As Black Friday publicity stunts go, this one from Pearson, officially the world’s oldest bike shop, is literally up there with the best. From the lofty position on his vintage penny-farthing, Guy Pearson will be riding around Richmond Park publicising - not advertising, since that’s not allowed in London’s eight Royal Parks - the deals Pearson Cycles will be offering this weekend.
Guy Pearson and his brother William are the current owners of the family business that Tom Pearson founded in 1860 - but the penny-farthing wasn’t Tom’s, it belonged to Guy and William’s grandfather Arthur. “I don’t know where he got it from, but he was a bit of a collector, says Guy. “At one point we had four penny-farthings. This one, which was the best one, dates from 1882 and was made by a Midlands firm called Corton.”
However, Guy believes his great-great grandfather Tom Pearson must have owned one since he was a keen cyclist. “He quickly gave up shoeing horses and making garden gates and doing all those other things that blacksmiths did when cycling came along,” he says.
“But we don’t have any evidence - in fact we only have three photographs of him. He died in 1901 and in one of the photos - the one on the website (opens in new tab) - we’re not sure if he was actually alive when it was taken. Victorians had a habit of doing this. ‘We forgot to take a photo of him. Prop him up!’”
Guy Pearson plans to ride the family penny-farthing around Sheen, where the Pearson shop is based, and Barnes, and then Richmond Park, especially around the Roehampton gate car park, he says.
The best Black Friday deals from Pearson
Ridley Noah Fast frameset: RRP £4,549, now £3,050 (opens in new tab)
Trek FX 3 bike RRP £900, now £750 (opens in new tab)
Pearson Nowyouseeme bike RRP £999, now £899 (opens in new tab)
Pearson Ultimate bike fit RRP £275, now £195 (opens in new tab)
Pearson Hammertime shoes RRP £340, now £290 (opens in new tab)
The practice run in Richmond Park earlier this week was declared a success, and Guy himself is an old hand at penny-farthing riding anyway. He’s raced it at Herne Hill since he was a teenager, ridden it long distances including to Weston-super-Mare; got about a third of the way up Ditchling Beacon on it “before people got in the way” - and casually drops into the conversation that he was once third in the Penny-Farthing World Championships.
“It wasn’t a big event,” he says. “ But it was three hours of racing in Knutsford and I think only three of us actually finished.”
Pearson explains that penny-farthings are surprisingly fast and very smooth, despite his machine being fitted with a 19mm solid tyre. “One of the reasons why they were so popular is that the big wheel rolls over rough ground - and that’s all they had in the 1880s. They didn’t have tarmac. And when you ride it up the trail in Richmond Park or on a towpath it really is a smooth ride. It irons it all out because the wheel is so big.”
Pearson’s penny-farthing has a 52 or 54-inch gear - which is the actual diameter of the wheel. “If you’re 6ft 2in and can ride a 56-inch wheel you can really belt along,” he says.
“Also you can have a slightly longer crank. Mine are set at 110mm, which is really short, and of course they’re spaced quite a way apart so your pedalling efficiency from a bike fit point of view is pretty low.”
What sort of condition is Pearson’s machine in after nearly 140 years? “The penny has been broken so many times,” he says. “The tyre has come off while I’ve been riding and it’s been caught and I’ve gone over the bars one time I was racing at Herne Hill when I was 18 or 19,” he says.
Another time at Herne Hill the handlebar snapped. “As we went through the bell I was about third wheel, six or eight pennies in the race, and the handlebar snaps off. I go down and the penny-farthing runs me over. I have it on film somewhere. It’s like being run over by a train after falling from a great height. It weighs 40 or 50 kilos.”
Before he went out on it this time Pearson needed to replace one of the 72 spokes, but says the drill bit snapped off in the hub. “Now it has 71 spokes,” he laughs, "but the wheel is still absolutely true. The spokes are about 3mm thick and made of iron. I’ll fix it at some point.”
While he was attempting the repair Pearson says he noticed his grandfather must have had to do the exact same job about 50 years earlier. “There’s a slightly untidy bodge on the hub - it’s made of brass - and it looks like he brazed a little bit more hub onto it and then rethreaded the spoke into that.”
And finally - is it really called a penny-farthing? Isn’t it more accurately called an Ordinary? “Everyone knows it as a penny-farthing. There are purists who just call it their Ordinary, but that was a term of the day. Its nickname was penny-farthing. It was an ‘ordinary’ bike because it was one of the first mass produced machines ever, in fact one of the first mass produced items. So there were lots of them about. The safety bicycle didn’t catch on before pneumatic tyres came along because it was such a bumpy ride compared to the penny. The turning point was when Dunlop came up with his tyre and that was the nail in the coffin for the penny.”
Despite advertising not being allowed, this Friday and Saturday there will be a discreet sign fixed to the front of Pearson’s penny-farthing with a code printed on it. Anyone who spots it can use the code in the shop or online to claim money off.
Meanwhile, Cycling Weekly readers can use the code 'CWBF' to claim a 10% discount off Pearson clothing and accessories over Black Friday. This will be valid on any Black Friday discounted clothing and accessories.
Check out Pearson's Black Friday deals on bikes, wheels, clothing and accessories (opens in new tab), which we will also be adding individually to our main Black Friday hub page.
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Simon Smythe is Cycling Weekly's senior tech writer and has been in various roles at CW since 2003. His first job was as a sub editor on the magazine following an MA in online journalism (yes, it was just after the dot-com bubble burst).
In his cycling career Simon has mostly focused on time trialling with a national medal, a few open wins and his club's 30-mile record in his palmares. These days he spends a bit more time testing road bikes, or on a tandem doing the school run with his younger son.
What's in the stable? There's a Colnago Master Olympic, a Hotta TT700, an ex-Castorama lo-pro that was ridden in the 1993 Tour de France, a Pinarello Montello, an Independent Fabrication Club Racer, a Shorter fixed winter bike and a renovated Roberts with a modern Campag groupset.
And the vital statistics:
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