“I like to ride my bicycle.”
The average American exercises only four times a year, terrified with the knowledge that a fifth instance of physical excursion would cause their chest to explode and shower the room with under-digested hot Cheetos.
Don’t hold us to that, but we’re pretty sure we’re right. And if we’re wrong, don’t tell our doctor because otherwise he’d probably start giving us shit for our lifestyle choices. However, some Americans are immune to this totally-not-made-up-by-us exercise allergy. In fact, some manage to get themselves out there past all the marathons and Tough Mudders to find truly badass ways to get their sweat on.
One of those intrepid athletes? Annie “Londonderry” Kopchovsky, the woman who biked around the world in 1894.
Annie Londonderry, America’s First Star Cyclist
Being a woman in the 19th century was about as bad as being a woman in the 19th century, since it was pretty shitty in its own right and honestly any attempt to compare it to any other group is very likely to backfire in our face in a spectacular fashion.
The point being, the 1800s weren’t exactly a time for “tolerance” or “equality” or “treating 95% of the world’s population like they’re actual living fucking human beings” so if you were going into that environment without an underwhelming pair of testicles hanging where your legs meet, you were at a disadvantage.
That was the world that Annie Cohen found when she was born in 1870 and emigrated during her childhood to America as a Latvian Jewish immigrant woman, a combination of words that basically was the historical equivalent of walking around with a huge “kick me” sign stuck to your back. Now, admittedly, she dodged a bullet by missing out on the horrors of Latvian cuisine, but that’s beside the point.
Cohen grew up in Boston before marrying Max Kopchovsky, a peddler, and starting a family at the age of 18. By the time she was 22, she had three kids and probably a strong urge to not have to push another living human being out of her for at least a few years.
She also happened to live in America during a period in the 1890s where literally nothing was more popular than bicycles. Bikes were relatively new, having been invented earlier in the century, and by the end of the 1800s notable improvements were made to bicycle that made it both safe and affordable enough to be enjoyed by large swaths of the population.
During this bike craze, as the story goes, Annie Kopchovsky overheard two rich Boston assholes having a conversation regarding what women can or cannot do. Think Trading Spaces, only sexist instead of racist. One said, “I believe that the modern woman can do just about anything a man can do,” and the other said, “Oh yeah? Well let’s make a wager! I bet you a woman can’t ride a bicycle around the world in 15 months.”
“…Wait, what?” the first man would have replied if we were in his shoes. “That’s…that’s, like, a really specific and weird criteria. Why, did a man recently do that?
“No, not at all,” replied the disbeliever in women, we don’t know, biking-and-traveling ability (we increasingly are starting to realize that this origin story is almost certainly not true to the way events actually occurred). “But, show me a woman who can ride a bike around the world in 15 months, while earning $5,000 along the way, but without begging for the money, and you’ll win the bet.”
“Okay, what the actual fuck, so now she has to go around the world on a bicycle, in 15 months, while making the equivalent of over $125,000 on the way? A woman can’t do that! Hell, Jesus Christ himself would have a pretty iffy time with it.” And Annie Kopchovsky stepped in and said, “Oh, sure, I can do that. No problem.”
At this point, we should mention that she had never ridden a bike before in her life.
“Fuck, I thought a bicycle was some kind of sturdy boat.”
Naturally, she wasn’t expected to bike across the ocean (…we hope they willingly ceded this point. Honestly given how impossible this whole thing sounds to do, they probably begrudgingly agreed that you could take boats over certain stretches of ocean, but only after publicly watching ten different women drown trying to bike across Boston Harbor).
But in order to make sure she didn’t just bike over to a port and go “I’ll take an around the world special, please, and also I need to rob a bunch of fucking banks on the way because this wager is stupid” she would have to stop at various predetermined cities in France, Sri Lanka, Singapore, China, and Japan before coming back to America and crossing the whole goddamn country.
So, on June 27th, 1894 she began her journey.
She first signed one of the worst endorsement deals ever, receiving $100 (about $2,500 now) from the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company to carry its placard on her bike. Now, you might also be thinking, “Huh, Londonderry, just like in the name at the top of this article, was she related to the owner?”
