Who was Tillie Anderson?
The Terrible Swede
A PIONEER IN WOMEN’S ATHLETICS.
Tillie Anderson was a road and track cyclist. Tillie, a Swedish immigrant and, from all accounts, an extremely strong-willed individual, outpaced the best of the best on the wheel, with times that are still impressive today. Born in Skåne, Sweden in 1875, Tillie immigrated to Chicago in 1891 at the age of 16. At 18, she had saved enough money working as a seamstress to buy her first bicycle.
During the summer of 1895, she took part in the race over the Elgin-Aurora (Ill.) century course and broke the century record. She 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. Tillie was 20 years old when the League of American Wheelmen recognized her as the best woman cyclist in the world. In June 2000 – 105 years later – Tillie was posthumously inducted into the United States Bicycling Hall of Fame, an undisputed champion and a true pioneer in women’s athletics.
Anderson held records for practically every distance from sprinting to endurance. She once rode a half-mile in 52 seconds; on another occasion she rode 100 miles in six hours, 52 minutes and 15 seconds. She is reported to have entered 130 races in her career and was first over the finish mark in all but seven races. She remained the unofficial Champion of the World until retiring in 1902, when women were barred from racing due in part to the level of danger involved in the sport and the suppression of women in sports.
Relationships Built at the Wheel
At the height of her career, Tillie Anderson married her trainer and manager, J. P. “Phil” Sjöberg, in December 1897. Phil, a former racer himself, gave up his racing career to manage Tillie’s. Race managers trained their athletes, found sponsors to pay expenses, scheduled races and didn’t let go at the starting line until they had given their cyclist the strongest push they could muster. Sjöberg developed tuberculosis shortly after their marriage and died in 1901. Tillie, widowed at age 26, never remarried.
A Pioneer in Women's Athletics
Many people – including Tillie’s mother, brother, and her Bible teacher Reverend Dwight L. Moody – disapproved of women (especially Tillie) riding bicycles, not to mention competing in racing events wearing tight fitting clothing and where gambling was known to have occurred. But others felt differently.
In 1896, Susan B. Anthony was quoted as saying, “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. It has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand by and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood”. When Anthony was quoted as saying this in 1896, Tillie Anderson was the undisputed ladies’ cycling champion of the world, and had been for over a year.
Legacy: An Advocate for the Sport
Tillie remained an advocate for bicycling through the years and often boasted about keeping within four pounds of her racing weight throughout her life. Tillie served as an advocate for the development of bicycle paths in Chicago’s city parks. She remained active in the League of American Wheelman and the Bicycle Stars of the Nineteenth Century organizations until her death in 1965 at the age of 90. For her achievements in cycling in both road and track events, Anderson was inducted into the United States Bicycling Hall of Fame in 2000
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