Tillie the Terrible Swede


“She caught “bicycle fever” after coming to this country from Sweden in 1889 and rode her way to a world championship just a few years later.

Tillie was 14 when she settled in Chicago and found work as a seamstress. There she saw men and women riding bicycles and wanted one of her own.

Despite reproaches from her mother and family friends, Tillie pursued cycling with the seriousness of a world-class athlete. She trained every day, riding longer and longer until she built up her strength.

Bicycle racing was a huge spectator sport in the 1890s, drawing thousands in cities all across America. Even women competed in these grueling races, which lasted for hours or even days.

Tillie entered a few races and quickly became one of the fastest female riders on the racing circuit. In 1896, she broke the 100-mile record, riding in 6 hours and 57 minutes. After winning an 18-hour race, she won prize money and a new nickname—Tillie the Terrible Swede.”

See more at Tillie the Terrible Swede: Cyclist Tillie Anderson inspired a generation of women to ride when she raced in the early 1900s.

See more women racers here, Pictures of Women Cyclists of the 1890s.

There is also a great book about Tillie. You can read more about here.

Here’s a review of it from Publishers Weekly:

Tillie the Terrible Swede: How One Woman, a Sewing Needle, and a Bicycle Changed History
Sue Stauffacher, illus. by Sarah McMenemy, Knopf, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-375-84442-3
Reaching back more than a century, Stauffacher and McMenemy resurrect the story of pioneering woman cyclist Tillie Anderson–and make Lance Armstrong feel like yesterday’s news. Racing in a self-created aerodynamic outfit (hence the needle reference in the title), Anderson both scandalized and thrilled 1890s America as she shattered records for speed and endurance, leaving competitors and conventional wisdom in the dust. At first, McMenemy’s (The Busiest Street in Town) doll-like characterizations and pert settings seem too dainty to serve the story of an athletic heroine and her frenzied times, but within a few pages Anderson’s unstoppable determination and energy read loud and clear–in fact, McMenemy proves that the diminutive can also be indomitable. Stauffacher’s (Nothing but Trouble: The Story of Althea Gibson) writing is as sprightly and heartfelt as ever, and to her credit, she connects Tillie’s accomplishments to the building women’s rights movement. An excellent afterword, tucked on the inside back cover, provides fascinating historical context for Anderson’s story. Worthy of taking its place beside You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer! and other top-notch junior histories. Ages 5–8. (Jan.)

Thanks again David P for the back story. I’m loving learning about the history of women’s bike racing.