Absolute power

Before safety bicycles and dress reform there was a French-Canadian strong woman on wheels

While attending a town council meeting in the southern Ontario town in which I live, I was chided by a councillor. “Laura, decorum please!” he said. I hadn’t said anything—at least not verbally. But I’d worn black Lycra cycling shorts in Alice Munro country, where women weren’t supposed to show up to a council meeting on a bike wearing nice tight shorts. I was there to speak about safe cycling—not be judged for my riding apparel. But as Louise Armaindo, the greatest high-wheel female racer of the 1880s (who could beat many a man), knew, what I wear on my bike lets me be free. And you can’t beat freedom.

Since its invention the bicycle has been a literal vehicle of emancipation for women, but much of that history is told from the advent of the “safety bicycle” in the 1890s. The safety bike had equally sized wheels, pneumatic tires, a seat that allowed cyclists to steady themselves with their feet against the ground, a drive train that would soon include gears, and a diamond frame. “Woman is riding to suffrage on a bicycle,” declared suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The rational-clothing movement, in which middle and upper class women dumped bustles and corsets for bloomers and snappy jackets, happened in parallel with the right to vote and the advent of the safety bicycle—a costly but life-saving way for women from the right families to escape the penitentiary of ­domesticity.

The configuration of the safety bicycle lives on in the brilliant and energy-efficient design of the sleekest carbon fibre machines of the Tour de France. But before all this dazzling technology, there was the amazing Quebecois “strong woman” and cycling champion Louise Armaindo, who most often crossed finish lines on her high-wheeled bicycle well ahead of the pack. Strong women lifted weights, tossed medicine balls, balanced ridiculously heavy objects on various parts of their body and did other spectacular exhibitions of strength in the popular circuses of the era. Sport historian and journalist Frank G. Menke saw Armaindo as something more than a curiosity; he called her the greatest woman athlete who ever lived.

In researching her book on Armaindo, M. Ann Hall, professor emerita at the University of Alberta, dove into the archives, searching through sensationalistic U.S. newspapers and the sexist newsletters of the League of American Wheelmen for the history of one of Canada’s most talented and yet disappeared female athletes. In Muscle on Wheels, she tells a story set mainly south of the border, where talented women could earn real money thanks to wide-scale betting on the spectacle of sport, and watch it vanish into the pockets of agents, managers, and event organizers. Though Armaindo appears to have held her own amongst these “fast” men, decking and dumping those she realized were ripping her off. One newspaper account had Armaindo and her agent and coach, Tom Eck, wrestling it out when she felt he was not treating her fairly. Given the sensationalistic nature of sports news, it is hard to really know—but let’s hope her incredible strength came in handy in every avenue of her life.

Still, despite her physical strength, athletic success, business smarts, and plain old survival instincts, hers is a story about how such an incredible woman disappears anyway—in life and in death. It turns out that Armaindo, like the other “strong people” who were circus performers, vaudeville and burlesque actors, and athletes, was not using her real name. Hall shows that while a number of other females also descended from René Dubois dit Brisebois, who settled in Quebec around 1658, when birth dates and places are compared to information in the press, and information she provided for her marriage certificate, only the Marie-Louise Brisbois or Brisebois born in 1857 in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue fit these time lines. Like many children born into the working class, her mother died when she was a child, and she was working soon after. But her mother had been a strong woman too, so Armaindo’s path led rather quickly to the circus tent, though when she realized that race walking (pedestrienne in the feminine) and then competitive cycling were more lucrative and exciting, she was a quick convert to the racing track.

History, too, forgot Armaindo: she died in tragic circumstances, never having recovered from injuries sustained in a hotel fire. She was last recorded as a patient in the Buffalo General Hospital in 1900. The Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery in Montreal was the most likely to house her grave, but Hall could not find it. She notes that those least likely to be commemorated after burial were those who were young, female, working class, Catholics and French-speaking. Even though Armaindo’s contracts were lucrative at times, and she was the highlight of many an athletic event, she died poor and in anonymity.

But mainly Muscle on Wheels transports the reader to the racetrack, to the exciting days when Armaindo rode every other North American woman (and many men) into the ground. Frequently men would give her a head start, as this was an era of gentlemen-like conduct—at least superficially. And  sharp marketers realized that women liked to watch women compete, and therefore, theoretically, twice the amount of tickets could be sold. The athletes raced on the monotonous yet considerably dangerous indoor banked tracks that counted fifteen laps or more to the mile, and Armaindo was rarely beaten. If they did catch her, Armaindo had the ability to pour it on for the last laps of the race and decimate her competitors. She also took on horses over longer distances on outdoor tracks, and, as long as the distance was over five miles, was the victor over her equine competitors, too.

