Around the World on Two Wheels

By the late 19th century, much of the world had been newly linked by the ever-expanding web of steamships, railroads, and telegraphs. The ordinary Western tourist could, with luck and determination, go places that only a few decades before had been the exclusive province of heroic explorers. With tales like Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days firing the public imagination, feats of travel became a source of popular entertainment. Author Peter Zheutlin follows the celebrated ride of his great-grandaunt Annie Kopchovsky, as the immigrant mother of three from Boston set out on a highly publicized journey around the world on a bicycle. Along the way she wore practical riding clothes — shocking some and delighting others — and spoke out against those who disapproved of women taking to the roads. But her main talent was in creating a spectacle that suited her own purposes: taking a sponsor’s brand as a quondam surname (“Londonderry” spring water), Annie always kept her eye as much on the newspapers as on the road. In fact, Zheutlin finds that Annie was almost completely disingenuous about her journey, freely inventing stories for the press about her trips to war zones and attacks by ruffians. Moreover, she traveled far more by steam power than pedal power (her actual riding outside of the U.S. was mostly a single leg in France — the rest of the haul was done by steamship). Her greatest feat was a typically American one: to have reinvented herself as necessary, the facts be what they may. –