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Backstory: Retracing Annie Londonderry's Victorian odyssey

Part 2: A 19th-century woman's break with tradition – and '15 minutes of fame' – rediscovered.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 29, 2006

Annie Londonderry, the "globe-girdler," as she was often called, was seven months into her 'round-the-world journey when she arrived in Marseilles, France, on her Sterling bicycle to a hero's welcome.

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Her celebrity had grown so great that, a week later, thousands crowded onto the quay to see her sail for the Middle East aboard the steamship "Sydney." One local newspaper said Annie had "captured the hearts of the people of Marseilles."

But what the people of Marseilles didn't know was that the Boston lady with the Irish surname was actually Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, a 23-year-old Jewish immigrant from near Riga, Latvia, who came to Boston as a young girl with her family in the mid-1870s.

Annie was a pioneer of sports-related marketing for women, and she went by the name Londonderry by agreement with her first sponsor, the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company of Nashua, N.H. Having broken – at least temporarily – the ties that bound her to Boston, Annie was free to reinvent herself on the road as the daring globe trotter, Mlle. Londonderry, cyclist extraordinaire. Though the wager that purportedly set her in motion was a test of whether a woman could do what only a man had done before, Annie's journey wasn't motivated by a desire to make a political statement. Rather, the bicycle was Annie's means of escape from a life constrained by 19th-century expectations of women. By age 18 she was married and had one child; when she left to cycle the world in 1894, she had three young children and a job selling ads for several Boston newspapers. Her husband, Max, was a devout Jew who made a modest living as a peddler. The bicycle, she hoped, would also be her ticket to fame and fortune. For a woman of that era to leave her husband and young children was unimaginable; to do so to bicycle the world was utterly radical.

For me, riding at least a couple of hundred miles in Annie's shoes, from Boston to New York earlier this month, was the culmination of three years of research into her long-forgotten story. It was the next logical step in my own odyssey on the Londonderry trail that began with a query from a perfect stranger looking for information about her and making it clear that Annie was my great-grandfather's sister – even though no one in my family had ever heard of her.

August 12 brought clear blue skies in Boston, a perfect day for cycling. After a brief ceremony at the Massachusetts State House, at the precise spot where Annie's journey began 112 years ago, a couple dozen cyclists and I, some on high-wheel bikes from the 1880s, pushed off and, like Annie, flew away like kites down Beacon Street.

It is presumptuous to think that riding a lightweight carbon-fiber bike, powered by Gatorade and energy bars, and with a cellphone for emergencies, is much like Annie's experience in 1894. Annie began her journey on a 42-pound Columbia bike that weighed twice as much as mine. It had but a single gear and no freewheeling mechanism, which meant that the pedals spin with the wheels. Going downhill she placed her feet on rests mounted on the front fork, lest the spinning pedals tangle in her skirts and bring her crashing to the ground. (Later in her trip Annie acquired a man's Sterling bicycle, donned bloomers, and then a man's riding suit. The Sterling, unlike the Columbia, had no brake.) Annie traveled roads that ranged from smooth macadam in the cities to impassable sand that required her to push her bike.

On the flip side, Annie rode without the noise and constant danger of the fast-moving traffic we contended with much of the way, though we rode secondary roads and rural byways whenever possible. "Road books" for cyclists offering meticulously detailed routes between cities as distant as New York and Chicago were available in the 1890s. Today, it would be possible to navigate using a portable GPS system, though we relied on bike maps which were sometimes unreliable.