A Penny Farthing For Their Thoughts
The Wheelmen Enjoy X-Treme Cycling Turn-of-the-Century StyleBy Mike Clem Photos by Casey Martin
People who love to use that old cliché “It’s just like riding a bicycle” to get you to do something new obviously never met Eric Rhodes and one of his bikes. That thought strikes me as I accept his invitation to climb up in the seat of an old-fashioned high wheeler that’s as tall as my horse — only this form of transportation requires balancing on two thin tires with spindly spokes instead of four sturdy legs and a broad back. With Rhodes acting as my human training wheels, I begin a wobbly little circuit in Baker Park.
“See, it’s not as difficult as it looks; just don’t let the height intimidate you,” he coaches encouragingly. Easy for him to say. The 37-year-old Frederick resident has been riding these bicycles with the big front wheel for five years. And he’s raced modern cycles competitively since 1992. Today he serves as captain of The Potomac Region Wheelmen, the Maryland chapter of The Wheelmen, a national nonprofit group dedicated to promoting the golden age of cycling. Although they’ll ride any version of a pre-1918 two-wheeler — the “Hobbyhorse,” “Velocipede” or “Boneshaker” — many prefer what is known as the “Ordinary,” “High Wheeler” or “Penny Farthing” (think of a big coin next to a small coin).
Developed around 1870, the high wheeler caught on with the public a decade later as an improvement over the earlier machines. The iconic design that has come to symbolize the Victorian age proved to be the first truly efficient bike. A larger front solid rubber wheel, pivoted on a tubular frame, gave a smoother ride over rough roads for more comfort and allowed for greater speed. In the days before bikes had chains and gears, the only way to cover more ground faster with a direct drive system was to increase the wheel’s circumference. The height or size of the front wheel was only limited by the rider’s inseam, since his legs had to reach the pedals. (Note to self: the next time I buy a suit, ask the tailor for the appropriate size for a penny farthing.)
Rhodes explains there was an unfortunate attribute of sitting high up and perched directly over the front axle. “When you’d hit a rock or a rut, you’d pitch forward and could dive right over the handlebars. It’s where they coined the term ‘taking a header.’”
Now he tells me. A quick glance reassures me that he still has a grip on my bike as I cautiously make a slow turn, my thighs mashing against the straight handlebars. I see a soft cushion of grass and decide it’s a good place to dismount. I look for the brakes, which seem to be missing. Apparently, there are none. “The only way to stop is to pedal backwards,” Rhodes helpfully advises.
These drawbacks in design don’t deter enthusiasts like the 30 members of Rhodes’ club from taking their high wheelers out for a ride, a cross-country tour or race. “I feel safer than when I’m on my modern carbon road bike,” says Keith Carter, who recently moved from Brunswick to Hagerstown. “I’ve been cycling for years but wanted to do something different and this looked like fun.” The 60-year-old learned to ride an “Ordinary” by watching YouTube. He began riding a 48-inch “Gentle Giant” but is anxiously awaiting delivery of his handmade, 52-inch “Victory” from a bicycle maker in Florida.
While some of The Wheelmen collect or restore antique machines, many just ride for the sheer joy and own reproduction models. Cost can be a factor in choice. Replicas range from $1,500 to $4,500, while the average $10,000 price tag of a penny farthing isn’t exactly pocket change. There are also models made with modern lightweight materials and brakes for racing or other events. But as with any hobby, there are always people looking to sell their equipment because they’re getting out or trading up.
Mike Kennedy, 56, bought his traditional, 50-inch bike from a manufacturer in the Czech Republic. “I’ve been high wheeling for several years now and as a lifetime cyclist, I have to say these bikes are not only fun, but it’s great exercise,” notes the Hagerstown resident. “A 30-minute ride on a high wheel is like the equivalent of a couple hours riding a regular bicycle.”
Rhodes says a good workout is just one of the many benefits. “We’re a family-oriented, multigenerational club,” he says, adding that members range in age from 2 to 82. “Whether you enjoy collecting bikes and memorabilia, dressing in period costumes for parades and historical demonstrations, racing and trick riding, or taking a high wheel out for a leisurely spin, this activity has something for everybody and that can be shared with anybody.” You know, I think he’s right. After my test drive of his “Ordinary,” I just might be tempted to pull on a pair of knee breeches, plop a newsboy cap on my head and ride off tall (and maybe a tad shaky) in the saddle.
To learn more about the hobby of high wheeling or The Wheelmen, visit the organization’s website at www.thewheelmen.org. For information about The Potomac Region Wheelmen chapter, contact Eric Rhodes at firstname.lastname@example.org.