On the road again: Tillie and Wilcox

In 1891, a young woman named Tillie Anderson emigrated to the United States from Sweden. She was 14, and without a father, who had died when Anderson was eight. She worked as a seamstress in Chicago, and in two years she saved enough money to buy a “racing bicycle.”

That young woman entered 130 races, of which she won 123.

Tillie Anderson is a name that most do not know because she — The Terrible Swede — raced mostly before 1900, and retired from the sport in 1902, when bike racing was dubbed too dangerous for women. She held records in both sprint distances and 100-mile routes.

In her honour, Rapha’s version of Tillie is still on the roads, a possible World Champion of free espressos delivered on the side of the tarmac to riders of all kinds. Naming the cars at Rapha North America began as a joke years ago, when the office’s big sprinter van was dubbed “Big Jan.” The Winnebago came next, named after Hennie Kuiper. The Volvo that tows the pressed-tin trailer is Swedish, and henceforth the rig became “Tillie.”

As venerable as Tillie the Mobile Cycle Club is, her pilot, David Wilcox, is an equal part of the story. People shout at him through the windows while on the highway; in lots of places he’s known as the guy who makes espressos (lots) and maybe even rides a bike (fast).

Wilcox came to cycling the old way, before it looked cool on social media; he came to it out of necessity, after his parents struck a deal with the local bike shop in New Jersey so he could work off all the damage he was doing to his bike while riding through the woods. That, and a paper route, paid for the bikes and for the racing that followed.

He and Tillie have embarked on another very long paper route again this season – a route that will take them from the highways carved above the breaking Pacific to the hot and rolling horizon of the Midwest to the East Coast. Wilcox will pull thousands of espresso shots. So many shots he no longer has to drink coffees but just feels them. He usually drinks too many shots anyway.

The trek from the Pacific through the lonely scruff of the American West and on to the bustle of the East is a connection of events both large and small. Cycling isn’t the Tour de France to most people. It’s the bus stop and lawyer rides across the country, and Tillie hopes to bridge the space between riders and rides. Cycling is a sweaty criterium under hot light, or a rural intersection with nothing but two lanes and four stop signs.

A favorite stop last season came along a gravel race route outside of Chicago. “I had talked to the promoter about it, and we had decided that I’d show up,” Wilcox said. “We wouldn’t really announce it… I’d be out on course and be a total oasis in the middle of this event.”

The front group came blistering through, but someone yelled: “We’re stopping.” Eventually there were 200 riders standing around in the middle of nowhere, coffees in hand, music hanging in the night air.

This season the trailer will head East from California, where Tillie will be parked at the Spy Belgian Waffle Ride on 26th April and later tracing the Amgen Tour of California route from the 8-17th May. A sure highlight will come in June, in the mountains of Colorado, in Steamboat Springs, for the Moots Ranch Rally, on 13 June. The Ranch Rally is a dirt-road tour of the county and a showcase of the historic ranches in the region. Of the 50 miles only five are paved. From there it’s a push east, with stops in the Midwest in mid-July and numerous stops added for the coming cyclocross season as well.

Tillie features a La Marzocco GS/3 coffee machine, serving up the Rapha Mobile Cycling Club Blend – a bright espresso by friends Stumptown Coffee Roasters – a television for race-streaming throughout the days, and a kicking sound system for evening laps or mornings by the beach. Some limited edition goods are also for sale. Follow Tillie on Twitter and Instagram and keep tabs on her via our new calendar at pages.rapha.cc/clubs/tillie