Title: Women on the Move – The Forgotten Era of Women’s Bike Racing
Author: Roger Gilles
Publisher: Nebraska University Press
What it is: The story of women’s bike racing in north America in the 1890s, with a focus on the Swedish émigré Tillie Anderson
Strengths: Adds breadth and depth to the known history of women’s bicycle racing, bringing riders like Tillie Anderson to a new audience
Weaknesses: Over-eggs the pudding a bit with some of its claims, especially that women’s cycling was the most popular arena sport in the US in the 1890s
They were known as the Big Five. Lizzie Glaw. Helen Baldwin. May Allen. Tillie Anderson. Dottie Farnsworth. For a brief few years in the 1890s they towed women’s racing in north America in their wake. Chief among them was Tillie Anderson.
They had come together early in 1896, part of a travelling troupe of riders put together by the promoter Henri O Messier, a veteran of the pedestrianism era. Over the course of six years they criss-crossed north America, putting on races on temporary tracks erected inside baseball grounds, roller rinks, and armories. Mostly they rode Sixes, sometimes they participated in match races, occasionally they broke records.
Sixes took their basic format from the pedestrian races of the 1870s. Tom Eck – the Canadian coach, promoter and all round rogue – is generally credited with taking Six Day racing to the extreme, popularising the idea of non-stop bicycle races in the US in 1891, a hundred forty-odd hours of racing between the early hours of Monday morning and late on a Saturday night. That’s the format that’s stuck in our mind today when we think of Sixes. It’s the format that was used in the Madison Square Garden International Six Day Races, arguably America’s Grand Tour, part of the inspiration for Henri Desgrange’s Tour de France. It’s the format that was in use in New York in December 1896 when Major Taylor made his professional début and when Teddy Hale – the Irishman who wasn’t – pulled off his win for the ages.
That format, though, was at the extreme. At the other end of the spectrum was a shorter format, familiar to followers of today’s Sixes. Before taking part in the Garden Six in December Hale had been on the boards in Islington’s Agricultural Hall, racing against Arthur Linton and others in a Six Day race that consisted of one four hour session each day, giving a total for the week of twenty-four hours of racing. The previous year Westminster’s Royal Aquarium hosted a Six Day race for women that saw them on the boards twice a day, three hours each session, for a total of thirty-six hours of racing in the week.
When Messier launched his new circuit of races in Minneapolis in December 1895, the format required the women race three hours a day, for a total of eighteen hours in a week. Not only did the shorter duration call for more speed and less just wearing the opposition down, so too did the track used. Whereas permanent tracks typically ran three to five laps to the mile, and the temporary tracks used in the New York and London Sixes ran ten laps to the mile, Messier opted for a much smaller, tighter configuration: eighteen laps to the mile. These saucer-shaped tracks were built for spectacle, called for speed if you wanted to stay upright.
It was Messier’s second race, in Chicago in January 1896, that drew the attention of Tillie Anderson and sucked her into the world of Six Day racing. Born in Sweden in 1875 Anderson was a teenager when she emigrated to Chicago. Within two years of arriving she witnessed fellow Swede John S Johnson put the legendary Arthur Zimmerman to the sword, in 1893, and decided she too wanted to race bikes and break records. The following year she was able to buy a bicycle and the year after that she became a century rider. Her riding was good enough to attract the attention of Excelsior Supply Company who fitted her out with one of their bikes, a Thistle.
Also knocking off centuries on the roads around Chicago at that time was a German émigré, Lizzie Glaw, who was about the same age as Anderson. Both put themselves forward to enter Messier’s race in Chicago in January 1896. For the week before the race the riders practised on the newly erected track in Chicago’s Second Armory, which had replaced the Battery D Armory that had hosted women’s racing in the high-wheeled era of Louise Armaindo. Something about Anderson must have stood out, for on the eve of the race she was offered money to throw the race, an offer she declined: “I laughed at him and and told him it was my first race and I intended to win if I could, and I thought more of winning than I did of his $300.”
And win she did, beating in the process not just her local rival, Lizzie Glaw, but also Dottie Farnsworth, who had won Messier’s first race in Minneapolis the previous month. And she also beat a number of veterans of the high-wheeled era, women who’d raced against Louise Armaindo in the twilight of her career, Helen Baldwin, Lizzie Williams, and May Allen. Also racing were a couple of riders from Minneapolis, Ida Peterson, Mate Christopher, and Minnie Hokenson, along with Lillie William from Omaha.
When Messier launched his new circuit of women’s races in December he’d already promoted other races before that. But now he was going up against another promoter, Billy Madden. Between Messier’s races in Minneapolis and Chicago, Madden had promoted a women’s Six in New York, in Madison Square Garden itself. But it was Messier’s races that found popular appeal and he followed up the Minneapolis and Chicago races with more races in both cities over the next two months, before moving on to Detroit in March. As they crossed the country, the racing coalesced around a core group of riders, who came to be known as the Big Five, with local riders filling out the field as the circuit moved from city to city. Tillie Anderson quickly proved herself the best of the bunch.
To get an idea of the popularity of the races, let’s turn to February 1897, Columbus, Ohio and the reporting carried in the Columbus Dispatch. This is from the first day’s racing, February 2nd:
The cycling craze has struck Columbus. That it’s popular and in vogue with the masses is evidenced by the three or four thousand in attendance last evening when Starter Roy McGrew pulled the trigger.
