To say that the Rover safety bicycle revolutionised transport is like saying Michelangelo could paint a ceiling. It opened the roads to all – and it gave women a freedom and agency they had never experienced before. Barely thirty years after the first Rover rolled off the production line at JK Starley’s Coventry factory in 1865, Annie Londonderry née Kopchovsky cycled round the world in men’s trousers with little more in her panniers than a pearl handled revolver and a change of underwear.
From Boom to Bust
As the bicycle boomed in the 1890s so did the public’s insatiable appetite for the professional sport. On the start line at the Arc de Triomphe for Paris-Rouen – the first one-day bike race in 1869 – stood one ‘Miss America’, an unknown Englishwoman who was one of only 34 finishers. On the track, teenagers from America like 18-year-old Lottie Stanley were ripping up the velodromes of Europe, setting 48-hour records and riding the phenomenally popular six and 12-day events of the period. By 1899 there were one million bicycles on the roads of the US alone.
This was the era of The New Woman who cycled and flew with dash and daring, women like Hélène Dutrieu, the ‘Girl Hawk’ who would become the first Belgian aviatrix [female pilot]. Dutrieu started her cycling career aged fourteen and rode professionally for the British Simpson Lever Chain team in the 1890s, gaining a series of world records and working a successful side line as a stunt motorcyclist. The Belgian was the first woman to break the 40 kilometre mark in a paced hour record attempt – in 1893, just as Henri Desgrange was setting the first official men’s Hour Record at the Vélodrome Buffalo in Paris.
But this empowerment was dangerous, threatening the very fabric of a society jittery with fin de siècle foreboding. Questions were raised about modesty, ‘hygiene saddles’ were produced to avoid erotic friction, and a woman’s place was definitely in the home, not out racing a bicycle.
Racing Towards a Professional Peloton
Marie Marvingt and Alfonsina Strada saw things differently. Marvingt was a voracious sportswoman, setting records in a multitude of sports and flying reconnaissance missions over occupied territory in WWI after she was discovered serving as an infantryman in the trenches. It was Marvingt who, after being refused entry to the 1908 Tour de France set out to ride all the stages of the race, leading an outraged female reader to write to L’Auto (the newspaper that sponsored the Tour) and demand a women’s Tour de France. But that would involve razing all the mountains in France came the reply – the fact that Marvingt had already climbed and cycled over them was ignored. By 1912 the Union vélocipédique de France had stopped sanctioning women’s races.
Strada was luckier – having entered the 1924 Giro under the name Alfonsin, the PR savvy organisers saw the publicity, good and bad, she attracted for the race and let her compete. But Alfonsina was no plucky amateur – she’d broken the women’s speed record in 1911 and ridden the Giro di Lombardia alongside the likes of three times Tour de France winner Philippe Thys in 1917 and 1918. Dubbed the ‘Devil in a dress’, Strada would compete professionally for the rest of her career breaking the women’s speed record again at the age of 47.
From Records to Rainbows
In 1930s Belgium, a young woman called Mien Van Bree was smashing down barriers by becoming the first Dutch Women’s World Champion and paving the way for the likes of Marianne Vos, one of the greatest riders ever to throw her leg over the top tube of a bicycle. In the UK, in 1944, a slight young woman would pull on a borrowed jacket and smash the Coventry Cycling Club’s ten mile women’s record in her first race. Eileen Sheridan would go on to set speed and endurance records throughout her career, including a 1,000-mile record set after she completed Land’s End to John O’Groats. It stood for 48 years and earned her a contract with Hercules Cycles.
This was the era of the housewife superstars, where Beryl Burton would win the British Best All-Rounder competition for 25 consecutive years, from 1959 to 1983, whilst declaring “I enjoy absolutely everything I do, riding a bike, housework, racing, working in Nim’s rhubarb sheds. If you don’t enjoy something you are doing there is no point!” In 1958 the UCI finally organised the Women’s Road Race World Championships with a rainbow jersey as its prize. Beryl Burton would win seven of them.