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Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride

Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride, by Peter Zheutlin

Peter Zheutlin, Annie Londonderry’s great-great nephew, has written a masterful homage to his great-great aunt, while recounting the extraordinary “ride” of a remarkable woman.

Annie Cohen was born in Latvia in around 1870, and moved to Boston as a child. She married Max Kopchovsky in 1888 and had three children in the following four years. In 1894, presumably as part of a wager, she agreed to undertake a bicycle tour around the globe, following the example of Thomas Stevens who had made a similar trip a decade earlier. The details of the wager were either too vague or too detailed, depending on which story Annie decided to tell. Zheutlin even suggests that Annie herself may have invented the whole wager story to both rationalize and to sensationalize her voyage (after, of course, the famous wager of Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s 1872 novel, Around the World in 80 Days).  According to Annie, the wager allowed her fifteen months to circle the globe and required that she earn her upkeep during the trip. Although not active in the women’s movement, Annie was surely sympathetic to the plight of the “New Woman,” much written about in the papers and the media in general in the 1890’s. As Zheutlin writes: “the bicycle represented to Annie a literal vehicle to the fame, freedom, and material wealth she so craved.”

So on June 27, 1894 Annie left Boston. She quickly adopted the name “Annie Londonderry” to capture her first and most prominent sponsor: Londonderry Lithia Water from Nashua, New Hampshire. The name stuck throughout her round-the-world trip.

She brought along handbills explaining her trip and formal photographs of herself, material to sell along the route. Annie went to New York and on to Chicago, arriving on September 24th. While she started as a novice cyclist with just a couple of riding lessons before the trip, by the time she arrived in Chicago she had learned a few things.  Annie had lost about twenty pounds and realized that the Columbia woman’s bicycle that she was riding was too heavy for long-distance travels and that her attire was unsuited for riding “a wheel,” as a bicycle was called. She and other women who adopted cycling at the time rejected the restrictive clothing of the late Victorian era: corsets, long and heavy skirts, long-sleeved blouses with high collars. Instead, Annie adopted baggy trousers cinched at the knee. After starting in long skirts and a traditional blouse and jacket, she changed into bloomers in Chicago and later would wear a man’s riding suit, which shocked many of the people she encountered.

Zheutlin aptly places Annie and her trip as part of the ‘bicycle craze” of the ‘90s, which saw the undertaking by several people, women included, to cycle long distances and the establishment of cycling clubs in almost every town. These clubs and their members formed Annie’s main basis of support along the way. The love of cycling definitively involved women at all social ranks, and it is estimated that the number of female cyclists grew between one hundred and four hundred times between 1891 and 1896. Women’s fondness for cycling became possible when the so-called “ordinary” bicycle (the “penny-farthing”) gave way to the “Safety model,” which is a clear precursor of the modern bicycle insomuch as the wheels are of the same size and the weight becomes less of an issue.

In Chicago, Annie almost gave up her touring plans until she contacted the Sterling Cycle Works Company, which gave her a bicycle that weighed about twenty pounds (half the weight of her Columbia woman’s bike). The new bike had a man’s diamond frame and no brakes. Like the Columbia, her new Sterling had one single gear and no freewheel mechanism, much like the fixed-gear bicycle messenger bikes so popular in many cities today

In Chicago in late September, Annie realized that she would not have enough time to cross the Great Plains and the Rockies to catch her steamship in San Francisco, so she decided to reverse her itinerary by going back to the east coast and taking a boat to Europe.

Annie arrived in Le Havre on December 3, 1894. Although her trip in France started on a negative note: customs officials impounded her bike, her money was stolen and the French reporters wrote repeatedly that she was too muscular to be truly feminine and labeled her as belonging to the category of “neutered beings.” Still, Annie claimed that her voyage through France became the highlight of her whole tour. Suffering cold weather and rain, Annie made it from Paris to Marseilles in two weeks, although she took the train for over two hundred kilometers before Lyon. In Marseilles she was given a hero’s welcome and a grand farewell as she sailed to Egypt and beyond.

The trip from Marseilles back to the United States in 1895 was filled, according to Annie’s stories, with dangerous adventures and dramatic encounters. Zheutlin guesses that she did not ride much across Asia, although she eventually regaled her listeners back in the States with great stories about the places she visited. She finally arrived in San Francisco on March 23, 1895 and cycled first to Los Angeles, then on to El Paso, and north to Denver where she arrived August 12, 1895. Surely she took the train most of the way back to Boston, where she arrived on September 24, fifteen months after she had left.

Zheutlin insists on the aspects that make Annie remarkable and that do not reside just on of the physical feat of enduring the fatigue and the hardships of traveling in foreign countries. He stressed that she is exceptional for the self-confidence and the lack of inhibitions she exuded, particularly in the unorthodox attire she wore everywhere after Chicago; the divergent stories she told reporters; and the brashness and exaggeration of some of her comments. She showed a brilliant ingenuity and inventiveness in self-promoting her adventure and earning money: she sold photos, silk handkerchiefs, autographs, souvenir pins, and paraded through towns with advertising labels all over her body and her wheel. She announced her arrival by sending telegrams or telegraph messages to newspapers and cycling clubs of upcoming towns. Indeed, she exemplified the “New Woman” in the best and worst ways possible.