Annie’s trip around the world in bloomers on a fixie

May 17, 2012

On June 25, 1894, Annie Cohen Kopchovsky began a solo bicycle trip around the world. She started her fifteen-month trip in Boston, wearing a floor length heavy skirt, riding a forty-two pound Columbia bicycle designed for women.

The first leg of the trip took her to Chicago where she exchanged her bike for a twenty-one pound Sterling man’s bike, with fixed gear and no brakes. She began the process of changing her attire, and in relatively short order had adopted mannish bloomers as her riding uniform.

Traveling back to Boston, on bicycle part of the time but mostly on the train, she embarked by ship for France where the adventures (real and imagined) became ever more exciting.

This expedition more than a century ago was marked by special conditions. The cyclist used a fictitious name—Annie Londonderry—and suppressed that she was Jewish, married, and mother of three young children whom she had left at home with her husband Max. Annie claimed that the ride was for the purpose of winning a wager that included the provision that she would begin with no money, earn her way, and accumulate at least $5,000 in the process. She started out with the clothes she had on at the time and a change of underwear.

Annie completed the trip in the allotted time and created a paper trail everywhere she traveled. She gave public lectures all along the way and was written up in newspapers and magazines around the world.

Annie was an inventive young woman whose imagination was never at a loss to tell a story that would captivate an audience and generate revenue for the next part of her expedition. Sometimes based on events that had actually happened, her narratives were wildly adventurous, with details changing from one telling to the next.

Annie’s casual attitude toward truth extended to describing how she traveled. Clearly, she cycled many miles, much of the time alone, often over terrain that would challenge even strong cyclists of our own time. Most of her Asian miles, however, were with her bicycle, not on it, the two of them covering the miles on steamships.

Many of her American miles from San Francisco to Chicago were by train. With increasing frequency, American journalists referred to her as a fraud. “Lovable rogue” is a better term, says Annie’s great grandnephew, Peter Zheutlin, who tells her story. She was “a clever young woman who capitalized brilliantly on the major social issues of her day.” She was one of the cycling pioneers, says Zheutlin, described by Irving A Leonard:

Theirs were the glow and throb and the innocent ardor of the authentic adventurer, of the true traveler who subjects himself to the conditions of the strange places and languages through which he passes, unlike the tourist who merely transfers his accustomed style of life to a different setting. These pedaling wanderers were romantic heroes of the era, wholly depending, as they did, upon their own physical resources during long stretches of time and space.

Zheutlin is a free lance journalist whose work appears in major newspapers and magazines. He first heard about Annie from a complete stranger rather than from family sources and embarked on his four-year research project when he took up cycling as part of his recuperation from cancer.

He tells his story truthfully, including Annie’s awkward relation with her family, but he also writes gently and with love. I’m inclined to agree with him in his assessment of his great grand aunt’s achievement:

What Annie accomplished with her bicycle in 1894-95 was a tour de force of moxie, self-promotion, and athleticism. Though she was a skilled raconteur and gifted self-promoter with a penchant for embellishment and tall tales, she was also, as the evidence shows, an accomplished cyclist who covered thousands of miles by bicycle during her journey.    

Zheutlin points out that “traveling around the world as she did was utterly unconventional for a woman of her day.” Even today, I might add, this kind of travel is still beyond the limits for most of us—women or men.

Note: Around the World on Two Wheels was published by Citadel Press in 2007. Although I skipped through some of the details of the travel narrative, I finished the book with high esteem for Annie and appreciation for the Zheutlin’s account of her journey. I strongly recommend his appendix and afterword (pp. 142-160) in which he discusses Annie’s exploits and fills in some of the details of his research and her post-trip life.