And you’d be blissfully naïve and dead wrong. No, part of that sweet $100 check involved her legally changing her name to the name of her sponsors. She should have just asked for the full $5,000 just for that, but that’s neither here nor there. She initially set off from New York to Chicago with a 42-pound woman’s bicycle, a long skirt and a change of clothes, and a pearl-handled pistol, because she was really searching for a look that said, “I’m a lady, and also you should not fuck with me.”
Upon reaching Chicago, with winter approaching, she swapped her skirts for bloomers and switched out her bike for a men’s bicycle that was half the weight of the bike she was replacing.
Note the stare that has run out of fucks to give.
With winter coming, she doubled back to New York and decided to do her journey going from west to east. Her first port was Le Havre, France, where her bicycle was promptly impounded by customs officials, her money stolen, and French reporters who felt that she looked “too manish” wrote about her, describing her as belonging to “that category of neutered beings…such women…resemble neutered worker bees.”
Jesus Christ, France, y’all are a bunch of dicks. So to answer your question, yes, France has always been filled with America-hating assholes. Hell, even France probably would agree that the “neutered being” thing was a bit too far—nowadays they just act snooty and pretend they don’t speak English when we’re asking for directions and leave it at that.
After getting (most of) her shit back, she biked (and took some trains, because fuck you if you think traveling the world and earning more money than most people make in a year isn’t impressive unless it’s all done on a bike) to Marseille, where she boarded the steamship Sydney and hit most of the ports she needed to go through.
At each stop, she would get a signature from the American consulate to confirm that she wasn’t, you know, lying about where she was going. It seemed a bit excessive to make a point to demand this, since it’s not like Annie Londonderry was a liar or anything.
Oh! By the way, Annie Londonderry was a huge liar!
Here she is getting “robbed” by some “bandits” who totally were not “some actors she hired.”
We should do our due diligence by pointing out two important, and not mutually exclusive, facts. A lot of the specifics of her story changed on a whim, depending on what would get her the best exposure.
You see, in case you couldn’t piece it together already, that whole wager thing that inspired her to go on her way? Almost certainly made up by Londonderry. Londonderry was a “fine at best” biker, but a really good self-promoter.
In fact, that’s how she was so easily able to get her $5,000. Despite giving a bit too much of a discount for the whole “changing her damn name” thing, she was able to get people to pay for her to bike around the countryside as a moving billboard, speaking at engagements throughout the course of her journey, and changing her stories to fit whatever would get her the most press.
During her time in France, for example, her backstories included being an orphan, a lawyer, a medical student at Harvard, and the inventor of a new method of stenography.
She basically did all of this because she wanted to make herself wealthy and get famous along the way, which is pretty understandable, and by all accounts she was charismatic enough to pull it off.
Women’s rights was a “hot topic” (that’s a disappointing sentence to have to write) at the time, as were bicycles, so she decided to combine the two together into a media-friendly sensation. She was able to bring in huge fundraising contributions at her speaking engagements, and if she had to make up some stories about being falling through a frozen river in the front lines of the Sin-Japanese war of 1895, getting shot in the shoulder, and ending up in a Japanese prison, well, even if it’s not true it’s a hell of a story, isn’t it?
Shortly after this photo was taken, she singlehandedly discovered Machu Picchu. Granted, she never set foot in South America, but still.
Having sped through Europe, China, and Japan over a couple of months of steamer transit and the occasional bike ride, she landed in San Francisco on March 23, 1895. She made her way across America over the next six months, hosting numerous speaking engagements and doing what she could to foster her celebrity along the way.
When she finished her trek, she moved to New York to become a journalist for the New York World. She wrote under the bi-line “The New Woman” to write the story of her trip, saying, “I am a journalist and a ‘new woman’…I believe I can do anything that a man can do.” Soon after, unfortunately, she disappeared from the public eye, living the rest of her days in relative obscurity before passing away in 1947.
However, her story remains a fascinating tale of American badassery, and it’s just a matter of time before it gets turned into an Oscar-baiting film starring Cate Blanchet. Which we would totally watch, by the way. That’d be a great movie, especially when we get our producer credit for coming up with the idea. Hint.
I am writing a book about historical adventurers. It will include a section on Annie Londonderry Kopchovsky. I notice you have a picture of her and her cycle. Would it be possible to use these pictures in my book?
Hey Roger- can you shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org? Thanks!