ARLINGTON — Ask the most ardent sports fans to name some of the earliest female stars and they are likely to toss out names like Wilma Rudolph, Billie Jean King, and Babe Didrikson Zaharias.
All stars, no doubt, but one of the names least likely to be mentioned is that of arguably the first international female sports star — emphasis on “international” — Annie “Londonderry” Kopchovsky, a 23-year-old Bostonian who, in June 1894, set off on an around-the-world bicycle journey. Her goal was to make the trip in 15 months. And she succeeded . . . sort of.
Kopchovsky’s story, told in the documentary “The New Woman: Annie ‘Londonderry’ Kopchovsky,” is a much-anticipated highlight of the upcoming fourth annual Ciclismo Bike Travel Film Festival, which opens on May 20 at the Regent Theatre. At 26 minutes, it’s the longest film in this, the only bike-themed film festival in the United States. That seems fitting as “The New Woman” is about the longest recorded journey a woman had ever taken to that point on a bicycle, and about the long journey for women’s rights in the late 1800s.
The Ciclismo festival, a one-day event in its fourth year, is held in Arlington, the home base of the Ciclismo Classico bicycle touring and vacation company. Lauren Hefferen, cycling evangelist and founder and CEO of Ciclismo Classico, says she started the festival to celebrate National Bike Month (May) and “all things biking, because it is one of the most refreshing and empowering ways to see the world.”
“There are all sorts of specialty, niche film festivals,” Hefferen says. “Why not one for bicycles?”
“The New Woman” is based on a mixture of fact and legend — the most important legend being that in summer 1894 Kopchovsky, a married mother of three living in the Spring Street tenement in Boston’s West End, was approached by two businessmen who opposed women’s rights and were looking to make a public wager. They intended to challenge a woman to an “impossible” physical task and, when she failed, hold it up as evidence that a woman’s proper place is at home, cooking and cleaning.
Kopchovsky accepted the circumnavigating challenge (including the stipulation that she raise $5,000 to support her journey) and set off on a 42-pound drop-frame Columbia women’s bike, complete with skirt guard over the rear wheel to keep her garments from getting caught in the chain. She wore a full corset and a Victorian dress, as she pedaled her way toward New York, the first official stop on her trip. And she rode without an entourage or support team, stopping to sleep in inns, the homes of welcoming strangers, and sometimes camping on the side of the road. Her first advertising sponsor was the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Co., which paid her $100 to wear a placard bearing the company name. Kopchovsky did more than that, calling herself “Annie Londonderry” for the duration of the trip.
After she made it to Chicago several months later, behind schedule, Kopchovsky announced she was quitting the challenge, then changed her mind and changed her game by ditching the dress in favor of bloomy pantaloons and switching to a lighter-weight bicycle.
Once Kopchovsky had recharged in Chicago, she also changed her original plans to ride west to San Francisco. Instead she pedaled back to New York and caught a steamliner to France. After riding across France, including a festive stop in Marseilles, where her trip was celebrated, Kopchovsky crossed Asia largely by boat. She stopped briefly in several major ports, including Aden, Yemen; Colombo, Sri Lanka; and Shanghai, for quick bike rides. Nine months after leaving Boston, Kopchovsky arrived by ship in San Francisco from Yokohama, Japan. She traveled south through California and then east through Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico before heading north to Iowa and the final leg of her ride back to Chicago.
Reportedly, the businessmen’s wager (some accounts mention a $10,000 purse) called for Kopchovsky to ride 15,000 miles. But her own writing later said her supposed global circuit took her across 7,000 miles, though newspaper reports from that time say many of her claims of how quickly and where she completed different stages of the trip were physically impossible. Further, Kopchovsky admitted in her own writing that she sometimes took trains to keep up the pace.
Author Peter Zheutlin, Kopchovsky’s great-grandnephew and author of “Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride,” the book on which the film is based, says there’s no evidence the wager that supposedly prompted Kopchovsky’s ride ever happened. Still, what Kopchovsky did on her adventure far exceeds a long bike ride, says Zheutlin, who has also written for the Globe. Her actions forced people to choose sides, either pro-women’s rights or pro-status quo, says Zheutlin, who believes Kopchovsky’s original goals were simply to make money, make a name for herself, and get a lengthy break from home life.
Gillian Klempner Willman, the New York-based filmmaker who produced “New Woman,” agrees with Zheutlin and says she’s not at all bothered by Kopchovsky’s apparent fabrications about how much of her journey was done on a bicycle.
“Certainly you could argue that she went around the world with a bicycle, rather than on a bicycle. But I was just so grabbed by the idea that there was this woman who, in 1894, had these ambitions for herself that she had no precedence for having,” Willman says. “A Jewish immigrant with three kids, bound to the home. The fact that she just left her husband and children would be a big thing now. But to do it back then and go around the world was unheard of.”
Willman says the more she learned about Kopchovsky’s personality and creativity the more impressed she became.
“She was quite a character. The cycling part was interesting. And what she did was an athletic achievement, but the fact that she sold product placement through ad space on her body was amazing, and clever. Forward-thinking. The way she worked the press and the lecture circuit to raise money was ingenious.”
Willman says a recent NPR story she heard about frontiersman Davy Crockett having allegedly helped his own myth grow reminded her of Kopchovsky.
“Even though Annie wasn’t famous, she was very similar. She was very good at perpetuating her own myth. And that’s such a quintessential American notion, reinventing herself to be what she wanted.”
Hefferen says that while she found all the festival entries interesting, she found “New Woman” inspiring because of the risk Kopchovsky took to make her trip.
“I’m a mother of three kids, so I think it was bold as hell — a woman who left her family and just did what she had to do,” Hefferen says. “I don’t know if there’s more of a message than that: follow your heart. That’s what I had to do — follow my heart — to start my business. And it’s something that with many women just isn’t done. We’re taught that we have to stay home and deal, while the men in our lives follow their hearts.”
So how did Kopchovsky’s risk turn out?
After 15-months apart, Kopchovsky and her husband, Max, reunited and moved their family to New York, where she worked as a journalist for several months, writing about her cycling challenge, among other things. Her fame faded shortly afterward, though, and Kopchovsky died with no public fanfare, in 1947.