Over the past 12 months of lockdowns and restrictions across the UK, people have distracted themselves and kept busy with all manner of interests and hobbies. But one pastime from a bygone era has had a surprising surge in popularity—the Victorian penny-farthing bicycle.
The bicycle—which gets its name from having one large wheel at the front and one small wheel at the back resembling the Victorian penny and farthing coins in their relation to one another—has seen sales in some areas double over the last year.
Neil Laughton, founder of the Penny Farthing Club UK, has been encouraging people to take in an interest in the Victorian bicycle for a number of years.
“This last year’s lockdown has been pretty challenging for everybody. But those who own a bike like mine have been getting out,” he told NTD.
“I think we fueled a little bit of resurgence in demand for the bike. The manufacturer of this bike has completely sold out of his stock, sold two years worth of stock in one year.”
The penny-farthing, with its unusual design, takes quite a bit of skill to ride, and Laughton admits that it’s not very safe.
“It’s a fixed wheel bicycle. And it’s very tall, you ride about nine foot into the air,” he said. “And so if you do make a mistake and fall off, it’s a long way down, and you can crack your skull.”
But despite the obvious risks, Laughton says that “just the sheer pleasure of riding this Victorian steed” is worth overcoming any of the challenges it may present. He has been riding penny-farthings for seven to eight years, but still describes himself as a “relative novice.”
Simple pleasure cruising is not all you can do while riding this eccentric bicycle, as Laughton points out. He and the other members of the club take part in races, tours, and even penny-farthing polo.
“We play on grass so that when you do fall off and crash into other riders playing polo, it’s a relatively soft landing on the grass,” he said.
Stopping a penny-farthing is just as unique as its design. Laughton explains that while equipped with a regular caliber brake like most bikes, the penny-farthing has two other unusual braking systems.
The first option, as it’s a fixed wheel bike, is that its speed is determined by how fast you pedal: “You slow down your pedal, and the bike slows down,” Laughton said. The second option is to simply put your “right foot on the back wheel and you slow it down by friction.”
Penny-farthings, which were originally called just bicycles, rose to popularity in the late Victorian period due in part to mass production available in England and its ability to reach relatively high speeds compared to its counterparts of the time, until the invention of the modern bicycle in the late 1880s.
The penny-farthing is widely seen as the bicycle that gave birth to cycling as a sport, with its use in competitive sports continuing on into the early 20th century, some 30 years after production had actually ceased.
Reporting by Jane Werrell of NTD.