During the nineteenth century in North America, a small group of working-class women turned to sport to earn a living. Among them were circus performers, race walkers, wrestlers, boxers, shooters, swimmers, baseball players, and bicycle racers. Through their athleticism, these women contested and challenged the prevailing gender norms, and at the same time expanded notions about Victorian women’s capabilities and appropriate work. This article focuses on one of these professional sports, namely high-wheel bicycle racing. Bicycle historians have mostly dismissed women’s racing during the brief high-wheel era of the 1880s as little more than sensational entertainment, and have not fully understood its importance. I hope to change these perceptions by providing evidence that female high-wheel racers in the United States, who often began as pedestriennes (race walkers), were superb athletes competing in an exciting, well-attended, and profitable sport.
The author is professor emerita in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.