Londonderry - A Trade Show Superstar!
pring is the season for bicycle trade shows, but today's annual affairs must compete with those for boats, cars and even airplanes. Fortunately it's one the “wheel” can manage these days, having reclaimed its place in the mobility wars from its once lowly status of a half-century ago.
It had fewer late-19th-century competitors, and they were more likely to be found at agricultural fairs in the horse stables.
Few trade shows were bigger than the Salon du Cycle, held in the Parisian winter months and where rival producers challenged each other with their new innovations. On both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, the decade was a constant series of one-upmanship models and add-ons comparable to today's digital mania.
In late 1894, the Salon could advertise a true sensation, the appearance of Mademoiselle Annie Londonderry, described as the “daring young globe girdler” and the prime attraction at one of the booths from England.
The Salon boasted of her prowess, of her souvenirs for sale, of her incredible willingness to test roads and countries to which few men would dare venture and particularly not on a bicycle.
Yet for all her appearances, there was even more to Londonderry's story than met the French promoter's eyes. For one thing, his countrymen had been particularly rude in greeting her at dockside in Le Havre, where her boat had recently anchored. They took her bike, mocked her appearance and generally put roadblocks in her way that few would have cared to surmount.
Londonderry, however, was no shrinking violet. Her life story up to then was extraordinary. Born Annie Cohen in 1870, she was a child immigrant – her parents from Latvia. She grew up in Boston, and eventually married Max Kopchovsky, a peddler and a devout Jew. Three children followed, but Annie was not curtailed from pursuing opportunity, and when a bet was wagered that no woman could cycle around the world within a designated time and with a prize of $10,000 if one did, the plucky Annie took the bait.
She took the name Londonderry from a local springwater company, perhaps conscious of the anti-Semitic overtones of her day. She adopted the latest in women's bicycle clothing, and was not adverse to freely offered support, such as a bicycle 20 pounds lighter than her initial ride.
She made the best of her stay in Paris in the winter of 1894 and early 1895 before making her way east by bicycle and often by boat and even train, since the wager of which she was the pursuer was rather vague as to the manner in which one travelled.
Some critics even claimed her world tour was more like that of a woman accompanied by a bicycle rather than one on which she rode for significant distances.
For her part, she described riding to Marseille in early 1895, where she boarded a boat for Alexandria and Port Said in Egypt, de-boarding so she could ride about and see the sights. Jerusalem followed with its echoes for her own religious beliefs, followed by Aden in Yemen, Colombo in Sri Lanka, Singapore, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Korea and possibly even Russia before touring Japan and visiting Nagasaki and Yokohama. She then sailed for home, and, on arrival, cycled across the United States and, occasionally (some said more often than she claimed), hitched a ride with her bike on a cross-country train.
Annie “Londonderry” Cohen advanced women’s cycling and was a true world-sportswoman pioneer.
Nevertheless, she arrived before the deadline and collected her prize.
When word reached Paris at the time of the next Salon du Cycle, a few glasses of champagne were raised in honour of her sheer audacity.
While Annie may have died in relative obscurity in 1947, she had done something few could even imagine attempting, much less a young woman in the 19th century, when obstructionist social and political mores, restrictive clothing and the uncertain local conditions of most places made such adventurism impractical and even dangerous. After all, American cycling world-traveller Frank Lenz had been murdered on a similar trek just a year before.
It didn't stop Annie, and anyone at that Paris trade show would have met a true pioneering world sportswoman.