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Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Those were the Days (12)

Looking through some old photographs, I came across this one, taken in Abbey Park, Leicester in 2003.
It shows a successful attempt to get an entry in the Guiness Book of Records for the greatest assembly of Penny Farthings. The figure of 131 broke the previous record held by a group in the US.
Question 1 - If you have a Penny Farthing, how do you get it to such a gathering?
No good trying to get it on a train (it's difficult enough with an conventional bike), and a 5ft. diameter wheel does not fit in many cars. Well, I had a look in the car park, and the answer is that you carry your Penny Farthing on it's side on a roof rack.
Question 2 - How did all these guys manage to remain stationary and upright whilst the photographs were taken?
Well, they were actually holding not their own handlebars, but those of the machines on either side, and it took quite a while to get them into position. They started in the centre and worked outwards in both directions with two teams of helpers.
Question 3 - How do you get onto such a machine?
Just above the rear wheel there is a fixed step and the technique is to put one foot on that, push the PF forward and then with one deft movement, leap onto the saddle and pedal away.  Looks easy enough but I haven't tried it. Dismounting is by the reverse (for experts) or by falling off ( for beginners).
Heavy braking is risky as there is a danger of the rider being catapulted over the handlebars. Fortunately (?), the single brake on the front wheel would have been rather poor.
Now you may know that these things are not strictly called Penny Farthings, except by the general public. They are actually called "Ordinaries" and what we think of as an normal bike is actually a "Safety Bicycle."
The Safety Bicycle was welcomed by cycle dealers since Penny Farthings were bespoke (bespoke - ha ha - get it?), in that customers bought one according to their inside leg measurement, much as you do a pair of trousers. The longer your legs and the bigger the wheel, the faster you could go. Dealers had to stock a number of sizes to suit potential customers. With the advent of gearing via a chain drive, bicycles became a more standard size, with built in seat height adjustment and thus smaller stocks for dealers.
Not all the Penny Farthings that you see are antiques, since you can still buy a new one from a company in Eastern Europe who will sell you one for around £1000.
Modern unicycles are an offshoot of the Penny Farthing, since daring young men used to lean forward to lift the small rear wheel off the ground (a sort of reverse wheelie) and so the unicycle was born. Yet another human achievement which would seem to be impossible had you not seen it done, and probably discovered by accident. Whilst most unicycles have small wheels (20" -24") and consequently very low gearing, you can buy them with 36" diameter wheels, giving improved straight line speed.
It is said that prior to the invention of the bicycle, most men married girls who lived within walking distance.
With a bicycle the young man could range further afield to find a bride, so this may have had a beneficial effect on the human gene pool (perhaps!).

The secret revealed (question 2)

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