[Note: Busy with some family issues through the weekend, so I'm pulling up some stories from previous years. Here's one about Peter Zheutlin's great-grandaunt, who became the first woman to ride a bicycle around the world.]
Imagine that you're a writer with a growing appetite for riding your bicycle.
Then consider that a researcher who had contacted your mother years earlier about your great-grandfather's sister — no one in the immediate family had ever heard of her — gets back in touch and asks if you had learned anything more about her.
Oh, and by way, that great-grandaunt had bicycled around the world more than 100 years ago.
There you have the circumstances that launched Peter Zheutlin on his quest to research and write a book about Annie Kopchovsky (aka Annie Londonderry): “Around the World on Two Wheels, Annie Londonderry's Extraordinary Ride.”
His pursuit of Annie Londonderry's story across time is full of as many twists and turns as Annie's solo bike ride in 1894 and 1895. And just as Annie started her journey with big dreams but little knowledge of bicycling, Zheutlin started with a virtually blank slate about his once famous relative.
Little to go on
In a recent interview, the Boston-based freelance writer said that when he began his research he googled her name and came back with just 6 hits, most of which were useless.
Meanwhile, chasing down a newspaper clipping about the start of her journey at the Massachusetts State House, Zheutlin was put in touch with a Texas historian. He had discovered her in El Paso while researching a book about the outlaw John Wesley Hardin.
“That an ancestor of mine — my Jewish great-grandaunt from Boston — had crossed paths with such a notorious character of the Old West seemed utterly implausible, and I was hooked.”
Knowing when Annie was in El Paso enabled Zheutlin to begin plotting her journey. As an old newspaper clipping reported that she came into town following the Santa Fe railroad, Zheutlin says he researched the old path of the railline.
Sure enough, newspapers in town after town had stories about the around-the-world adventurer arriving on her fixed-gear Sterling bicycle. Slowly but surely Zheutlin started charting her journey.
Even at that, Zheutlin says he soon realized it was going to take longer for him to plot her course than it took Annie to bicycle it. He hired a genealogist who found a newspaper account that mentioned she had three small children, which gave him hope that someone might still hold Annie's memorabilia.
Then in October 2003, they found Mary, Annie's granddaughter.
“The thrill of the chase really peaked when Mary and I connected,” Zheutlin said. “Mary told me, 'If you write my grandmother's story, it's the fulfillment of my dreams.'”
Mary didn't have Annie's diary, but she did have her scrapbook that included notes and mementos from the journey and an article she wrote for the New York World at the conclusion of her trip.
Rummaging through the basement, they uncovered glass slides that Annie had used to illustrate her lectures when she returned to the US.
As Zheutlin continued his research, one thing became clear — Annie might not have done all the things she claimed. Bicycle mileages in newspaper accounts didn't add up; stories she told one newspaper were altered in other articles; it seemed impossible that she could have bicycled the whole way.
I asked Zheutlin about that.
“I thought the story I was pursuing was the story of a woman who rode her bike around the world. I thought she should receive the recognition. As things didn’t add up, I was sort of disappointed.
“Then I embraced Annie as a 'snake oil salesman,' a public relations genius. What kind of woman would undertake this venture? It's a more complicated story than this around-the-world adventure. How did she connive to pull this whole thing off?
“Yes. A little disappointment was registered at first, but this became an incredible yarn. My mission no long became to tell about the around-the-world journey, it was just to tell the story.”
Her story gets out
When Zheutlin wrote an article in 2005 for Bicycling magazine, it was the first published account of her around-the-world trip since her New York World article in October 1895.
Since then, Annie has been getting her due in the book, on the Internet, and in speeches, bike tours and an upcoming documentary.
— Citadel Press published Zheutlin's book, “Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry's Extraordinary Ride,” in November 2007. It's available in a books-on-tape version and will soon be available in German.
— Zheutlin hosts a website, AnnieLondonderry.com.
— ExperiencePlus! bike tour company created a Annie Londonderry themed bicycle tour through France last year and is offering it again this year. The 12-day tour 385 miles from Paris to Marseille along the route used by Annie more than 100 years ago. Annie's bike trip was very popular in France, where crowds greeted her arrival in different towns and cycling clubs accompanied her.
The Tour includes lodging in 3 and 4 star hotels, breakfasts and dinners with wine, and a 24 – 27-speed bicycle (Annie used a fixie). Cycling Through History: Paris to Marseille on the Londonderry Trail.
— A group of experienced filmmakers calling themselves Spokeswoman Productions has begun working on a documentary: “The New Woman: The Life and Times of Annie “Londonderry” Kopchovsky.”
The team, headed by Gillian Klempner and Meghan Shea, has prepared a demo trailer (seen in part above) and shot some footage in period costumes that's been showing at some film festivals. They also took a fund-raising ride, outfitted in bloomers, in 2006 from Boston to New York City.
Meanwhile, Zheutlin is continuously appearing at wide-ranging events where people want to hear about Annie. Among his many engagements: a book festival in South Carolina, the International Cycling History Conference in Davis, bicycle clubs in New York, Arizona and New Hampshire, a genealogical conference in Massachusetts and the Jewish Community Center of Tucson.