Muscle on Wheels
Retired professor M. Ann Hall’s Muscleon Wheels is not only a work of biography and history, but of mystery as well. Hall chronicles the life of Louise Armaindo, a French Canadian high-wheel racer who competed in events largely in the U.S. and Canada from about 1881 to 1893. The racer got her start in the circus as a strongwoman and trapeze artist. (Supposedly, her mother was a strongwoman, too.) “Armaindo” is a nom decircus, so finding the cyclist’s real name and place of birth was difficult and ultimately inconclusive for Hall. It didn’t help that circus performers of the day often embellished their biographies.
Armaindo moved from the circus to pedestrianism, essentially long-distance walking competitions. Next, it was the endurance challenges of high-wheel races as well as trick riding. There were a few other women racers; Armaindo competed mostly against men, and horses, too. These events could draw crowds of thousands.
The Canadian rider’s skills seemed to wane in the 1890s, which was also the time that the safely bicycle, which got its name partly because it was way less treacherous to ride than a high wheel, began to grow in popularity. Off the race course, Hall documents how the safety not only got more women riding, but provoked a quick backlash against those same women. The League of American Wheelmen didn’t seem too threatened when there were only a few women riding and competing on high wheels. In 1895, however, its rules stated that races wouldn’t receive sanction if they included women. Still, the racing continued. In Canada, the first women’s six-day safety race ran in Winnipeg, in June 1896.
Armaindo’s end is almost as mysterious as her origins. She was a patient at a hospital in Buffalo June 1, 1890. Then, somehow she got to Montreal where she died on Oct. 12. Records show she was buried in the cemetery associated with Notre-dame Basilica. Yet, Hall has not been able to locate Armaindo's grave.