According to a new book, women’s bicycle racing was the most popular arena sport in America in the 1890s. Roger Gilles’ book Women on the Move: The Forgotten Era of Women’s Bicycle Racing chronicles the brief era of professional women’s bicycle racing from 1895 to 1902. These ladies defied stereotypes and jumped into the saddle when women were still actively discouraged from participating in sports.
This period in women’s cycling history is a little unknown. The ideal storm of circumstances aligned to allow the sport of women’s bicycle racing to survive for seven years. It was largely due to the introduction of the safety bicycle, which looks very similar to the bikes we ride today and replaced the dangerous high-wheeled cycles. “So in the mid-1890s, everyone who could afford a bicycle got one, and by 1897, the bicycle manufacturing industry had collapsed because everyone had their bicycles, so the bicycle boom was short-lived,” Gilles adds. Bicycles are also connected with giving women a level of independence they had never known before, allowing them to travel around the world alone and congregate with their friends, frequently without the presence of chaperones.
The bicycle boom sparked interest in racing, and men and women began to compete. Men’s races were held at all hours of the day and night during the time. They were six-day events that lasted 24 hours a day, modeled around competitive walking races and high-wheel races from the past. “They were essentially endurance tests, with drug use and other things to make the races practicable,” Gilles adds, “but it was a spectacle.” Women, on the other hand, were thought to be too weak to compete in these types of endurance races at the time, so the races were cut down from 24-hour affairs to two or three hours a day over several days. This resulted in a pleasurable viewing experience for fans who could visit the track for a couple of hours to watch. It also helped women to go faster because they only had to push for a few hours a day, allowing them to keep up with males in terms of speed. As a result, women’s races grew in popularity even faster than men’s events.
On March 2, 1896, the starting lineup for a race in Chicago
On March 2, 1896, the starting lineup for a race in Chicago. Photo credit: United Nations Photographic Agency
The athletes made a lot of money, and many of them became breadwinners for their families. Women still expected the wide hoop skirts and modest clothes, but these riders were serious athletes. They put forth a lot of effort and are likely some of the first American women to commit to a sport, even if the effects of their training made them appear “unfeminine,” which would have been extremely contentious at the time. They also noticed that having their costumes flapping and their hats blowing hurt their speed, so they began to alter their attire to make it more appropriate to competitive racing. This would have been considered quite radical, especially when even female baseball players were expected to wear full skirts.