefully with padded spandex underneath) and her cumbersome 42-pound bicycle for a sleeker 21-pound men’s bike. She then headed to New York where she left for France (by boat of course, though perhaps she participated in a few spinning classes while on board the ship).
After riding though France, Londonderry hopped a steamer to Egypt. From there she travelled to Yemen and on to Sri Lanka and Singapore. After making mandatory appearances in China and Japan, she returned to the US at San Francisco, riding next to LA, El Paso, north to Denver, and finally finishing up in Chicago on September 23, 1895, one day shy of fifteen months. Along the way, Ms. Londonderry accumulated sponsorships and was cheered by enthusiastic supporters. Surviving injury and at times danger, Ms. Londonderry proved that a woman alone in a man’s world could rise to whatever challenge she took in mind.
Now if you’ve followed this blog for very long, you’ve perhaps read a number of posts about bicycles. I assure you that this has far more to do with the historical significance of that particular vehicle than it does with my enthusiasm (which is genuine, but at best, sporadic) for the sport. In the late 19th century, the bicycle was much more than a great way to get some exercise. It was the impetus for the introduction of paved roadways in the US so that when a pair of bicycle manufacturing brothers (Frank and Charles Duryea) invented the automobile, there was someplace to drive it. Another pair of brothers in the bicycle business (Orville and Wilbur Wright) would eventually help us tame the skies as well.
And thanks to some spunky ladies, including Annie ‘Londonderry’ Kopchovsky, the bicycle also offered women a freedom that few other things before it had. Shortly after Kopchovsky’s journey Susan B. Anthony famously said: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. 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…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
There’s no question that American women of today have a great deal more freedom and opportunity than our ancestors once did and I’ve been particularly blessed to be surrounded by strong women my whole life (and, thankfully, many supportive strong men as well). One of the many strong women in my life is my big sister who just this past week completed her 2013 goal of riding 2013 miles on her bicycle.
She posted her success on Facebook, adding that by completing her “bike the year” goal for the fourth year in a row, she had biked more than 8000 miles over the past four years. I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of tired just typing that. And especially when I consider that her mileage represents about a third of the way around the entire world.
To put this even further into perspective for myself, I rode my bike as part of my preparation for this post (if I were a more thorough and less practical historian, I would have worn bloomers), which brings my grand total up to somewhere around 70 miles for the year so far. Turns out I’m not as spunky as my sister, either.
Now if you do the math (and if you don’t believe me, then you’ll have to because I haven’t shown my work), then you’ll realize that Ms. Londonderry rode her bike approximately 18, 580 miles. That’s technically 6,321 miles short of the circumference of the earth. But if we assume participation in a couple of spinning classes then I’d be willing to throw in a few more for that and call it good.
Still, if you feel the need to cry foul, you wouldn’t be alone. Many of Ms. Londonberry’s contemporaries accused her of traveling with a bike more than she traveled on one and I will be happy to field your complaints just as soon as you log 18, 580 miles on your bicycle.
As for my sister, I certainly wouldn’t bet against her if she said she was going to spend the next fifteen months circumnavigating the globe on her bicycle. But thanks to the legacy of some spunky ladies, she has lots of opportunities to show her strength in other ways as well. I guess a third of the way around the world in four years will do for now.