In 1894, with nothing else but the clothes on her back, Annie Kopchovsky – a poor Bostonian mother-of-three – set off to cycle the world.
The catalyst for Annie’s extraordinary undertaking was a wager: could a woman circle the globe on a bicycle without a penny within 15 months? No, chorused the masses. You bet, declared Annie. She changed her surname to Londonderry, acquired a 20kg bike and bade farewell to her pedlar husband and children.
She returned in 1895, telling tales of hold-ups by highwaymen, hunting tigers in India, being shot in the shoulder and getting caught up in the Sino-Japanese conflict. In a short space of time she became one of the most famous and controversial female travellers of her time.
In fact, her flair for hyperbole and sensationalism led her to fabricate many of her stories. When she said she was cycling across Asia she was actually aboard the Sydney, sailing to Singapore. But her mendacity doesn’t detract from the achievement. Highwaymen and war zones aside, her journey was a Herculean task, especially for a woman with barely any cycling experience and wearing cumbersome clothing. She ignored claims that riding a bike could damage the delicate female anatomy and succeeded in pedalling from Boston to Chicago (where she re-evaluated and decided to head to New York instead), then on to Paris and Marseilles before travelling to Yokohama, Japan, by ship and commencing the long pedal from California back to Boston.
In the process she became an accomplished cyclist and made some bold but necessary sartorial decisions – the long Victorian skirts turned into bloomers, which gave way to a man’s riding suit. “I firmly believe that if I’d worn skirts I should not have been able to make the trip,” she proclaimed.
The terrain, including hills and ‘roads’ of sand, was challenging. She battled searing heat and snow, often riding in dripping-wet, mud-caked clothes. In California she was run over by a horse and cart; in Iowa she fell and broke her wrist. Yet her adventure gained momentum and she arrived in Boston to a rapturous reception.
Annie was the first woman to cycle across the USA and became a poster girl for the bike-riding, bloomer-wearing New Woman of the 1890s. She relished delighting audiences with her foreign exploits until her death from a stroke in 1947.