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by Kathryn Taylor
March 5, 2020
Photography by Tim Bardsley-Smith
On June 25, 1894, Annie Londonberry, whose real name was Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, set out to become the first woman to ride her bike around the world. A woman traveling the world on a bike was unheard of at a time when women didn’t have the right to own property, keep any wages they earned, sign contracts, or vote.
Annie was known for her tall tales about her global cycling journey, much of which was accomplished on boat or train, but just 15 months later when she returned to her husband and three children, her trip was touted by the New York World as the birth of “the new woman — independent, dynamic, and free”. She became a symbol of the growing women’s liberation movement.
Today in Malawi, Aleni buttons up her school uniform as she dreams of becoming a nurse. Just a few years ago, it seemed that this dream would die. Her long walk to school every day meant she was often late and would be sent home by her teachers. Men would taunt her along the way and she worried about being raped as she walked the rural roads leading to and from her school. Thanks to the work of World Bicycle Relief, Aleni was given a bike and now her mother Gloria believes that she will become the first of her children to complete her formal education.
Sunday, March 8 is International Women’s Day. The first International Women’s Day was celebrated in 1911, eight years before the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote in the United States. It began as a day to campaign for women’s rights around the world and has evolved into a day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women while still rallying for worldwide gender equality.
This year’s theme is “an equal world is an enabled world”. While we most often see this day marked with social media posts celebrating the women in our lives, you may be surprised to learn that riding your bike is one of the best ways that you can celebrate the rich history of this day.
The invention of the bike was a catalyst for the early women’s movement. The bicycle went mainstream in the 1890s and offered an inexpensive and easy mode of transportation. For the first time, women had access to transportation that allowed them to become self-reliant which led to a greater sense of independence.
As cycling began to evolve from just a mode of transportation to a sport, cycling clubs were born. While some cycling clubs did allow women’s participation, women’s-only cycling clubs also began to appear and women began competing in events. Society generally characterized women as fragile or frail but as they began to compete in cycling, they found themselves striving to equal the men in the sport. A new image of an independent and strong woman began to emerge and she was often depicted in drawings of a woman with a bicycle.
In 1896, Susan B. Anthony, a leading figure in the women’s voting rights movement, wrote:
“I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammeled womanhood.”
Today, the bicycle continues to be used as a tool to bring freedom to women and girls in developing countries around the world. It is breaking down the transportation and safety barrier that has historically kept girls from accessing education. In rural villages in India, girls who were given bikes saw a 90% increase in school attendance. The bicycle also opens the door for better healthcare and more employment opportunities.
World Bicycle Relief has been giving bicycles to girls like Aleni in developing countries since 2005. Their program moves the needle on gender equality by empowering women to overcome the cultural obstacles that stand in their way.
For all the progress we’ve made, there are still places in the world where women are not allowed to ride bicycles. Just four years ago, a group of Iranian women were arrested for riding their bikes in public. Women are treated like criminals just for riding their bikes.
Since International Women’s Day falls on a Sunday in 2020, it’s the perfect year to plan a bike ride to celebrate the day and to raise awareness for the work that is still being done to create an equal world. Unfortunately, group rides are often intimidating to women but with a little purposeful planning, you can have a fun and impactful ride that day. Here are some of our top tips.
Find a great location
A local bike shop, coffee shop or brewery are ideal. A bike shop will obviously offer a built-in support system but may have limited hours on a Sunday. A coffee shop or brewery will have a built-in social element that can give the ride that celebratory feeling without much effort on your part!
Plan the route
Since this day is about celebration and awareness, focus on a route that is attainable for all levels of cyclists. A good route will have a shorter and longer option with cue sheets and ride leaders.
Share the story
Before your ride, gather your group and give a brief overview of why you are celebrating International Women’s Day with a bike ride. Make people aware of the fact that in some countries, it is still illegal for women to ride a bicycle, while in others, the bicycle is a catalyst for women to rise out of cycles of poverty.
The weather in March can be unpredictable in many places. If your March tends to be too cold or rainy for outdoor biking, don’t get discouraged. You can organize a ride on Zwift or even partner with a local cycling studio to host a ride.
Join an existing ride
Rides are popping up all over the world and the easiest way to find one in your area is to use the power of Google. Both Trek and Specialized Women’s Ambassadors are planning local group rides. Trek has a list of their beginner-friendly rides posted here.
Zwift is also using the day to launch three weeks of women-focused rides in partnership with Machines for Freedom, an LA-based women’s cycling clothing company. Group rides and workouts appropriate for all-levels will kick off on March 8 and participants will receive a limited edition in-game jersey.
If you can’t ride on March 8 but still want to combine your passion for cycling and support for women around the world, you can donate to World Bicycle Relief. Just $147 will provide a bicycle to someone in a developing country and provide the vehicle that leads to a more equitable world.
Kathryn Taylor is a triathlete turned gravel cyclist and general lover of all types of outdoor adventures. She has coached triathletes for the past five years and has a passion for helping newbies get involved in sports. After working for a bike shop for two years, Kathryn was frustrated to see how women were treated within the industry. After a few too many glasses of wine and an angry rant to her friend Lauren, Kathryn started Girls Gone Gravel.
Kathryn has been published in USA Triathlon Magazine and been a regular contributor for Triathlete Magazine articles. She lives in Atlanta, GA with way too many pets and not enough bikes. You can follow her on Twitter.