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Muscle on Wheels: Louise Armaindo and the High-Wheel Racers of Nineteenth-Century America

by M. Ann Hall

A language algorithm developed in 2016 by three Cornell University professors proved there’s a gender bias in sports journalism, which will come as no shock to anyone who has followed the careers of Serena Williams or the Canadian women’s hockey team. In reading M. Ann Hall’s fascinating biography of Quebec-born professional cyclist Louise Armaindo, one can’t help wondering what other remarkable stories of athleticism have been downplayed, ridiculed, or outright ignored over the past century.

Despite the fact that a 1922 newspaper columnist declared Armaindo the greatest woman athlete who ever lived, gifted with a physical strength that could overpower most men, her accomplishments remain a historical footnote. This oversight becomes more curious when Hall reveals movie-worthy details from Armaindo’s life, pieced together through years of meticulous research.

Born Louise Brisbois in rural Quebec, there is little information available on how Armaindo (her adopted stage name) landed in Chicago in the late 1870s performing as a circus trapeze artist and a strongwoman who could lift more than 750 pounds. Her prowess as a pedestrienne – one of an elite group of women endurance walkers who captivated audiences across the U.S. for a brief decade – whetted promoters’ appetites and soon Armaindo was racing the faddish new high-wheel bicycles (or penny farthings to the British) competitively. Initially, Armaindo was considered a spectacle – a sideshow to “compete” against the men – but as word spread, more women entered the sport. And as the popularity of cycling rose, so did the ankle-revealing hemlines.

Hall – a retired professor from the University of Alberta and an expert in Canadian women’s sport history – writes in a balanced tone suitable for an academic publication, yet allows an enthusiasm for her subject to shine through the narrative. While Armaindo’s career is the book’s heart, Hall also gives generous space to the other elite female cyclists of the day, painting a broad representation of Victorian pre-suffragette culture. Her stories of how these women persevered despite the financial, physical, and sexual exploitation they experienced is disturbing in its parallels to recent #MeToo stories from contemporary professional athletes. Yet Hall’s book still feels like a celebration.

As for Armaindo’s legacy, even her death date and final burying place remain a mystery, which ultimately makes Muscle on Wheels a long-deserved eulogy.