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Chloe Effron // Wikimedia Commons (Londonderry), iStock (Background)

Annie Londonderry, First Woman to Cycle Around The World

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Chloe Effron // Wikimedia Commons (Londonderry), iStock (Background)

The grandest accomplishment of bicyclist Annie Londonderry might seem like little more than a peculiar publicity stunt today. But within the context of her time, her trip around the world was downright revolutionary.

On a sunny summer day in Boston, June 25, 1894, Londonderry was readying herself to make history. Five hundred people had gathered around the steps of the Massachusetts State House, eager to see her off on her momentous journey. Londonderry wasn't new to travel: She had already traversed Europe and the Atlantic Ocean to emigrate from Latvia to the United States. Of course, back then she was Annie Cohen. At 18, she'd married Max Kopchovsky, taken his name and within four years borne three of his children. Now at 24, this spirited young woman made a new name for herself as part of a branding deal with Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company. For $100, she agreed to affix a promotional placard to her bike, and to take their brand name as her own as she made her way around the world.  

Cycling had not only hit its peak popularity by the 1890s but also became inextricably tied to early feminism. The bicycle gave women more freedom to go wherever they wanted, whenever they saw fit. It made women feel powerful, strong, and self-reliant, and became the favored conveyance of suffragettes like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who once said: "Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. … I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel." 

Yet not everyone was thrilled by women's interest in autonomy through cycling. Many scorned the new bloomer fashions that made the activity easier. Doctors concocted the condition "bicycle face," which essentially attempted to play on females' supposed vanity in order to dissuade them from riding. The 1895 Literary Digest described this affliction thusly: "Over-exertion, the upright position on the wheel, and the unconscious effort to maintain one's balance tend to produce a wearied and exhausted 'bicycle face' … usually flushed, but sometimes pale, often with lips more or less drawn, and the beginning of dark shadows under the eyes, and always with an expression of weariness."

Londonderry was well aware of the controversy over women cyclists, but this clever wife and mother was more than happy to be a poster girl for the movement, especially if it meant she could make bank. Her trip around the world was no lark—it was a bet, and one masterfully planned to play upon the trends of her time. Though specifics on its origin have been largely lost to time, it's believed two affluent "clubmen" in Boston laid down the challenge. Londonderry had 15 months to not only circle the globe from her bicycle seat, but to earn $5,000 along the way (about $135,000 today). Jules Verne's 1873 novel Around the World in Eighty Days had ignited public interest in such ambitious endeavors. (Nellie Bly—best known for her harrowing reporting from Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island—underwent a similar voyage later, in 1889.) By linking in the controversial bicycling bit, Londonderry concocted a journey that positively captured the world's imagination.

Though our headstrong heroine set out from Boston in a long skirt considered ideal for this Victorian era, she soon swapped to a more functional men's riding suit, which sparked criticisms of impropriety and even some accusations that she was no woman at all. She didn't sweat the outrage, but relished the headlines it scored.

A masterful self-promoter, Londonderry spun wild—and often conflicting—tales to newspapers about her route, and even her background. Over the course of her journey, she'd claimed to be an orphan, an accountant, an affluent heiress, a Harvard medical student, a lawyer, the relative of a congressman, and—perhaps most curiously—the inventor of a new form of stenography. Readers and reporters couldn't get enough, and she soon became an international sensation. Her tall tales of brushes with death, frozen rivers, German royalty, dangerous superstition, and vicious tigers were recounted in newspapers far and wide. This was all part of the savvy businesswoman's plan. Along with the Londonderry spring water placard, she sold more ad space on her bike. But that's not all: Having cultivated controversy and celebrity, she also arranged for paid appearances, and sold promotional photographs of herself to fans eager to be a part of her adventure.

Traveling with a small suitcase that contained a change of clothes and a pearl-handled revolver, she cycled from Boston to New York (after a side trip to Chicago), then sailed to Le Havre, France. From there she cycled south to Marseilles, heading to Alexandria, Colombo, Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, employing a steamship when necessary. By March of 1895, Londonderry and her bike had made it to San Francisco. After returning to Boston on September 24, 1895, the New York World declared her globe-trekking “the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman.” But she wasn't through yet.

The following month, Londonderry moved her family to New York City, where she channeled her drive and all she'd learned about storytelling and the press into a fresh identity: The New Woman. That was the byline of her column for the New York World, where she wrote: "I am a journalist and 'a new woman,' if that term means that I believe I can do anything that any man can do."

Annie Londonderry's feat was a challenge on many fronts: navigation, physical endurance, mental fortitude, and entrepreneurial creativity. This zany publicity stunt not only earned her the world's eye, but also proved the capabilities of a woman on her own in the world. Not long after writing about her journey, she retired from the reporter grind to focus on raising her family. And despite all the headlines she'd made, she faded into obscurity. That is, until 2007, when her great nephew Peter Zheutlin reminded us all about this remarkable woman with the book Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry's Extraordinary Ride.

Annie "Londonderry" Kopchovsky passed away in 1947, having successfully traveled the world on her own terms. 

