Today we’ve published a story about Dan Canary, the inventor of the wheelie, who did many of his tricks on an old-timey bike (the type with a giant wheel). That brings up a lot of questions about the antiquated bikes, so we’ll try to answer them.
The practical questions
Q: Why was the front wheel so big on old-fashioned bikes?
This is the top question about old-fashioned bicycles, and it’s obvious why: it’s the feature that distinguishes them. There are two main reasons:
Speed: Old-fashioned bikes didn’t use gears, so the only way to go faster was to have a bigger wheel. Pedals were directly attached to the front wheel, so the bigger the wheel, the further a single pedal push propelled you. In bike races, speed was a crucial advantage worth the absurd size.
Comfort: High wheel bikes were more dangerous, but they had some advantages. Old roads were in poor condition, and the large wheel could roll over potholes and small rocks. It led to a smoother ride than smaller-wheel bikes, which were often called bone-shakers.
Q: How did people get on them?
You don’t just get on an old-fashioned bicycle. You mount it.
The Wheelmen society has a useful guide and GIF. They write:
“It is much simpler than you might think. On the lower part of the “backbone” (the part that goes down to the small wheel) there is a small step. The rider stands in back of the bike, with his hands holding the handlebar grips, with a foot up on the step. Pushing forward to get enough momentum to steer and balance (like a scooter), he steps up, settles into the seat, puts his feet on the pedals, and rides on.”
Q: When did they first become popular?
Wikipedia traces the bikes to the 1870s. Before that, people rode on bikes with a lower front wheel. The speed advantage of a larger wheel helped them surge in popularity.
Q: What did people ride before the high-wheel bike?
Bikes before the high-wheel bike actually looked more like modern bicycles. Known under the catchall term of velocipedes, early bikes had two wheels that were the same size. But they didn’t have gears, were made of wood or had metal tires (which hurt to ride), and didn’t go very fast. That made the high-wheel bike, as unusual as it was, a technological innovation. Pedaling History has a concise explanation of the evolution of the bike.
Q: When did they go away?
The high-wheel bike was a relatively short-lived fad. After its invention in 1870, it became huge in the 1880s. But the high-wheel bike was still unsafe, so people wanted an alternative.
That search for an alternative began with improvements to the bone-shaker design, including a metal frame. But it was in 1888 that John Dunlop created the pneumatic tire. Finally, the standard bike was comfortable enough to ride. Because it was safer, it quickly outpaced the high-wheel bike. Development of better brakes and gears helped the transition, as did improvements in the roads. Thus the old-fashioned bike became old-fashioned.
Q: What were those big front wheel bikes called?
At the time, they were just called bicycles. Once bikes like the ones we know today became common, the high-wheel bikes got new names to distinguish them. The new bikes with equal sized wheels were called Safety Bikes, and the high-wheel bikes were called Penny-Farthings, because the wheels looked like a small farthing following a large penny, or Ordinary Bikes because they were the standard. As the transition to safety-bikes took hold, the ordinary bikes kept their name, even though they were becoming more unusual.
Q: Were they safe?
Not at all. Problems included:
Tipping forward: The center of gravity on a high-wheel bike is off, and the rider is in constant danger of being thrown over the handlebars. Some riders even rode down hills with their feet over the handlebars, so if they were thrown off they could land on their feet. The phenomenon was so common that bikers called it “taking a header.”
The braking: The bikes were like today’s fixed gear bikes—there were no hand brakes. With that came all the difficulties of modern fixies.
Q: Did women ride them?
At the time, usually not. Because of women’s long skirts, they weren’t able to mount and ride the penny-farthing. They did ride large tricycles, however, and their adoption of the safety bike was relatively quick.
Q: What did people use them for?
The same thing people use bikes for today: travel, fun, exercise, and even competition. Bike races were common and a significant circuit developed. There were even stunt riders who rode bikes.
Q: How far did people ride on them?
Far. Cyclist Thomas Stevens went from San Francisco to Boston on one, completing the first transcontinental bike ride.
Q: Do people still ride them?
Definitely. Like any invention, it has a subculture of its own. You can buy replicas or join societies like The Wheelmen. But if you do, be careful: taking a header isn’t fun.