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Women’s (Bike) History: Tillie Anderson

Guest post by April Streeter, author of Women on Wheels

It’s little known that bike racing for women flourished even before 1900. In the late 1880’s, a group of great athletic women including Louise Armaindo, Jessie Oaks, and Helen Baldwin raced their high-wheel Ordinary bikes in impromptu six-day races across the country.

When the so-called pneumatic ‘safety’ bicycle arrived around 1890, it was the vehicle that would get hundreds of thousands of women out riding. With two similarly sized wheels sporting inflatable pneumatic tires, it was definitely a smoother, more comfortable ride — and its low-slung frame allowed women in skirts to more easily mount and unmount than the practically impossible high-wheeled Ordinary.

By 1895 a new crop of athletic young women were defying disapproval from parents and paternal types to race diamond-frame, safety-style bikes — and one woman quickly rode her way to victory and newspaper fame: Tillie Anderson.

Anderson was a Swedish immigrant who arrived in Chicago in 1889 as a teenager. A seamstress, Anderson caught bike fever and saved for a bicycle. Soon she wasn’t just riding but also racing. Her beau Philip Sjöberg realized Tillie was a stronger rider than he was and shelved his racing aspirations to coach and train her.

Tillie seemed to win nearly every race she entered – taking first place in 123 of 130 races. In the 1890’s, these races were generally six-day events, with the women racers riding two hours per day on a banked velodrome track of eight laps to a mile. The format favored riders like Tillie with track-tested endurance. Yet Tillie’s secret seemed to also be, as one newspaper commented, the ability “to ride and think at the same time.” She liked to keep the lead but always looked shrewdly for the best moment to spurt ahead of her fellow riders to the finish line. Six-day races were popular, even raucous events, and Anderson was a modest yet assertive champion of the form.

Long before Tillie’s legs gave out her racing days came to an end – in 1902 women were barred from racing after another racer, Dottie Farnsworth, was killed in a non-racing circus cycling event. Anderson lost her husband Sjöberg that same year, 1902, to tuberculosis. She became a masseuse and lived a quiet life. Decades after Tillie’s death, Alice Olson Roepke brought her great-aunt Anderson’s achievements to light, and Tillie was inducted into the Biycle Hall of Fame in 2000.

Find more tales of early bike heroines in bike blogger April Streeter’s handbook for city cyclists titled Women at Wheels.  

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