by Karen Skinazi

Following Our Cycling Foremother: Spinning Fiction on Two Wheels

Karen Skinazi and her bike. Soon, her surroundings will be transformed into an alternate world through the magic of pedaling.

After dropping my three kids off at school, I hop on my bike and head to work. The ride always seems short—too short to fully work out the stress that accompanies the morning routine. The little one wouldn’t get out of bed. The middle one wouldn’t get off his screen. The oldest one couldn’t find his standard-issue gym shorts, couldn’t wear any other shorts, and was not going to school. The walk from our house to their school is no less painful: the older two fight, the little one keeps stopping (“my.feet.can’t.move”), and I’m yelling the whole way, clutching the handlebars of my bike, which I’m more than ready to ride.

As soon as I’m on my bike, however, the tension begins to dissolve. My surroundings dissolve too, in cinematic fashion, houses disappearing, asphalt road becoming a dirt path, the trees suddenly lush and tropical. I have traded my Bianchi in for a Sterling and my staid work clothes for daring bloomers. The cars have been replaced by rickshaws or carriages, the baseball caps pixelate out and return as flat-topped hats and bowlers. As fellow school-parents shout out their salutations, I think I am cycling through a cheering crowd and waving my arm in gratitude. 

Annielondonderry

Annie Kopchovsky, better known by her alias, Annie Londonberry.

Since reading Chana Widawski’s Lilith post in 2013 and then consuming Peter Zheutlin’s Around the World on Two Wheels soon thereafter, I’ve come to think of Annie Kopchovsky as my spiritual ancestor—and guide. A Jewish immigrant mother of three kids (just like me!), she turned herself into “Annie Londonderry,” by setting off on a mission in 1894 to ride around the world and becoming an international sensation. She was a modern-day Nellie Bly, a show-woman, an advertising maverick, and a paragon of the American ideal of self-invention. 

As it turns out, just as Cannon Hill Park can become the rainforests of South America on my commute, it would seem a lot of Kopchovsky’s covered territory was as fictional as the nom de plume Londonberry. Sure, she hopped on her bike and set off to travel the globe, but how far did she venture? How much did she see? “Was any of it true? Almost certainly not,” wrote Zheutlin of his great-aunt’s New York World depiction of the Sino-Japanese war. 

But, I think, what does it matter? She mounted her Sterling and escaped the challenges of three young kids who no doubt kvetched about taking a bath or going to bed or eating broccoli. Granted: she took 15 months for her cycling voyage; my commute is 15 minutes. And I suppose her kids didn’t scream, “But I’m in the middle of an attack!” during an all-important game of Clash of Clans, and she didn’t have to respond, “Turn off your iPad before I smash it to pieces!”, but I suspect needing an escape from motherhood has stood the test of time. And why not escape on two wheels, spinning fictions of faraway lands and encounters with warriors and worshippers? Isn’t it easier to then return to the “real world” of unmade beds and undone homework and take it as a rest from a thrilling day?


Karen E. H. Skinazi, PhD, is a cultural and literary critic who teaches at the University of Birmingham (UK) and is currently working on a book about cultural representations of Orthodox Jewish women. A Torontonian through birth, New Yorker at heart, and Brummie by residence, Karen leads a vagabond life with her scientist-husband and three rowdy boys.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine. 
© 2011 Lilith Magazine