Women in Cycling

Women's History Month: Tillie Anderson

By: Victoria Shead  March 30, 2021

By 1895 a new crop of athletic young women defied the odds to race bikes, and one woman quickly rode her way to victory and newspaper fame. Her name was Tillie Anderson.

Tillie 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. She raced in 130 races and took first place in 123 of them. During the summer of 1895, she took part in the race over the Elgin-Aurora (Ill.) century course. She finished the race with a time of 6:59:30, beating the previous women’s record for that course by 18 minutes. This being her first race quickly helped to set her mark in HERstory.

Tillie later traveled around the country taking part in six-day bicycle races for women, which involved racing at top speed two hours each evening for six consecutive days. In 1896 she competed in a race in a 16-lap race in Detroit around the city’s auditorium building for a total of 18 hours spread over six days. By the second day of the race, Anderson was not only speeding past the other riders but establishing a new world record for female cyclists when she reached the threshold of 100 miles around the track in an unprecedented four hours, 47 minutes, and 30 seconds.

Tillie’s secret also seemed to 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 sprint ahead to the finish line. Anderson was 20 years old when the League of American Wheelmen recognized her as the best woman cyclist globally, which she held until her forced retirement. In 1902 women were barred from racing after another racer, Dottie Farnsworth, was killed in a non-racing circus cycling event. After her racing career, Tillie helped establish bike paths in Chicago and remained an advocate for bicycling through the years. She also remained active in the League of American Wheelman and the Bicycle Stars of the Nineteenth Century organizations until she died in 1965.

In June 2000, 105 years later, Tillie was inducted into the United States Bicycling Hall of Fame, an undisputed champion and a true pioneer in women's cycling history.