The first machine to be called a bicycle has many names: high-wheel bicycle, penny-farthing, high-wheeler, or ordinary. It became popular in the 1880s and is recognized by the large front wheel. While it’s not the most practical bike, it can achieve high speeds and in Sweden, people are even racing on them! This is the story about the incredible high-wheel bicycle.
The father of the high-bicycle
The story of the bicycle dates all the way back to 1817. The first two-wheeled, steerable human-propelled machine was called a velocipede and got the nickname ‘hobby-horse’ or ‘dandy horse’. After a period with 3- and 4- wheel designs, a new wire-spoke tension wheel with individually adjustable spokes (also known as “spider wheels”) was patented in 1869 by Frenchmen Eugène Meyer. Some sources claim that it was British engineer James Starley who invented the first high-wheel bicycle in 1871. However, Eugène Meyer is credited for making important contributions to the development of the bicycle and regarded as the father of the high bicycle by the International Cycling Historic Conference (ICHC) in place of James Starley.
How is the high-wheeler is designed?
The first classic high bicycle was produced in the 1880s and was developed from the so-called Boneshaker (or Velocipede). It was based on a need for speed, lightness of design, better performance, and greater comfort. While the front wheel grew larger, the rear wheel was reduced in order to keep the overall weight down. Several variations and improvements followed: one of them the ‘mustache’ handlebar that was developed to keep the rider’s knees clear.
How is The High-wheeler Constructed?
The high-wheeler is a direct-drive bicycle with the cranks and pedals fixed directly to the hub. There are no gears to multiply the revolutions of the pedals, but instead, the enlarged front wheel increases the speed. One of the characteristics of the bike is, that the rider sits on top of the wheel. Consequently, it’s impossible for the rider to reach the ground while seated.
The simple frame is made from a steel tube that follows the circumference of the front wheel back to the rear wheel. One of the most important parts of the bike is the small mounting peg just above the rear wheel. If brakes are mounted, there will typically be a brake lever on the right of the handlebar that operates a spoon brake against the front wheel. The weight of the original models from the 1880s was between 24-49 pounds (11-22 kilos).
The Formula 1 of Its Time
Thanks to the simple construction, the high-wheel bicycle is both light and fast. In the 1880s, bicycling became a sport for young men and the races drew huge crowds making it the formula 1 of its time. The riders were proud of the scars they incurred in racing but when mastering the bike, the motion looked both elegant and graceful. Although a bike was very expensive for a worker, they offered independent transport and an opportunity to move out of the suburbs and pursue a healthy lifestyle.
Learning to Fall Correctly
On- and offboarding a high-wheeler can be difficult, but in the 1880s the roads were the biggest problem for riders. The poor condition and uneven surfaces made it difficult to maintain stability on the high-wheelers.
As a result, the biker could fall forward over the handlebar. Without any safety equipment, “taking a header” could be fatal, but luckily most riders learned how to fall correctly. Despite the risks, the high-wheeler became more popular than the safer but more complicated velocipede. It was not until the introduction of the safer modern bicycle that the high-wheeler was replaced.
How to Ride A High-wheeler?
It’s said that riding a high-wheel bicycle is actually not that difficult: most people learn it within an hour.
Step 1: To mount the bicycle, scoot forward with one leg, while you keep the other foot on the mounting peg.
Step 2: When you have enough momentum, slip forward onto the saddle and begin pedaling.
The second step is the most difficult and may require a bit of practice before the acrobatics are fully in place. However, once you succeed this is where the fun begins! Riding a high-wheeler is a unique experience and will for sure turn heads on the road.
Are you still a bit confused? Ok, we will let Martin Barnes demonstrate the basic riding techniques on his 1875 replica penny-farthing bicycle in this video:
The Sweden 3 Days Race
Sweden 3 days 2021 was a spectacular high-wheel bicycle race with four races in three days. Due to Covid-19, the race was not an official competition but Old News Club was present at the local race track to see high-wheelers up close. For someone like me, who has never actually seen someone drive a high-wheeler, the sight at the race track was thrilling! To see how the bikers were mastering high speeds, corners and not to forget the start was a huge experience!
Brave Men and Women who Fear Nothing!
With solid tires, no brakes, and the big front wheel, these ladies and gentlemen from all over Europe were truly brave. And maybe the best part: I have never been to an event at the race track with so many smiles – even for those that did not come in first! As Sweden 3 days phrase it: “the competitors are men and women who fear nothing, not even coming last”. If you ever get the chance to ride a high-wheeler, you should take it. And, if you ever get the chance to see a race, you don’t want to miss it!
High-wheeler race rules:
- The bicycle must have a direct drive front wheel where the cranks are directly attached to the hub (no type of gear, freewheel, or chain is permitted). One full rotation of the front wheel must be equated to one full rotation of the cranks
- The front wheel must have a minimum diameter of 44” (110cm)
- The minimum weight of a bike must be at least 10kg
- Brakes will only be permitted in selected races
- Cleats and straps are permitted
- All riders are required to wear a helmet meeting international standards
If you would like to try or even buy your own high-wheeler, there are a few producers that specialize in the old design. One of them is Standard Highwheels in Sweden. Here, you can choose between two different types of high-wheel bikes: the “tourer” or the “racer”.
Both of them are available in several sizes and with optional customizations. Prices starting at EUR 1500, worldwide shipping.