This time period of the 1880s was also the start of the “Six Days,” a type of racing that still exists today in Europe. The origins are found in pedestrienne racing, competitions in which men and women race-walked extraordinarily long distances on indoor tracks. In the 1870s, Armaindo realized this was a more lucrative career than being a strong woman in the circus and transferred to endurance-walking events. Never one to stay too long in one place, she found that high-wheeled bicycles soon caught her eye, along with Eck, who knew a good deal when he saw one and accompanied her as her pedestrienne manager-coach and, most likely, lover.

The first “high-wheel cycling race for women” was held in the U.S., writes Hall, on November 29, 1879.” Lizzie Baymer of San Francisco won four nights in a row. It was clear she was in a class of her own, but by 1881 Armaindo had taken to high-wheeled racing and had soon rewritten virtually every record—though record keeping seems to have been directly controlled by race promoters, for whom sensationalism trumped facts, and betting ran the day.

Hall quotes “Professor” Frederick Rollinson, Armaindo’s riding school instructor:

This same rider has accomplished the feat of walking seventy-five miles without getting off the track. She rides a forty-eight-inch wheel; is very muscular in upper and lower limbs; can lift steadily a dumb-bell weighing eighty-five pounds above her head; was one of my first pupils on the opening of the [riding] school; learnt very quickly; rides in a very
fine form…

Even “ladies” of the upper and middle classes came to see women race, and their presence helped keep comments about the athletes’ attire at bay. In a time when women were covering much of their bodies in the name of modesty, morality, and delicacy, Armaindo and other women dressed so they could perform athletically, as well as for show-womanship, their shapely, muscular legs clad in tights or stockings. While racing for the “Championship of America” against John Prince, who gave her a three-mile lead over a 25-mile race, Armaindo wore “a crimson jacket trimmed with silver lace, red trunks, red and white stockings, heavy walking shoes, and a scarlet silk cap. A diamond crescent glittered at her throat.” Her women fans also wore crimson. (Prince won by eighty-four seconds, which just made Armaindo train harder for the next match-up.)

But those same women in the audience would later turn against the working class women of high-wheel racing. When the safety bicycle came along and hordes of women—most of whom were not trained athletes—started riding outdoors, middle and upper class women spoke up for a dress reform that preferred modesty. (The comment I received at our town council meeting is a holdover from those starchy days, a “Little Lady” version of femaleness still breathing in rural Canada.). For proper ladies, bulky bloomers or breeches replaced form-fitting tights, while fluffy, long-sleeved blouses replaced sleek tops that revealed skin as well as the form of a woman in excellent shape. Many men did not want to see women on bikes at all. It was a great escape vehicle. In 1897 Dr. Shadwell of the U.K. wrote in “The hidden dangers of cycling” of the dreaded “bicycle face” women cyclists would acquire—permanently furrowed brow, bulging eyes, clenched jaw. It was also said that the uterus would collapse. In its quest to disgrace women’s racing, the Omaha Daily Herald professed “The dull round of duties which a daughter or a wife must perform is greeted with no plaudits, and when once the taste for applause is acquired it is as hard to break as the whisky habit.” The financially rewarding, fast, seductive world of professional women’s cycling was not a convincing advertisement for the economically isolating and relatively boring life of marriage and children. Those tights were just too tight. This new world of safety bikes and modesty did not appeal to Armaindo. She soon lost her edge in a world that afforded her little else.

There was always a powerful male backlash against any woman athlete, but particularly nasty things were said about Armaindo as she was not modest or American. In her French accent she boasted about beating men with or without a handicap; she didn’t have kids; she was nomadic; and she loved the strength of her own body. The League of American Wheelmen fought against women having any power whatsoever, and while 1,500 recreational women riders were members by 1896, the men who ran the LAW staunchly opposed women’s racing.

Women’s bike racing survived because women racers insisted on competing, even though they were not allowed into sanctioned events. It was quite the struggle: men’s cycling was included in the first Olympics, in 1896; women were finally allowed to compete in the road race in 1984. It wasn’t until 2012 that Olympic women’s cycling events were equal in number to those of men and there is still a quota against women: 144 men were allowed to race at the 2016 Rio Olympics road event, compared to only 67 women.

There used to be a Tour de France for women—Canadians wore the leader’s maillot jaune: Kelly-Anne Way, Sue Palmer, Clara Hughes, and Anne Samplonius to name a few—but organizers decided that women took up too much time, energy, and money, so they killed it. Plus ça change.