On September 16, 2018 Denise Mueller-Korenek reached 183.932 miles per hour on the Bonneville Salt Flats, smashing a 23-year-old world record. She was riding a high-tech bicycle, tucked in behind a 1,000-horse power dragster. At 45, Mueller-Korenek was determined to become the fastest human in the world on a bicycle. The first female velocipede racers of 1868 paved her way to victory 150 years ago by demonstrating female pedal power.
Sketches of early bicycles date back to the late 1400s. But bicycles as we know them became popular in 1867 in Paris where Pierre Michaux and his three brothers found commercial success selling velocipedes.
Early velocipedes were made of iron with wooden wheels and iron tires. Ongoing versions of them became known as “boneshakers” because they were so uncomfortable to ride. Cycling was viewed as the domain of men. Many people considered women too fragile to handle the punishment of these early bicycles. Racing them was definitely a man’s department. Thankfully, French women did not agree.
The first recorded female velocipede race was held in 1868. The place was Bordeaux at the Parc Bordelais. According to Le Monde Illustré (November 1, 1868) four women participated in the heated competition. “Mademoiselle Louise” led from the start, but Mademoiselle Julie put forth a “superhuman effort” to overtake her and was declared the winner. Mademoiselle Louisa finished third with Mademoiselle Amélie finishing fourth.
Like modern bicycles, the velocipedes these women rode had two equal-sized wheels. The pedals were attached to the axis of the front wheel, which meant that the first female velocipede racers sat with their legs stretched out in front of them. With the speed of the velocipedes, their clothing flowed behind them, revealing their legs as seen in the illustration. Le Monde Illustré called their outfits “foolish.”
The following month, the American journal Harper’s Weekly, A Journal of Civilization, printed the same illustration with one difference. In the American version, undergarments were added to cover the legs of the female velocipede racers. Apparently, the French version was considered too risque for American readers, despite the “Reform Dress” movement already percolating.
Bloomers had appeared in The Water-Cure Journal, the popular women’s health journal, in October 1849. The new garment was a response to the cumbersome fashions of the time that hindered women from athletic activity. Amelia Bloomer took a liking to the new garment and published it in her journal, The Lily. By 1851 Bloomers had become the craze. Still, the costumes of the first female velocipede racers were considered outlandish.
The Illustrated Sydney News, December 28, 1868
VELOCIPEDE RACES AT ST. CLOUD, FRANCE.
“VELOCIPEDOMANIA is the prevailing malady with the fashionable Parisian world. Every citizen who prides himself upon being à la. mode has his velocipede, and rides it. Velocipedestrianism is reaping a goodly harvest. In fact, that method of locomotion threatens to throw equestrianism into the shade. From a Paris letter we gather the following gossip in regard to this plaything of the hour The Velocepede Club has been formed and baptized, and sixty members are already inscribed. Courses, matches, and pools are promised, and a race is announced at the Pre Catelan. Already these locomotives are seized by the female as well as the male sex, as an appropriate plaything,,,
Of course,this French idea will soon be borrowed by our own fast metropolitan monde, and we shall see fair ladies and gay men coursing on velocipedes along the smooth drives of the Domain and other public grounds.”
The Leader (Melbourne), September 4, 1869
LADIES ON VELOCIPEDES
“The idea of offering a prize of ten guineas for a public race by lady velocipede riders was perhaps conceived by the promoters of the sports at Collingwood as a pure draw, without much expectation of edifying their patrons with the actual spectacle of a number of females tugging and kicking on the tricycle in public gaze.
That six daring lady athletes entered the lists, and, of course, the publication of this startling piece of news brought shoals of all sorts of people last Saturday afternoon down to the North Fitzroy Cricket Ground, on which the trial of skill took place. Some three thousand persons waited through a weary progra of miscellaneous sports, and by half-past four, when the bell rang for the event of the day, the appetites of the spectators were well whetted.”
The first major French road race across the 76 miles from Paris to Rouen was held the following year on November 7, 1869. It was organized by Le Vélocipède Illustré in conjunction with Michaux, the bicycle manufacturer. Among the 120 entrants there were at least three women. A British woman who called herself ‘Miss America’ finished 12 hours behind the winner James Moore. She placed 29th.
Women also competed in the cycle races in the first International Olympic event held in Athens in 1896.
Congratulations to Denise Mueller-Korenek, the fastest human on a bicycle for contributing to a great tradition of path-paving women.
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