The penny-farthing has, even its greatest advocates would have to admit, suffered a bit of a slump in popularity since 1890. So why would anyone want to try riding one? Well, curiosity mainly.
I’ve ridden a lot of bikes – race bikes, mountain bikes, recumbents, choppers – they’re all more or less the same.
But a penny-farthing? A bike with its saddle at head height? How do you even get up there? More importantly, how do you get back down? And is it, to be simplistic, anything like riding a bike once you’re in the saddle?
I found a man called Dave Preece, a winner of the British Penny-Farthing Championships, who offered to teach me. We picked a quiet park path, gently downhill. Just the sort of place you’d teach a child to ride a bike.
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It’s different. That big wheel reacts in a way that’s both ponderous and erratic. In the initial stages of mounting you’re steering with your arms at full stretch, your torso against the frame, one foot on a peg about the back wheel, and a degree of control that initially varied unpredictably between slight and non-existent.
Other park users started looking at me swerving around with my giant dog-crushing wheel, and putting their pets back on leads.
But that was the hard bit. Once you’re rolling, once you get into the saddle and get your feet on the pedals, it’s rather magnificent.
That huge wheel rolls slowly, but it feels unstoppable. Bumps and lumps in the path are ironed-out effortlessly by its sheer size. You might not have speed, but what you do have is momentum.
Having cranks attached directly to the front axle means that pedalling affects the steering. If you try to give it a bit of stick, you start to weave from side to side, in what is clearly the slow-motion beginnings of an accident. You have to coordinate your arms and your legs to roll straight.
And getting down? Let’s just say that getting down is difficult to do with any elegance, and leave it at that.
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Michael Hutchinson is a writer, journalist and former professional cyclist. As a rider he won multiple national titles in both Britain and Ireland and competed at the World Championships and the Commonwealth Games. He was a three-time Brompton folding-bike World Champion, and once hit 73 mph riding down a hill in Wales. His Dr Hutch columns appears in every issue of Cycling Weekly magazine
As a writer, he wrote the award winning The Hour about his attempt on the sport’s most famous and sought-after record. He followed that up with Faster, about the training, the science the genetics and the luck behind the world’s fastest riders, and Re:Cyclists, a history of cyclists from 1816 to the present day.
He’s written for outlets ranging from Cycling Weekly to the New York Times, and has presented and and commentated for the BBC, Eurosport, Channel 4, and Sky Sports.
Before he did any of that he was a legal academic at Cambridge and Sussex universities. He now lives with far too many bicycles in London and Cambridgeshire.
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