What the managers of the popular enterprise will do towards seating their patrons during the remaining portion of the week is now a matter of conjecture.
Cleveland had her five thousand people at the opening night, and countless numbers were turned away.
The house couldn’t hold them.
Rain, snow, sleet, ice—nothing could stop them. They stood in the foyer, the lobbies, the seats; clamored upon the railings, stepped on each other’s toes, elbowed and pushed, surged and thronged to the front.
And then they couldn’t seat them.
Why everything went. Laughs and jibes, smiles and titters were the order of the evening.
Who was there?
Why who wasn’t?
Everyone who has the great national pastime at heart—his sisters, and his cousins and his aunts—and the other fellow’s sister, too.
Did they enjoy it?
It was a success.
The way that report focuses on the spectacle, the fans, that was pretty much the way Egon Erwin Kisch reported the Six Day race in Berlin in 1923, and is pretty much how Sixes today are reported. Later in the week, on the penultimate night’s racing, there were shades of Damon Runyon’s reporting from the 1920s as the focus moved to events on the track but still told the story of the crowd:
“Pin-n-n-n-g-g,” rang the starter’s pistol as the girls rounded into the home stretch.
The final spurt for the supremacy was on.
On they flew.
Faster and faster grew the pace.
For a moment the excited assemblage sat with beating hearts and bated breath.
First it was Glaw.
Suddenly there burst from the mighty crowd a startled cheer.
Then Bedlam broke loose.
To their feet they went. On the chairs—the railings.
Deafening were the wild huzzas of the now semi-maddened spectators.
On flew the gallant Swede lassie with Glaw at her wheel.
Heads down, teeth clenched and muscles set—fighting the battle of their lives.
All is silence.
And the multitude stands transfixed.
The race has ended.
Not everyone, of course, was as enthusiastic. Some were against the idea of women on bikes, period. Some talked of hippodroming, fixed races, a complaint that cycling has always left itself open to by the tendency for some races to be choreographed, if not outright fixed. But still the fans came. Through 1897 Anderson and her fellow riders rode in Indianapolis, Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, Detroit, Akron, Youngstown and Grand Rapids. The sport had, it appeared, hit critical mass. Certainly its popularity was enough to entice the French vedette Amélie le Gall, better known by the mononym Lisette, to cross the Atlantic. She already had the paced Hour and other records behind her in France, where she’d raced for the Gladiator ‘team’.
Lisette’s arrival added something, pitting as it did the old world against the new. And through 1898 the sport continued to prosper. But as the air went out of the American bicycle bubble in 1899 and the industry’s consolidation saw advertising budgets cut to the bone, so too did the air go out of women’s racing. One problem the circuit faced was that no new talent was coming through. From the get-go Tillie Anderson had dominated the other members of the Big Five, with Lizzie Glaw her closest rival. Even Lisette – whose Hour record Anderson never bested – wasn’t able to get the better of Tillie the Terrible on the saucer-shaped tracks they raced on.
Was Anderson really a terror? Swedes in general seem to have been lumbered with the Terrible Swede nickname, so it’s not really a reflection on character. Were Anderson racing today, she’d more likely be gifted a nickname like the Cannibal, or the Insatiable. She was driven to succeed. In a lot of ways she had to be, to survive. The International Cycling Union – the precursor of today’s UCI – sat on the fence when it came to women’s racing, leaving it to individual national federations to decide their own rules. And, unlike the French federation across the Atlantic, the American cycling federation, the League of American Wheelmen, was firmly against women’s racing. So too were large parts of society. And the media. To succeed, to get the respect and recognition she deserved, Anderson had to be willing to take on the establishment, as well as her rivals.
This added an extra layer to her rivalry with Lisette, with the two fighting for recognition and respect, neither willing to share the glory or cede to the other. A rivalry that could have been Coppi and Bartali, Anquetil and Poulidor, Obree and Boardman, instead turned into bitter squabbling in the pages of the press, the two trading barbs as they each sought the same thing. As Germaine Greer has said, “one of the characteristics of oppressed peoples is that they always fight among themselves.”
Roger Gilles’s Women on the Move – The Forgotten Era of Women’s Bike Racing gives due recognition to the achievements of Anderson and her rivals, breathes fresh life into stories that once gripped thousands of sports fans across America. The book follows Tillie the Terrible Swede: How One Woman, a Sewing Needle, and a Bicycle Changed History, a 2011 illustrated children’s book written by Sue Stauffacher, Gilles’s wife. Both books are heavily indebted to the efforts of Alice Olson Roepke, a great-niece of Anderson, who has worked tirelessly to make people aware of Anderson and the women she rode with and against.
With so little of the story of Anderson and her era told elsewhere, Women on the Move has required a lot of original research and Roger Gilles has done a tremendous job excavating the archives to tell the story of women’s racing in north America in the 1890s. Where he does fall down, somewhat, is in over-egging the pudding, over-selling the story, particularly when it comes to comparing women’s racing and men’s, choosing to reduce men’s racing to all day and all night Sixes. Women’s racing, then and now, is exciting enough to not need to be seen in a false battle with men’s.
Tillie Anderson’s contribution to American cycling was recognised in 2000 by the US Bicycling Hall of Fame, nearly a decade and a half after it came into being. Margaret Gast, who had been setting endurance records around the same time Anderson and the Big Five were filling out venues across the States, was inducted in 1993. Even in death recognition of Anderson’s achievements didn’t come without a fight.