Women’s Bicycling from 1896 to today: Still Fighting to Ride

Roger Gilles(1)Roger Gilles is a writing professor at Grand Valley State University and the author of Women on the Move: The Forgotten Era of Women’s Bicycle Racing (October 2018).

At this year’s Tour de France, women cyclists were once more doing their best to call attention to their sport and claim their rightful place alongside the men. For the fifth year in a row, they staged their own unofficial Tour—riding the same route as the men, only one day ahead.

It’s not the first time women have taken such an approach—not by a long shot.

Rewind 122 years, to Chicago in 1896. This was three years into the bicycle boom—when, prompted by the development of the chain-driven, pneumatic-tired “safety” bicycle, some four million men, women, and children had hit the American road—and the Second City was a veritable boom town of cycling enthusiasm. There were dozens of recreational cycling clubs, and every weekend throngs of riders filled the streets. There was competitive cycling, too, and the biggest race of the year was the annual Pullman Road Race, held each Memorial Day by the Associated Cycling Clubs of Chicago.

About five hundred racers were expected to tackle the 25-mile course west of town. This year, however, something unexpected happened: 21-year-old Swedish immigrant Tillie Anderson submitted an application, along with the two-dollar entry fee. Hers was the first application ever made by a woman, and her eligibility was hotly debated within the ACC and in the pages of magazines and newspapers throughout the Midwest.

“All I ask,” Tillie said, “is to have my fee accepted.”

Tillie was well-known in the Chicago cycling scene. The previous summer, she’d made eight “century” runs along the Elgin-Aurora road course, setting the women’s record in October. Then in January she entered and won her first indoor track race, outdistancing eight others in eighteen hours of racing spread over six days. She went on to win two more 6-day races that spring, including an 18-hour contest in Detroit in which she completed over 371 miles, an average of 20.6 mph.

“I think I can defeat any wheelwoman in America,” she said. “I have so easily won in the different races in which I have entered that I am fired with ambition to speed with men cyclists.”

No rules explicitly barred women from the race. The possibility of a female applicant had simply never occurred to the men in charge. Tillie pleaded her case in admirably even terms, appealing to the spirit of fair play as well as acknowledging the popular draw women racers would be if allowed to race side by side with the men. “Women have proved their speed on the wheel,” she said. “Why can’t they race with men?”

ACC officers intimated that accepting Tillie’s application “would be establishing a bad precedent,” but they had no substantial arguments against the idea. Public opinion was divided. According to the Evening Journal, Chicago’s general public wanted to see what Tillie could do and supported her application. But the Dispatch believed otherwise. “The occasional appearance of women on an indoor track is about all the public can stand,” its reporter asserted, “and surely the sport gains nothing by such events.”

Tillie’s riding ability was conceded all around. Even the Dispatch called her “a remarkable woman.” One reporter estimated that she could easily give “five-sixths of the male riders her dust on a fair road and no favor.”

Even if her application were rejected, mused a worried Bicycle News, what if Tillie decided to ride anyway? “She could not be legally restrained, as she would have just as much right on the road as any other man—or woman.” Others picked up on this idea and, anticipating the women’s strategy in this year’s Tour de France, began campaigning for Tillie to follow along some designated number of minutes after the starting gun, allowing the public to see how well she really compared with the men.

In the end, the national cycling body, the League of American Wheelman, or LAW, stepped in to rule that because Tillie had received prize money for her indoor track victories, she was ineligible to compete in in what was considered an amateur event. Ironically, neither Tillie nor any other woman racer had previously been recognized as a legitimate professional. Indeed, the LAW refused to sanction women’s races and even fined or suspended LAW members who participated in any way in the contests.

As it turns out, Tillie and the other women racers of the era had the last laugh, even if they were never able to compete directly with men. Partly because of the perceived frailty of women in general, women’s races were shorter than men’s—two or three hours a day rather than the round-the-clock marathons the men and their spectators endured—and the tracks were smaller as well, typically 14 or 16 laps per mile, necessitating steep banks that actually enhanced the women’s speeds and made for a much more exciting sport. It didn’t hurt that the women wore form-fitting woolen outfits, a far cry from the bulky skirts and petticoats then in fashion. Fans by the thousands flocked to see the races. With five or six women spinning in tight bunches around those tiny tracks, it was like roller derby on bikes, and reporters in city after city described the races as the most thrilling athletic events they’d ever witnessed. The women’s races were every bit as popular as the men’s, maybe even more so.

Not surprisingly, not everyone loved the women. Tillie Anderson and the other top racers of the era came to embody the New Woman—physical and independent, eager to enter the male-dominated public sphere—and as such they threatened Victorian notions of strength, beauty, and womanhood. Women’s racing was derided by sportsmen who believed against all evidence that the races simply had to be fixed—that women were incapable of true athletic competition. It was thought by some to cause infertility and disfigurement, and it was denounced by medical groups, religious groups, and even women’s groups. Through it all, the sport thrived, and from 1896 to 1902, it stood apart as the most popular arena sport in America.

The craze faded as quickly as it started, however, with the rise of the automobile and other spectator sports. Men’s bicycle racing limped along in the early years of the twentieth century before enjoying a renaissance in the twenties and thirties. But women’s racing was another matter. The Amateur Bicycle League held a “girls’ championship” in 1937, but the first official American women’s championship would not be held until 1958. In Europe, the Tour de France for men started in 1903, but the first try at women’s version—the Tour de France Féminin—wasn’t held until 1984, the same year that women’s road racing debuted in the Olympics. Women’s track racing debuted in 1988, ninety-two years after the first men’s event. By that time, the records of the women racers of the 1890s—never officially published in the first place because of LAW’s refusal to recognize them—had long been forgotten.

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