We’re constantly inspired by the incredible things women do – particularly in the world of cycling (surprise, surprise). So, this International Women’s Day we’re shining a spotlight on some of the game-changers, rule-breakers, and all-around awe-inspiring women in cycling. Enjoy!
A Brave New World
Bicycles first became popular in the late 19th century. Given gender politics at time, it may come as no surprise that society wasn’t always in favor of women’s participation in cycling. In fact, women participating in any sort of “rigorous” exercise was looked down upon as “unladylike” or even “dangerous” for women. But there were some early advocates.
Lillias Campbell Davidson (1853 - 1934, American)
The writer Lillias Campbell Davidson was an early advocate for women to ride bicycles. In a time when women were discouraged from rigorous physical exercise, she delighted in “the feeling of active movement, of the power of free locomotion, the thrill of healthful exertion,” as well as just getting out into the world and exploring.
As time went on, cycling became increasingly popular among women. Women’s bike frames were developed (now known as step-thru frames), as well as a variety of specialized clothing. While many women enjoyed riding as a fun pastime, some were about to use their enthusiasm for cycling to make serious social change.
Pioneers, O Pioneers
What started out as a fun novelty quickly became a tool for women’s liberation. Bikes allowed women of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to move about more freely than they ever could before. This freedom of movement allowed them to pursue better employment opportunities because they could commute farther which in turn led to (some) financial independence.
That independence was a crucial part of the women’s rights movement. Even Susan B. Anthony promoted bicycles as a means of liberation:
“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
Women also participated in bicycle racing, often in defiance of social norms at the time. A few notable pioneers of this period include:
Louise Armaindo (1861 – 1900, Canadian)
Starting her career in the circus, Armaindo was a strongwoman, trapeze artist, competitive walker (yes, that was a thing), and finally a professional high-wheeled cyclist. In fact, she became “the champion female bicycle rider of the world,” during the late 19th century. She raced against other women, men, and even horses. In one notable race, Armaindo rode 600 miles in 72 hours (12 hours per day for 6 days), setting the long-distance record for the time.
Annie “Londonderry” Kopchovsky (1870 – 1947, American)
A Jewish-Latvian immigrant to the United States, Kopchovsky was the first woman to ride a bike around the world. Sponsored by New Hampshire’s Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company (thus the nickname), Kopchovsky set out from Boston on June 17, 1894. Just 24 years old at the time, she rode in long skirts, corset, and a high-collared blouse. She completed the journey in just 15 months. The trip was hailed by newspapers as “the Most Extraordinary Journey Ever Undertaken by a Woman.”
Kittie Knox (1874 – 1900, American)
An early bicycle racer, Knox was the first African American woman to be accepted into the League of American Wheelmen (LAW). She joined LAW in 1893, when very few women were permitted to join. She traveled around the United States to race, despite facing both the racism and sexism of the time. Knox was also one of the first women to wear bloomers for cycling, instead of long, multi-layered skirts.
Alfonsina Strada (1891 – 1959, Italian)
Strada was (and is) the only woman to ride in one of the biggest races in cycling: the Giro d’Italia in 1924. How? She registered as “Alfonsin Strada.” By leaving off the final “a” of her first name, race organizers mistook her for a man. By the time they found out the truth, it was too late, and she was in the race. Even though Strada was later disqualified from winning (a particularly brutal leg of the race cost her too much time), she was still one of only 28 people to finish the race that year. Her racing career continued for many years, but Strada was never allowed to enter in the Giro d’Italia again.
Nevertheless, She Persisted
Women are still pushing the envelope with cycling today. Women in developing nations are using bicycles to pursue better education, employment opportunities, and financial independence. Elsewhere, women are using bike rides as a form of political protest in their campaign for women’s rights – and their courage is astounding.
Women are also continuing to break barriers and set records in the world of professional cycling. Just ask some of the most notable riders of the past few decades.
Beryl Burton (1937 – 1996, British)
A powerhouse in competitive cycling, Burton won an incredible 90 domestic and seven world titles during her career. She also broke several records, including riding 25 miles in under an hour, 50 miles in under two hours, and a 12-hour time trial where she rode 277.25 miles. In recognition of her towering accomplishments, she was appointed as a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1964.
Connie Carpenter-Phinney (Born 1957, American)
Carpenter started her career in the world of speed skating. In fact, she competed in the 1972 Winter Olympics and placed 7th in the 1500m. It was only after she failed to make the Olympic skating team in 1976 that she switched to cycling. That same year she won US National Championship. She later went on to win gold in cycling for the individual road race in 1984 – the first year women’s cycling was part of the Olympics.
Jeannie Longo (Born 1958, French)
Longo is widely considered the best female cyclist of all time, and for good reason. She is a 25-time French champion, 13-time world champion, and seven-time Olympian (one gold, four medals overall). Needless to say, she’s one of the most decorated cyclists in the sport.
Marianne Vos (Born 1987, Dutch)
Vos is a current professional cyclist and competes in a variety of races, including cyclocross and road racing. In fact, she’s an eight-time World Cyclo-cross champion. Not only that, but she also advocates for women in professional cycling as a founding member of Le Tour Entier. She has also campaigned for a Women’s Tour de France.
Yet, despite their numerous accomplishments, there are still many challenges in the professional cycling arena. Women are generally paid less and/or the prize for winning a race is lower than that at comparable events for men. Plus, there’s a distinct lack of big-name events for women in cycling. For example, there’s no Tour de France for women… yet. Although as we’ve mentioned above, some pro cyclists are trying to change that (as they should).
Women can do anything they set their minds to, overcome any challenge set before them. On a bike, off a bike, there are no limits. It’s a wonderful, humbling, and inspiring thing to think about the next time you go for a ride. We’ll see you out there.