From Corsets to Caffeine: What Annie Londonderry did for Women’s Cycling…

Annie skirt
Summer in Australia. The aroma of sunscreen and barbeques coupled with the background commentary of the cricket on the TV. For those of us who enjoy our cycling, summer also means shocking tan lines – strangely enough a badge of honour amongst fellow cyclists yet a source of embarrassment when we find ourselves flying solo or in the company of non-riders (or at the swimming pool..). 

Summer to those of us who race our bikes also means a very full calendar of competition. We’re blessed here in Victoria to host several of the big events – including the Mitchelton Bay Series Crits – four days of lightning fast racing where in 2014, the elite women’s race will welcome two times World Champion Italian Giorgia Bronzini, several national champions, a host of Olympians and top international and domestic talent within the 80 odd starters.  A few days later, the travelling elite circus moves to Ballarat for the annual Australian National Championships before travelling west to Adelaide for the first UCI World Tour event of the year – the Santos Tour Down Under. For the first time in 2014, there will also be a Santos Women’s Tour paralleling the men’s race; again highlighting the tremendous growth and developing talent within women’s cycling Down Under.

These three events will draw thousands of people to watch some fantastic racing. The 2013 Santos Tour Down Under for example attracted close to 800,000 spectators during the week of racing. The regional city of Ballarat during the week of ‘Nationals’ is a sea of roof – rack laden cars, Gatorade and pasta consumption and those afore-mentioned shocking tan lines. And that’s just the spectators to the racing.

There is no doubt that cycling; recreational and competitive has exploded. Estimates suggest that there are about 1 billion bicycles currently rolling around the world. In Australia, 11 million bikes have been traded in the past ten years; that’s two million more than the number of cars for the same timeframe. One half of the population in the UK and the USA owns a bike.

It would be perhaps easy to view this growth and the current healthy status of cycling and specifically women’s cycling in isolation. Quite frankly, I never really gave it a second thought. I was too caught up in my own self-importance; the pre- race nerves, ensuring the correct tire pressure or adhering to the post-race thirty minute golden recovery window for example.  That was, until a couple of weeks ago when I met, through the pages of history, Annie ‘Londonderry’ Kopchovsky.

Annie Who?

Simply put, this 160cm and 48kg Jewish mother of three from Boston is a major contributor to the reason my fellow competitors and I will line up at the Bay Crits later this week. And no-one has really heard of her. Annie undertook what one New York Newspaper called “The most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman”. Travelling only with a set of clothes and a pearl-handled revolver, Annie became the first woman to circle the world by bike. The year?  1895.

What makes her story even more remarkable is that up until she farewelled her three children and husband at a time when a woman’s place was most certainly not aboard a 20kg bike dressed in the full Victorian garb of the day, is that she had never ridden a bike in her life. Annie was settling a bet between two wealthy businessmen; that no woman could match the same feat achieved by Thomas Stevens the decade previously. The wager required Annie to start penniless, accept no gratuities and complete the trip in 15 months. Additionally she was required to earn $5000 above her expenses en route. Should she succeed, a $10,000 prize awaited her on return.  For a woman of the 1890’s to abandon her family responsibilities and undertake such a mission was immense. The records tell of her own brother even refusing to say goodbye.

Prior to a pedal ever being turned however, was a signal that although this woman may have been somewhat diminutive in physical structure, she was no lightweight in the entrepreneurial arena. Annie secured her first corporate sponsor; the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company of New Hampshire, placing a placard on her bike as well as showing some real dedication by changing her last name.  As she made her way around the world, this married mother capitalised on her being blessed with good looks and covered herself, for a fee, virtually from head to toe in advertising billboards and placards selling what her biographer refers to as “everything from milk to perfume”.

Even to undertake such a journey in the present day would be a considerable undertaking. The isolation, fear and physical toll would be significant. Annie however, was a special breed. “She seems made only of muscles and nerves and in spite of her petite size, gives the impression of remarkable energy”, commented one French newspaper on meeting her.

Cycling and the Suffrage Movement

Annie’s journey did not happen in isolation. She was undertaking it at the intersection of two of the most dominant social phenomena of America in the1890’s; the women’s suffrage movement and the burgeoning cycling craze. More than two million bicycles or ‘wheels’ as they were known initially, were sold in 1897 – that’s one for every thirty people. It is estimated that some 3,000 American businesses were involved in one way or another in the bicycle trade. Cycling in that decade was “nothing less than a general intoxication, an eruption of exuberance like a seismic tremor that shook the economic and social foundations of society and rattled the windows of its moral outlook” (Leonard, 1983).

Annie Londonderry seized on that fervour and reinvented herself as one of “The New Women”; a term used to portray the modern woman who broke from the conservative and traditional role of both a wife and mother. She used the bicycle, “…a much needed want for women in any station of life”, stated a cycling periodical in 1894, “…it knows no class distinction, is within reach of all and rich and poor alike have the opportunity of enjoying this popular and healthful exercise”.

Perhaps the most significant statement regarding the legacy of Annie’s contribution comes from one of the leading suffragists, Susan B. Anthony, who credited that “…Bicycling has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world”. 

The two round wheels, not vastly different to what we recreate, compete, commiserate, gossip and celebrate on today, became a major symbol of freedom.

Fast Forward

120 years on, things are vastly different. And they are also relative. Debates continue around equality in prize money at the elite level. Representative groups such as the Women’s Cycling Association have been formed from those inside the sport. Women, recreational or competitive, are demanding better service and more consideration to be given to our different shaped bodies and the designers and makers of both bikes and cycling apparel are listening.

The Australian National Road Series; the racing series for elite women in Australia has expanded to eight tours in 2014. Women’s Teams are growing in both numbers and talent. Cycling peak bodies are becoming much more interested in attracting more women at both recreational and competitive level. Just this week, Cycling Victoria commenced targeted surveys requesting feedback on how to attract more women to the sport. Women’s Commissions within these bodies are doing a fantastic job at increasing racing, training and social opportunities for women. This trend seems international. Recent research shows that 60% of bicycle owners between the ages of 18-27 in the USA for example, are women.

We have much to both celebrate and to continue to achieve.

As my Bicycle Superstore teammates and I jump aboard our lightweight and incredibly comfortable Liv/giant Women’s specific carbon race bikes to compete against some of the best in the world this summer, we’ll have placards of our own, albeit much more subtle than Annie’s. We’ll be piloting amazing machines and sporting relaxed, functional clothing speaking their own tale, all quietly whispering a story of evolution, of immense courage and of freedom – set in motion by the direct actions of our Wheelwomen sisters many years ago.  There won’t be a tight fitting corset in sight. Only tight fitting women’s specific lycra.

To the woman who shares her last name with my county of birth, Annie the first lap of the Bay Crits is for you…

New Team

Now, what was the new AIS recommended temperature again for my ice bath?

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