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Mario Tama/Getty Images
To Get Women to Bike More, Build Better Bike Lanes
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Mario Tama/Getty Images

Biking is a great way to stay healthy and get around town without paying for gas, but not everyone bikes in equal numbers. There’s a gender gap in bike commuting, one that’s easily illustrated by bike-share numbers. Several years after its launch, the membership of New York’s Citi Bike program was less than a third female, and it isn’t a problem that’s unique to New York or bike-sharing in general.

A good way to get more women cycling, though, is to install more bike lanes, as researchers from the University of British Columbia and the University of Colorado concluded in a recent study in the Journal of Transport and Land Use. It sounds intuitive and, indeed, studies have shown that adding bike infrastructure leads to more people biking in general.

But it’s particularly important to talk about how to get women on bikes because the gender gap in cycling is so large in the U.S., even though the approximately equal shares of women and men biking in Europe tell us that riding a bike isn’t a uniquely male activity.

The latest study examined cycling demographics by neighborhood in Montreal and Vancouver, two cities that both have a diverse selection of bike infrastructure ranging from painted lanes to cycleways separated from the street. The researchers found that if a neighborhood had access to some kind of bike infrastructure within about half a mile (1 kilometer), that area saw four times as many people cycling as neighborhoods without bike lanes. But the difference between cycling on the road with cars and cycling in a dedicated lane of some sort had an even more significant impact for women specifically.

Though women make up half the commuters in Montreal and Vancouver, they were much less likely than men to ride bikes to and from work if there wasn’t any bike infrastructure. In some neighborhoods without infrastructure, only a tenth of the cycling commuters were women, while in one with better access to bike lanes, women made up almost half of the cyclists. When more bike commuters were hitting the road in a neighborhood, the percentage of men and women was about equal, perhaps because of the “safety in numbers” phenomenon.

Shaded maps of Montreal and Vancouver show the percentages of commuters bike.
The percentage of commuters in each neighborhood who get to work by bicycle, with darker colors indicating a greater share.
Teschke et al., Journal of Transport and Land Use, 2017

“To give women an equal opportunity to bike to work, municipalities need to build a great quality cycling network,” Kay Teschke, a professor of public health at the University of British Columbia and the study’s lead author, said in a Q&A with UBC’s news team.

The new study data, taken from 2011 Census results, may paint a slightly different picture than you might find in those cities now, six years later, when there might be new bike lanes or more bike commuters. Not to mention the fact that bike lanes aren’t necessarily spread evenly throughout a city, so other factors may be influencing this data, as the researchers admit. For instance, wealthier neighborhoods tend to have better bike infrastructure, which is why bike lanes have become a symbol of gentrification. But the results do track with previous research on the subject. A study in 2013 found that women cared more about cycling near bike paths or trails than men did, and several studies have found that women are more concerned about the safety issues associated with riding a bike than male riders.

Whether for men or women, though, the study makes it clear that cities could do a lot more to encourage cycling. People were more likely to bike if their neighborhood had an interconnected web of bike lanes, not just a few scattered paths. “The pattern of results suggested that the network formed by other bikeway types may have been more important than the specific bikeway characteristics,” the researchers write.

“Even though biking is faster and easier, more people walked to work than biked to work in both cities,” Teschke noted in her Q&A. She suggests that one reason could be that sidewalks are ubiquitous, but bicycle lanes are not—and whether men or women, people are apt to choose a mode of transport that makes them feel safe over one that’s a little more convenient but makes them think they’re about to get run over at any minute.

And while it might not seem that important to get women on bikes, cycling has major benefits that, ideally, the whole population should enjoy. Surveys find that people who cycle to work are happier than other types of commuters, and a 2016 study found that cyclists in the Netherlands outlive non-cyclists.

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This Elevator Alternative Would Let You Bike Up Skyscrapers
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A vertical transportation concept from Elena Larriba gives the phrase "biking to work" a new meaning. As Dezeen reports, the project from the Royal College of Art graduate, dubbed Vycle, reimagines the elevator as a compact, ascending bicycle powered by a single rider.

When Larriba looked at high-rise buildings, she saw two means for navigating them: stairs and elevators. Stairwells take up valuable real estate, while elevators eat energy to move what’s often a small load. She designed Vycle as an efficient alternative.

Vycle looks like a scaled-down version of a traditional bicycle complete with pedals, a seat, and handlebars. Passengers start pedaling to ascend the vertical rail connected to the back of the bike. They can take a quick or leisurely ride based on how hard they push themselves.

It’s hard to imagine the concept replacing elevators in multi-story office buildings, but one area where it might be practical is construction. The rig is cheap and adaptable, which means it could be a temporary installation on the outside of cranes and scaffolding. Biking up multiple stories would also be easier on older workers than climbing a ladder the same distance.

As cities become more dense, designers are coming up with creative ways to make the most of tight spaces, from pop-out windows to foldable sports facilities. You can see Larriba’s invention in action below.

vycle - urban vertical movement from Elena Larriba on Vimeo.

[h/t Dezeen]


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