It takes a lot of chutzpah to set off on a solo mission to cross the globe on a bicycle. It’s an even bigger hurdle if you’re a Jewish woman with three young children, living in the Victorian era — and you’ve barely ever ridden a bike before!
The amazing adventure of Annie Kopchovsky begins in 1895, when cycling as a form of transportation was having a major moment, particularly for women. The bicycle was seen as an important advance towards self-sufficiency, allowing men and women to travel without having to pay expensive train and coach fares. However, the process of actually riding a bike wasn’t so simple for women, since 19th century apparel consisted of “ladylike” restricting corsets, heavy undergarments and long, wool skirts. Not exactly comfortable athletic wear!
Due to these restrictions, it was outrageous to imagine a woman riding a bike for a long distance. But in 1887, a man named Thomas Stevens became the first person to bicycle around the world, and in 1894, two rich Boston men wagered $20,000 that no woman could do the same.
Annie Cohen Kopchovsky was the only woman to take on the challenge.
She was as an unlikely competitor, not least because anti-Semitism was widespread in Boston. Not only did Annie have three children under the age of six, she had only just learned to ride a bicycle a few days earlier. Annie’s family had immigrated to the Boston area from Latvia when she was a child. Both her parents died when she was 17, leaving Annie and her siblings impoverished. At 18 she had married Simon Kopchovsky, an Orthodox Jew who studied Torah while Annie supported the family by selling advertisement space for Boston newspapers. Nonetheless, her adventurous spirit led her to set off from Boston on June 24th, 1894 with the goal of completing a trip around the world via bicycle in under 15 months.
As detailed in the book Around the World On Two Wheels by Peter Zheutlin, the first few months of Annie’s journey were difficult. Upon reaching Chicago in September she almost gave the whole thing up. She instead decided to change course, switching her 42-pound ladies’ model for a men’s style, and biked back east to hop a ship to France. She cycled her way through the French countryside, then set sail from Marseille to east Asia, with stops in Egypt and Singapore along the way. Making her way through China then onto Japan, she sailed back to the US, arriving in San Francisco in March. The next six months took her through the American West frontier, finally ending in Chicago, where her journey culminated on September 12, 1895 — just making the 15-month deadline.
Her achievement set a new tone for feminism leading into the 20th century. Annie’s wild months on the road challenged the notion that women were incapable of independence. Her decision to sport bloomers and men’s leisure wear eventually gave way to a whole new style of ladies’ athletic fashions. The race was also an early example of corporate sponsorships in sports: To earn money on the trip, she agreed to hang a placard advertising the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company and agreed to call herself “Annie Londonderry.”
Annie returned to Boston an international celebrity. The public was enthralled with her tales of adventure and near-death experiences (although she was suspected of making most of them up). After cashing in her prize, she accepted a newspaper’s offer to publish stories of her adventures as the “New Woman” and moved her family to New York. Her first article began, “I am a journalist and a ‘new woman,’ if that term means that I believe I can do anything that any man can do.” Little did she know, her story would resonate with Jewish female athletes for generations to come.