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High Wheeler

What a fun time of year this is around here for our biking family. Everyone is starting to catch up from the off season so many folks are shopping for that new dream ride! There are those that will go out and do something close to an impulse buy and those who have spent months studying all the details of exactly what they want. There are those who will hold out for just the right price to fit their budget and those who don’t care about the price as long as they get the perfect ride.

Well I fit into a couple of those categories. No impulse here, I have just spent the past three years dreaming about and looking for this bike. I work in the bike industry so I have a pretty limited budget to spend on my dream bike. I already have my two dream mountain bikes so this one is just a commuter. As far as commuter bikes go, single speeds and fixies (single speed bikes originally for indoor track racing where the rear cog doesn’t allow you to glide so the pedals are always “fixed” to the motion of the rear wheel, and usually have no brakes either) have been all the rage lately. Well my new commuter is one of those, sort of. It is also an educational commuter and a historical commuter. It also happens to be the most scary and most difficult bike I have ever learned to ride! You see this is all because my new commuter is a Penny Farthing or some would call it a high wheeler.

The high wheeler is a strange bike from right around 1870. It has a very very large front wheel and a very small rear wheel. This is why in Europe it was called a pennyfarthing; the two wheels resembled the large British penny sitting next to the small half penny.

The very first bicycle was invented in 1817. It was known as the Draisienne, named after its inventor Baron von Drais. This bicycle had two equal sized wheels, the front one steerable, but due to the lack of technology in metallurgy in those days there were no chains or gears suitable for this size machine. So the Draisienne or hobby horse as it was commonly known was simply pushed along with both feet on the ground almost like walking! It was made of all wood including the wheels and tires, it was really more of a scooter and really wasn’t very practical, but it was novel for a short while.

Then in 1865 pedals were added directly to the front wheel. Still no chain or gears, kind of like today’s little kid’s tricycles. The frames were still made of wood, but the tires started to be made of steel. These bikes were known as Velocipedes but they were affectionately called boneshakers, you can imagine the ride they gave with steel tires on dirt or cobblestone paths, ouch!

Then in 1870 the high wheeler was introduced. This was actually the first all metal bicycle and it even had solid rubber tires. But the pedals were still attached directly to the front wheel and there were still no brakes. You would buy your high wheeler according to your leg length. The longer your legs the taller your front wheel. There was an advantage to being tall because the larger the front wheel the faster you could go because the large wheel was essentially your gear. This was really the reason for the large front wheel since all previous bicycles couldn’t go faster than walking speed anyway, but the high wheelers could really get moving! But because the rider sat so high, imagine up to a 60 inch tall tire, and the fact that you sat almost right over the front axle, the high wheelers were downright dangerous to ride. If you hit a stone or a rut in the “road” it was a fast trip over the front end, usually with your legs trapped under the handlebars straight onto your head. This is actually where the term “taking a header” came from. This was not a bicycle that everyone could enjoy, yet it was the most widespread bike of that time.

This was when Columbia Bicycles built the first production bicycles in the U.S. with their high wheel model. Worldwide the only businesses capable of this type of manufacturing were small arms and sewing machine companies; they had the technology to work with lighter metal and rubber. As the manufacturing of bicycles progressed in the U.S. two new companies emerged, Ford and General Motors. They began to use bicycle technology to build the automobile. What a big mistake!

Enter my new commuter. This is a period of bicycle history that I have always been curious about. I loved the lines of the pennyfarthing and the way it changed the world of human powered travel. I have also been curious about what it must have been like to ride one of those machines. I have a new found respect for those early riders! My high wheeler is a replica built by Rideable Replicas of Alameda California. I bought it used from a gentleman who needed to fund his trip across the country on his actual antique high wheeler. He passed through here in June, some of you may have seen him. His bike had a slightly different configuration with the small wheel in the front. This was a change that came just after the original high wheelers to make them safer to ride. They became known as the “ordinary”.

So if you see me on my Pennyfarthing on my way to work, move out of the way and give me lots of room, it’s scary up there, but super fun!

Enjoy Earth


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