- Muscle on Wheels: Louise Armaindo and the High-Wheel Racers of Nine-teenth-Century America by M. Ann Hall
In Muscle on Wheels: Louise Armaindo and the High-Wheel Racers of Nine-teenth-Century America, M. Ann Hall set out on an ambitious task of uncovering the enigmatic nineteenth-century female athlete Louise Armaindo's true identity and elevating her competitive exploits to an apt place within the broader sport and cycling historiography.
Hall admits that teasing out Armaindo's true identity was and remains a significant challenge, with little information beyond sporadic newspaper accounts, sensationalized popular literature, and often-inaccurate previous historical works. Without a more complete historical record from which to draw, Hall admirably susses out Armaindo's life while immersing the reader in the era via the people who surrounded Armaindo: male and female cyclists, competitive walkers, acrobatic entertainers, magazine editors, managers, bookies, and spectators. The resulting research and discovery weave a wonderfully tragic tale of Louise Armaindo, and her contemporaries, into a much broader historical narrative of the exceptionally talented and competitive women often overshadowed by social and cultural biases of the Victorian era.
Armaindo journeyed to Chicago from Canada by the early 1870s where she began her professional career. While she performed as a trapeze artist, Armaindo also often performed as a strongwoman in hopes of supplementing her meager income. Although able to escape some of the Victorian gender norms through performing, little economic stability resulted for her and her fellow performers. Undoubtedly seeking greater income, Armaindo secured the soon-to-be well-known manager Tom Eck, transitioned to race-walking by the spring of 1879, and finished third in her first event in Chicago. While the 1879 Chicago event appears to be the first record of Armaindo's participation in a race-walking competition, she had already claimed numerous competitive achievements, including being the champion of Canada. Race-walking, or pedestrianism, boomed alongside pugilism, baseball, rowing, pool, and bicycling, as prize lists drew competitors from various backgrounds and spectators basked in the electric atmosphere of the events by the 1880s. Armaindo and Eck, travelling together, seized on those opportunities and set up competitions and exhibitions throughout the American Midwest. However, despite the initial excitement surrounding race-walking, the sport saw a rapid decline in participation, prizes, and spectators in the United States. Within two years of Armaindo's first race-walk competition, she transitioned to the high-wheeled bicycle in 1881.
As it emerged, early competitive cycling in the United States borrowed heavily from pedestrianism, including competitors, rules, and clothing. Competitors known for their stamina in race-walking quickly adapted to the rigors of riding a bicycle for days and hours on end. For people lacking the balance or experience necessary to ride the high-wheeled bicycle, bicycle-riding schools quickly emerged. Armaindo and her contemporaries seized the opportunities and signed up to learn how to ride the bicycle where their prior athletic and competitive efforts allowed them to excel quickly. While many of her male colleagues [End Page 416] quickly gained attention and numerous competitors, Armaindo's female peers were few. As former pedestriennes turned cyclists, Lizzie Baymer, Elsa von Blumen, and Armaindo came to dominate the early years of female high-wheel competition where they faced off against each other and male competitors in novelty competitions and tournaments. By 1883, Baymer and von Blumen faded from the sport for various reasons, and Armaindo found few other female rivals willing to accept her challenges. With few willing female challengers, she found herself as arguably the greatest competitive female cyclist. She joined the League of Bicycling Champions, a group of touring competitors and exhibitionists. Although the group quickly fell apart, as the only female member, she often drew significant attention from spectators and newspaper reporters while the group toured the western United States. Assuredly, Armaindo relished the opportunity to race against her male counterparts, found herself often beating them, and established numerous...