Elsa Von Blumen
Pioneering female athlete Elsa Von Blumen (real name was Caroline Kiner Roosevelt), was a professional bike racer in the 1880s. Born in Kansas October 6, 1859, she began her career in her hometown of Rochester, NY, where she started competing as a “pedestrienne” in the very popular sport of race-walking. With the encouragement of bicycle manufacturer Col. Albert Pope (Columbia bicycles), she learned to ride a high-wheel bike also known as the penny-farthing, and started competing in 1881.
After giving riding exhibitions, her first race was on May 24, 1881 at Driving Park in Rochester, NY. She raced on a dirt track against trotting and pacing horses and won two out of three heats against each horse. She was a novelty and her manager, Burt Miller (real name was William H. Roosevelt), helped her parlay that novelty into a career of racing which lasted for a decade.
She traveled widely throughout the U.S. racing at county fairs against horses. Eventually she started arranging competitions, against men and the few other women, who were brave enough to take up the sport of cycling. She was careful to present herself as a God-fearing, wholesome woman to draw a “refined” crowd to her races. (The races at that time had a deserved repetition of being an excuse to gamble.) She was also very careful to dress in “appropriate, decent” costumes (although she did wear a type of knickerbocker to facilitate riding) to insure that she appeared respectable to her audience.
Generally, she received very favorable press from local newspapers and their enamored young reporters, praising her for her “pluck”. She was certainly not without controversy, however, and had detractors who did not approve of her lifestyle. It was also not uncommon for men to run onto the track and hinder her during her races. She suffered several serious falls, but always managed to mount her high-wheeler again, and persevere to the finish line.
Her last big race, was a six-day event in Madison Square Garden in February, 1889 against 12 other female competitors. She came in 2nd in spite of the fact that a spectator stuck his walking stick into her spokes, causing her to fall. Until the end of 1889, she traveled with a troupe of other performers including female cyclist Josie Hawkes, against whom she had raced.
Especially interesting was the attitude the League of American Wheelmen (LAW), the forerunner of the League of American Bicyclists, took towards her. Members of the LAW were required to be amateurs although the organization took it upon itself to govern all bicycle races at that time. Several gentlemen who rode on the same track as Elsa were denied membership in the LAW because they determined they were “professionals”, even if they had only accompanied Elsa around the track for a few laps and took no money for their efforts. The LAW considered her a thorn in its side.
She declared herself not a friend of the new safety bikes which were becoming very popular towards the end of the 1880s, married and retired to Rochester NY, where she died on June 3, 1935.
M. Ann Hall. Muscle on Wheels: Louise Armaindo and the High-Wheel Racers of Nineteenth-Century America. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston. 2018
The Cycle, vol. 1, Dec. 10, 1886, et al.
The Bicycling World, vol. 3, July 8, 1881, et al.
The Wheel and Cycling Trade Review, vol. 1, May 11, 1888, et al.
The Wheel, vol. 2, Sept. 28, 1881 – Sept. 13, 1882, et al.