Penny Farthings Bring a Little History to Annual London Bike Race

June 16, 2017 Updated: June 16, 2017

Penny farthing bike racers took to the streets of London June 10 in a day-night bike event called London Nocturne.

The bike is named after the penny, and a former British coin, the farthing, that had a quarter of the penny’s worth and has a connotation of being almost worthless. The reference to the coins has to do with the proportion of the tires. The large tire in the front looks like the size of a penny compared to its small back tire, the farthing. It is also known as a high wheel bike and was created for English gentry who wanted a faster bike. Because gears were invented in the 1870s, the makers created a large front wheel to make them go faster.

Penny farthings are not bikes for the faint of heart. Maker of replica period bikes, Richards of England, has a disclaimer on its website saying they can be dangerous, and that the company will “not accept any responsibility for any injury or damage caused by becoming a cropper or taking a header as of a result of riding a penny farthing replica.”

If you’ve ever wondered how someone mounts such a monstrously high bike, there’s no flying carpet involved. What there is is a step on the frame a couple of feet off the ground that bikers step on to mount. The trick is to start the bike moving before hopping on, otherwise the rider could teter and fall.

While it may seem that riding penny farthings is a pastime limited to the nostalgic and history-minded, there is at least one person who has found a modern, albeit nostalgic, use for it. A man in Cornwall started the Penny Farthing Post in 2012, a postal service with homemade stamps, and a network of businesses that acted as postal boxes, and mailboxes made out of gas bottles. His business was initially geared toward tourists, he told the Guardian, but it quickly became popular among locals.

At the end of my first week, I was dropping to bits. I wasn’t used to cycling 15 miles a day, and my penny farthing needed a new back wheel,” Graham Eccles told the Guardian.

At that point, he was only delivering local mail.

At Nocturne, penny farthings were just one of the race categories; there were foldable and single-gear bikes as well. Racers included everyone from amateur bikers to children to Olympic athletes.

The bike festival started in 2007 in the streets of London, and has been a summer staple in the city ever since. The first year, the event attracted 5,000 people, its website states, and every year it gets bigger.

This is the first year it is also being held in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Follow Holly on Twitter: @HollyGailK