Pioneer in Women's Athletics
Born in Skåne, Sweden in 1875, Tillie immigrated to Chicago in 1891 at the age of 16. She soon found work in a tailor shop as a seamstress, which she found uninspiring, but was able to save her wages. She has seen men riding bicycles and that inspired her! However, she was told that “bicycles aren’t for ladies.” She still dreamed of riding. Not encumbered by yards of fabric, or a simple sojourn int he park as she had seen some women doing, but racing that bicycle. At 18, she had saved enough money to buy her first bicycle. Among her siblings she was known as the one with the steely will and very headstrong.
During the summer of 1895 she took part in her first race and broke the century record. She went on to travel the country taking part in six day races that were for women. These races had the women racing at top speeds for two hours each evening for six successive days. At the age of 20, Tillie was recognized as the best woman cyclist in the world by the League of American Wheelmen.
“When the last gong sounded and the race was won the crowd went into a delirium of excitement,” a reporter from the Chicago Tribune wrote “men bellowed hoarsely and women screamed. Garments were waved frantically and hats were juggled on canes and thrown into the air.”
Anderson went on to hold 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.
Popular sentiment held at the time, including that of her mother, brother and bible teacher, was clearly that women had no business riding bicycles in tight fitting, unladylike clothing and entering competitions. A brief and leisurely ride in the park might be acceptable but certainly not racing!
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.
At the height of her career in December of 1897, she married her manager and trainer, J. P. “Phil” Sjöberg. He was a bicycle racer as well but gave up his career to manage Tillie's. He trained her, found sponsors to pay expenses and managed her racing schedules. Sjöberg developed tuberculosis shortly after their marriage and died in 1901. Tillie, widowed at age 26, never remarried.
Tillie was posthumously inducted into the United States Bicycling Hall of Fame, an undisputed champion and a true pioneer in women’s athletics. She remained the unofficial Champion of the World until she retired in 1902, when women were barred from racing due in part to the level of danger that was involved in the sport, but perhaps more because of the suppression of women in sports.
After her racing career she remained an advocate for cycling and bragged that she kept within four pounds of her racing weight throughout her lifetime. She helped establish bike paths in Chicago’s city parks and spent summers at a lakeside cabin in northern Minnesota. The cabin is still owned by her family and her racing schedules, photos and her bicycle are on display there. She remained active in the League of American Wheelman and the Bicycle Stars of the Nineteenth Century organizations. For her achievements in cycling in both road and track events, Anderson was inducted into the United States Bicycling Hall of Fame in 2000