The Story Behind 1890's Women's Bicycle Racing
From 1895-1902, one of the most popular arena sports in America was women’s professional bicycle racing. They competed in six-day races on small, banked indoor and outdoor tracks all across the country, and the best of the racers became household names, known for their intense rivalries and record-setting speeds. Not surprisingly, the women struggled against the same challenges that plagued women athletes in the 20th and even 21st centuries—a concerted cultural backlash, suppression by men’s sports organizations, being judged primarily on their looks rather than their abilities, etc. But they ultimately triumphed, drawing thousands of spectators per night and earning more money than they ever dreamed of. Unfortunately, the women and their sport have largely been forgotten by history. They deserve better.
A Little Context
Prior to the early 1890s, the picturesque “high-wheel” dominated cycling—but it was an unwieldy and dangerous ride, and most viewed it as a novelty. Inspired by the old days of six-day, round-the-clock “go as you please” pedestrian races, some professional high-wheelers—men and women—did compete, but these were pretty much just tests of endurance—typically 8 or 12 hours a day for women, and 24 hours a day, all week long, for men—and their speeds were not impressive. They usually averaged about 12 or 13 mph.
Then came the diamond-frame “safety” bicycle and the attendant bicycle boom—a true cultural revolution. With a low, comfortable mount, pneumatic tires, and chain-driven gearing, these bicycles exploded on the scene, and from 1893-1897, millions and millions of Americans—men, women, and children—took to the road.
These bikes were fast, so racing quickly became popular. The racing took two basic forms. There were “field day” events—short and long races held on Saturdays in local parks, where cyclists aimed for all manner of distance records. These events flourished in 1893 and 1894, and they were exclusively male. Then in 1895 a former boxer and boxing manager named Billy Madden started holding field-day cycling events for women, at the suggestion of his wife, in upstate New York. The events attracted attention, primarily for the novelty of seeing women in bloomers competing against one another, but they were generally regarded as little more than an exhibition. Madden was ridiculed in the eastern press, including the New York Times, and women’s bicycle racing was largely written off.
That same summer, however, out west in Minneapolis, French immigrant and former professional pedestrian Henri Messier also started promoting women’s bicycle races. Unlike Madden, Messier decided to adapt the format of the old six-day endurance races. Believing the women lacked men’s endurance capabilities, he shortened the races to two or three hours a day and built bowl-shaped wooden tracks small enough to fit inside the base paths of a typical ball field. He banked the surface all the way around—he was the first to do this—which helped the women hold the track at high speeds and also forced them to keep up the pace at all times. His first race took place in July 1895 in St. Paul, and he recruited several of the old high-wheel pros whose names were still familiar to many sports fans: “Frankie” Nelson, Helen “Beauty” Baldwin, and “Baby” May Allen, among others. He added a couple of local speedsters, including “the White Cyclone,” Mate Christopher. That winter, he moved the board tracks indoors and began staging races in auditoriums, armories, and concert halls. With five or six women sprinting around the tracks for two or three hours a night, dressed provocatively in tight woolen racing suits (which quickly replaced the baggy bloomers), Messier’s version of the sport drew thousands of eager spectators every night. Across middle America, from Missoula, Omaha, Kansas City, and St. Louis to Chicago, Detroit, Columbus, and Cleveland, it became a sensation.
What resulted became the most popular arena sport of the late 1890s—the first American arena sport, really. Spurred by the newly invented bikes, the tight, steeply banked tracks, the pulsing orchestras in the grandstands, and stunning prize money, the women racers crisscrossed the country to appear in weeklong races in big cities and small. With the intense speeds came intense danger, as the women frequently brushed against one another and took vicious spills, sometimes even flying over the rails and into the crowd. It was like Roller Derby on bikes. The racers’ ability to jump up after falling, often bruised and bloody, shocked the Victorian-era crowds and challenged conventional notions of female frailty. Supported by the suddenly flush bicycle manufacturers, who were themselves competing madly for market share, the races were promoted feverishly in local newspapers with alluring etchings of the women in uniform. Crowds—not just men, but women and children too—swelled from the Monday start to the Saturday finale—and then the troupe would move on to conquer another city or town.