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Annie Londonderry - The First Woman to Bicycle Around the World

Explore the remarkable journey of Annie Londonderry, the courageous woman who defied norms in 1894 by becoming the first woman to bicycle around the world. Delve into her audacious adventure, challenges faced, and the legacy she left behind in this captivating narrative.

Meet the courageous woman, Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, known as Annie Londonderry, who in 1894–95 became the first woman to bicycle around the world. Born in Latvia in 1870 and moved to the United States in 1875, Annie's journey began against the backdrop of a rapidly evolving cycling culture. Not long after Thomas Stevens (1884-1886) made history as the first person to circle the globe by bicycle, Annie embarked on her audacious adventure. However, those ten years were enough to allow technology to create better bikes. The introduction of the "safety bicycle," with wheels of equal size and a chain mechanism that allowed pedaling to drive the back wheel, along with the arrival of the pneumatic tire, had transformed cycling from an acrobatic and somewhat perilous enterprise into a pleasurable, less hazardous, and even utilitarian recreation. Bicycles were mass-produced as men increasingly used them to commute to work.



Annie Londonderry and her bicycle


 In 1894, already a mother of three children, Londonderry embarked on an audacious journey. The New York World declared it "the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman." But what drove her to take such daring action? Marriage to Max Kopchovsky and the arrival of three children settled her into a seemingly ordinary life. However, a newspaper article about a wager between two wealthy Boston businessmen, claiming no woman could cycle the globe, sparked a fire within Annie.

A $10,000 prize, an enormous sum in the 1890s, awaited if any woman succeeded. This was no mere test of physical endurance and mental fortitude; it was a test of a woman's ability to fend for herself in the world.

On June 25, 1894, Annie Cohen Kopchovsky stood before a crowd of 500 friends, family, suffragists, and curious onlookers at the Massachusetts State House. She adopted the name "Annie Londonderry" after securing sponsorship from the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company. They paid her $100 to attach a large sign to her bicycle advertising their product, and she agreed to go by the name "Annie Londonderry" for the duration of her trip. She was a novice cyclist when she set out, and her first vehicle was a poor one, a clunky Columbia bicycle weighing 42 pounds. The roads were often unpaved, and it took her three months to make it first to New York and then to Chicago. By then, it was late September, too late in the year to begin a ride across the Great Plains.



Annie Londonderry's bicycle

On her route to Chicago, she chose cycling routes published in tour books by the League of American Wheelmen. These tour books contained distances, road conditions, landmarks, places to eat, and hotels that offered cyclist discounts, providing company as many other cyclists rode the same routes. When she arrived in Chicago on September 24, she had lost 20 pounds and the desire to continue. Winter was coming, and she realized she could not make it across the mountains to San Francisco before snow started to fall. Prior to leaving Chicago to ride home to Boston, she met with Sterling Cycle Works, whose offices and factory were located on Carroll Avenue. There she received a new bicycle. With a new bicycle weighing less than half the first one, she instead reversed course, returned to New York, and took a steamship to Europe.

 

There, she rode with great fanfare from Paris to Marseilles. When she departed on shipboard bound for Alexandria, Egypt, on January 20, 1895, a crowd of thousands, including a drum and bugle corps and a phalanx of local cyclists, showed up to see her off. Londonderry left Marseille on the 413-foot steamship Sydney with only eight months to get back to Chicago. The wager did not dictate a minimum cycling distance, so she sailed from place to place, completing day-trips at each stop along the way.

 

She visited many places, including Alexandria, Colombo, Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Nagasaki, and Kobe. On March 9, 1895, Londonderry sailed from Yokohama, Japan, and reached the Golden Gate in San Francisco on March 23. At one point, she and another cyclist were almost killed by a runaway horse and wagon. They received minor injuries, yet she claimed that she had been knocked out and taken to a hospital in Stockton, where she coughed up blood for two days. In fact, she had given a lecture in Mozart Hall in Stockton the evening after the accident. She rode to Los Angeles, through Arizona and New Mexico, and on to El Paso.



An illustration of Kopchovsky in The San Francisco Examiner (March 1895)


The Southern Pacific Railway tracks offered many benefits to cyclists traveling across southern California and Arizona, and Londonderry took advantage of them. Riders could follow service roads made of hard-packed dirt and stop at shelters for train crews, where they could get a meal and a bath. From El Paso, she traveled north, leaving Albuquerque on July 20, 1895, bound for Denver, where she arrived on August 12. She rode the train across most of Nebraska because of the muddy roads. Near Gladbrook, Iowa, she broke her wrist when she crashed into a group of pigs and was forced to wear a cast for the remainder of her trip.

She earned her way selling photographs of herself, appearing as an attraction in stores, and by turning herself into a mobile billboard, renting space on her body and her bicycle to advertisers eager to benefit from this colorful spectacle on wheels.

On September 12, 1895, Londonderry arrived in Chicago, accompanied by two cyclists she had met in Clinton, Iowa, and collected her $10,000 prize. She had made it around the world fourteen days under the allowed time. She was back home in Boston on September 24, arriving fifteen months after she had left. When she published an account of her exploits in the New York World on October 20, 1895, the newspaper headline described it as "the Most Extraordinary Journey Ever Undertaken by a Woman." Despite criticism that she traveled more "with" a bicycle than on one, she proved a formidable cyclist at impromptu local races en route across America. She arrived with a broken arm, having pedaled for hundreds of miles with the injury, which she said was from a fall.

She returned to her family when the trip was complete and never again evidently made bicycling an important part of her life. She and her husband had a fourth child in 1897, and Kopchovsky left home again for a time and worked as a saleswoman in Ukiah, Calif., about 115 miles north of San Francisco. When she returned, she and her husband lived in the Bronx and operated a small clothing business, employing 20 people. The business was destroyed by a fire in the 1920s, but Kopchovsky used the insurance money to start another business in Manhattan, called Grace Strap & Novelty, with a man named Feldman she met at a Horn & Hardart restaurant.

Kopchovsky’s celebrity, though it lingered through the completion of her trip, was short-lived, and her adventure would probably have remained obscure were it not for Peter Zheutlin, a journalist and cycling hobbyist who, decades after her death, became intrigued by what little he knew of Kopchovsky, his great-grandfather’s sister. For his book “Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride” (2007), he scoured newspaper archives from around the world, dug up family relics, and plumbed the memory of Kopchovsky’s only survivor, a granddaughter. Annie turned every Victorian notion of female propriety on its ear. Not only did she abandon, temporarily, her role of wife and mother, but for most of the journey, she rode a man’s bicycle attired in a man’s riding suit. The new era had begun…

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