A Hidden History of Women Cyclists

Take a ride along the long, uphill climb faced by women in the saddle

By Google Arts & Culture

The New Woman (1892) by Edward Lamson HenrySmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Suffragette leader and women’s rights reformer Susan B. Anthony said of the bicycle: "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."

[Side face of a cyclist] (1920 - 1930) by José María EgurenNational Library of Peru

The first Olympic cycling race for women wasn’t contested until 1984 and women’s professional cycling was barely recognized as a sport until the 1990s. However, the truth is women were riding long before that.

In this hidden history of women cyclists, we’ll take a look at some of the women riders steadily pedaling their way into the history books.

Card 16, from the Girl Cyclists series (N49) for Virginia Brights Cigarettes (1887) by Allen & GinterThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Louise Armaindo

As far back as the 1870s, Louise Armaindo was racing all over America on a high wheel, also known as a penny farthing. In fact, in 1872 she set the American long-distance record, covering more than 600 miles in 72 hours.

Acatène bicycle (Circa 1896) by La MétropoleMusée des arts et métiers

Kittie Knox

As the sport progressed and bicycles began to more closely resemble their modern form, competitions became more common. In the 1890s, a young African American seamstress from Boston called Kittie Knox was the first woman accepted into the League of American Wheelmen. 

Although she was to suffer terrible discrimination, it didn’t stop Kittie becoming the first woman to adopt men’s bloomers as riding attire. A true revolutionary. 

Cyclists, Hyde Park, City of Westminster, Greater London (1870/1900) by York & SonHistoric England

The 'Big Five'

Also in the 1890s, a team of women racers featuring Lizzie Glaw, Helen Baldwin, May Allen, Tillie Anderson, and Dottie Farnsworth became known as the ‘Big Five’. 

They traveled the US competing in fierce races, more than proving they could be a match for the male riders of the day. These incredible racers would often have to get up and train before heading off to do a full day’s work. 

Lady in Pants (1896) by L. L. ConnorCanada Science and Technology Museum

Annie ‘Londonderry’ Kopchovsky

In 1894, 23-year-old mother of three Annie Kopchovsky had never ridden a bicycle. But when two men made an alleged bet that no woman could cycle around the world while earning $5,000 along the way, something in Annie made her take up the challenge. 

When she pedaled back into Boston 15 months later, covered in paid sponsorships and having crossed Europe, Africa, and North America, it was reported as ‘the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman’. A true inspiration.

De Pauw "Little 500" (Bike Race) (1959-04) by Stan WaymanLIFE Photo Collection

Beryl Burton

As men’s cycling became professional, women riders were once again largely ignored. And it wasn’t until later in the 20th century that women riders once again started to attract attention. In the UK, one female rider in particular was breaking the mold.

Over the course of a 25-year career, Beryl Burton won more than 90 domestic championships and seven world titles, setting a 12-hour time trial time that even broke the men’s record for two years. Her achievements really helped to launch a new wave of women riders.

Alice Austen with Bicycle, 1897Alice Austen House

Find out more about women's pioneering role in sport and culture.

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