Elsa’s 1,000 Miles
Elsa von Blumen is likely the first professional woman cyclist – competitor and in some ways, inspiration for my favorite Louise Armaindo.
To me, Elsa has never seemed as a personality to have the verve that Louise did – her few written quotes and media descriptions make her out to be conservative, staid even.
“In presenting myself to the public in my bicycle exercises,” she said, “I feel that I am not only offering the most novel and fascinating entertainment now before the people, but am demonstrating the great need on the part of American young ladies, especially, of physical culture and bodily exercise.”
Certainly not the statement of someone with a lack of self esteem, but also not those of someone ready to inspire!
Even her outfits (compared to Louise’s) lacked spark and dazzle. In later years, she herself complained her clothing was too restrictive – she dressed, as above, not only in long-waisted coat and knickerbocker pants, but also in a sort of modesty skirt on top of the pants. She eschewed bike caps for more ladylike feathered hats.
While researching Louise’s life for the historical novel I am working on, I had to enlarge my view of Elsa’s role, however, and increase my level of respect for her.
For when Louise was just a biking newbie, taking lessons on the high-wheel bike at the Natatorium in Chicago where her mentor Fred Rollinson ran a bike school, Elsa was already racking up the racing credits.
In those rough and tumble days of cycling’s early history, everyone seemed to be vying for the title “Champion of the World”, straining to break existing records for speed and endurance. Elsa was also a part of this record-breaking fever.
Though she didn’t seem quite as eager to take handicaps and race men as Louise subsequently did, Elsa liked to race, and she seemed particularly inclined to race horses. At the racetracks in cities such as Philadelphia, Elsa in her outfit wheeling around the track trying to catch a sprinting horse must have been an exciting scene – spectators gathered in the hundreds and sometimes, in the thousands.
The feat that helped change my view of Elsa took place in Pittsburgh, on a track at ‘Old City Hall’ with a 1/16 mile track. On Monday, November 28, 1881, Elsa got on her high-wheeled bike, intending to ride 1,000 miles by the following Sunday. (That means she’d have to go more than 150 miles each day).
The first day she did 160 miles – 2,560 revolutions of the track. By Wednesday she’s made 495 miles when she retired for the night. By Friday, she was bone tired, and The Bicycling World correspondent reported,
“Her long ride had very plainly told upon her by this time. She looked tired and weary. She had lost several pounds of flesh.”
On Saturday night, a large crowd cheered when it was announced at 11:52 p.m. that she’d completed her thousandth mile. She was likely a mess – Bicycling World reported that: “During the last few hours of the ride, it was necessary to keep her up with stimulants applied outwardly.” Smelling salts and icy water, perhaps.
All together she was on her wheel 142 hours to make the 1,000 mile slog, and swore she would not try it again. For awhile, she traveled the country, being feted by the (nearly all men) of local bike clubs.
She did continue racing, first as a worthy competitor to Louise, and then in women’s six-day bicycling races, right up until cycling changed with the advent of the safety bike near the decade’s end.
Elsa may not have had the vivacity, nerviness, or inner drive of Louise, but she was highly admirable as one of the first women to brave the heights of the high-wheel and claim a small measure of fame and fortune.