Annie Londonderry's amazing bike trip around the world

If you're familiar with the world of bicycle touring, you probably already know that the first cyclist to pedal around the world was Tom Stevens, who left San Francisco on a penny farthing in 1884.

But who was the first woman to accomplish the feat?

Let me introduce you to Annie Londonderry, a Bostonian in her early 20s who undertook the journey 10 years later in 1894. Credited with accomplishing the bicycle journey by Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and countless other newspapers at the time, her story is one of high adventure and extreme risk for a woman travelling alone in the late 19th century.

Her stories involve run-ins with bandits, nights spent sleeping in barns or open fields, visiting the front of the China-Japan war where she was wounded and taken prisoner, accidents out on the road, and tiger hunts in the jungle from atop an elephant. She did it all to win a bet that a woman could bicycle around the world.

Good story

But a word of caution. I just completed the recent book about her travels — “Around the World on Two Wheels; Annie Londonderry's Extraordinary Ride” — that suggests that maybe all was not as it seems; Annie never let the facts stand in the way of a good story.

Widely celebrated as well as castigated in her time, her story was quickly shrouded by the mists of history and soon had dropped from bicycling lore until 2003 when Boston-area author Peter Zheutlin began delving into the monumental trip by this woman, his great-grand aunt.

What he discovered in her scrapbooks and countless clippings from newspaper morgues along her route has become an entertaining book about bicycling and hucksterism in a bygone era. For instance:

  • Her actual name was Annie Kopchovsky. She wasn't single, as she usually implied, but was a Jewish mother with three children, aged 5 and under, who were cared for by her husband Max back home.
  • The timeline of her 18-month trip culled from newspapers along her route often defies possibility given her alleged mode of transportation.
  • She was a masterful promoter, achieving publicity at one newspaper after another as she traveled around the world. She was often accompanied by local cycling clubs as she ventured from town to town in the bike crazy late 19th century and was often met by huge crowds, especially in France.
  • She helped rewrite the clothing code of female cyclists as she soon gave up the corset and heavy skirts of the time for the much more liberating — but scandalous — bloomers. Eventually she bicycled in men's pants.
  • She launched sports marketing by female athletes as she changed her name to that of the Londonderry water bottling company and even had her picture taken with the Londonderry placard on her bike. Annie also wore ribbons with the names of other sponsors.
  • With almost no experience bicycling, she leaves Boston on a 42-pound women's Columbia, switches direction in Chicago and returns on a Sterling Bicycle Works men's bicycle at half the weight.
  • The first?

    There's a lot in Zheutlin's book for those who enjoy reading about bicycle adventure, or about the New Women's movement, or about the state of the world at the turn of the previous century. I highly recommend it.

    But was Annie the first woman to ride around the planet? I'll let you decide after you read the book. If you decide she doesn't deserve the honor, you'll have to admit that this woman had a lot of chutzpah and helped change people's perceptions about what women could accomplish.

    Tomorrow, read an interview with the author Peter Zheutlin and learn about an upcoming documentary on her journey

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