Riding back to where you started, without turning left or right

There have been some impressive ’round the world bike treks in recent years. One of the granddaddies of that type of expedition is Dan Buettner, who has pedaled from the Bering Strait to Tierra del Fuego, from the Mediterranean to Cape Hope, and from Europe across Russia to the Sea of Japan.

You might be tempted to think this sort of expedition is a relatively new phenomenon, but you’d be wrong. As long as there have been bikes people have tried to ride them all the way around the planet.

The first woman to circumnavigate the globe on two wheels  by was Nelly Bly, in 1894. (See clarification in the comments!) And five months later, Annie Cohen Kopchovsky repeated the feat on a bicycle — and she made money doing it by advertising a New Hampshire bottled water company called “Londonderry.”

A new book by Annie’s great great nephew Peter Zheutlin details the wacky Victorian hijinks. According to a story in the Jerusalem Report,

Kopchovsky’s story shows that the bicycle was a symbol of personal as well as political power. Women of the time took to the bicycle as a means of independent living and travel, a way of finding a life beyond the expected roles of mother and wife. For early feminists, the bicycle was an important tool for reinventing themselves. The famous suffragist Susan B. Anthony said that “bicycling has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

 

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This newly found emancipation was challenged by myths. Some thought that riding a bicycle could sexually stimulate a woman or compromise virginity. But Annie Londonderry paid no attention to these ridiculous notions. With virtually no prior physical training, she set off from Boston to Manhattan on that June day on her unwieldy 42-pound Columbia bicycle, constantly mindful of not getting her skirts caught in the spokes of the gigantic front wheel.

By the time an exhausted Kopchovsky reached Chicago a couple of months later, it was clear that she could not continue her journey on the Columbia bicycle in her uncomfortable, confining clothing. Ever resourceful, she found a sponsor in Sterling Bicycles, which provided her with a 20-pound men’s racing model. It was the first of Kopchovsky’s gender-bending antics – the most notable of which were the practical bloomers – or long baggy pants – and the man’s jacket she eventually wore on the road. In response to Kopchovsky’s wardrobe change, one newspaper described her as one of the “neutered beings, single women without a husband or children constitute a third sex.” In truth, Kopchovsky was one of the leaders in liberating women from the constraints of their corsets and their ascribed gender roles.

Hooray for the ladies and their bikes!

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