How To Ride a Penny-Farthing

Ordinary racer, bicycle, penny-farthing
via Agnieszka Kwiecień, license: CC-BY 3.0

The fellow riding the replica in the picture is making it look easy, but these were far from easy to master.

First, there was the matter of getting started. If you look carefully at the picture, a few inches above the rear wheel fork, on the far side, is a little footpeg. The rider would run with the bicycle to gain some momentum, then place a foot on the peg while holding the handlebar. The rider could stand on the peg and coast along, but most of the time, the rider would complete the mounting process by essentially jumping up into the saddle, then letting the feet find, or catch up with the pedals. This had to be done quickly, before the bike lost much momentum. Without enough momentum, the bike would start pitching wildly to one side or another. You can imagine a modern bicycle at a very slow speed. When you get down to around walking speed, it is very hard to steer a straight line. But with the tall, heavy bike, it really becomes an exercise in careening if you are way up there, with your head nine feet (275 cm) off the ground. Furthermore, if you turn more than just a few degrees, that big old wheel starts rubbing on your thigh. Anything beyond that, and you simply have to fall off.

So finally, there you are mounted on your ordinary, and you come to hill. You’d better pedal really hard, because you can’t gear down. Worse, when going downhill with the first ordinaries, the techniques for slowing down were all harrowing.

The first option would be to resist the pedals. But, you’re geared up, and have not only your weight to resist, but the 60 pounds (27 kg) of the bike as well. If that is not sufficient, you can rub the palm of your gloved hand on the top of the solid rubber tire – until your hand gets too hot. Some of the later ordinaries came equipped with a spoon brake. That’s a metal bar that could be operated from a hand lever that would rub on the top of the tire.

If you have to make an emergency stop, there’s only one ‘safe’ option: Jump backward off the seat, landing with one foot crosswise on the top of the back tire. This jams your foot against the fork, and skids the rear wheel. It costs rubber – and those tires wore out fast, but it could save your life. Otherwise, if something comes up where you stop quickly, such as hitting a pothole, you pitch forward. Not only will you find yourself flying forward, but the bike will very likely be caught up with you.

Tires for the ordinaries – and all sorts of other contraptions such as children’s wagons and baby strollers were sold in bulk rolls called “cab tiring.” You’d pick a width, and buy perhaps 50 feet of tire. It was a fat-walled rubber tube with a hollow middle. The rubber was quite basic by today’s standards. It had carbon mixed in, so that it wouldn’t wear out in the first mile or so. That’s why tires were always black. You’d cut off a length of cab tiring just the right length to go around your wheel. You’d insert a solid steel wire all the way through the tire. Where the tire material joins, you grab the ends of the cable and twist them together. Finally, you cut off the extra length of twisted wire, so the seam in your tire doesn’t have metal sticking out.

Some of the earliest ordinaries didn’t bother with rubber at all. They had wooden wheels, iron wheels, and sometimes wooden wheels surrounded with an iron tire. These were the true ‘boneshakers.’

See also: Odd Fact About Replica Penny-Farthings.

See also: The Safeties.

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