Tuesday, October 18, 2011

VIDEO: Highwheel Racing In London

Here's an entertaining video of old-fashioned racing in present-day London. Competing on highwheels (also called ordinaries or penny farthings) isn't that much different than on modern bicycles, except for how much further you fall if you crash; and the fact that your legs are trapped beneath the handlebars so there's a strong chance you'll land face-first, which can be disastrous (deaths from these types of falls caused the demise of the highwheel craze around 1890).

If you plan to take up racing highwheels, the "secret" to having a chance is being on a large enough wheel. Highwheels are fixies, i.e. direct drive (no freewheeling). So, all things being equal between the riders, if you have a 56-inch wheel as I do, you have a significant advantage over someone with a 50-inch wheel - at least on a flat course - simply because you cover more ground with each pedal stroke.

It's typical for these races to be run on 1-mile courses around a flat city block, though sometimes they throw in a little hill to keep it interesting. That was the case in the Albany, California race a few years back and it took away some of the advantage of having the biggest wheel. Incidentally, highwheels may look slow but they move right along. American William W. Windle set a mark of 2 minutes 15.6 seconds for a mile in Peoria, Illinois on September 15, 1890. That's 26.5 mph and was likely done on a dirt track.

Enjoy the show,


djconnel said...

Incredible! Impressive watching the rider salute across the finish -- I wonder what the geometric trail is. Certainly the gyroscopic component of stability is going to be fairly high on these bikes.

Jim Langley said...

We would have to do the math, dj, but the bikes are different than modern bikes in the way they ride. The wheel is giant and you're pedaling on the center of the wheel. Every pedal stroke pushes the wheel to the other side so you need to put a counter force on the handlebars. This comes naturally but it's something that feels funny at first and that makes it tricky to learn to pedal and ride no-handed. I know highwheel riders who can cruise for miles no-handed, though, so it can be done with practice. They're actually a lot of fun to ride and quite comfortable. You just don't want to go over the bars or off the side.


peter nurkse said...

And just watch those small wheel folding bikes racing!(at 0:35 and again at 3:01 in the video). Small wheels and high wheels, would be even better to see them mixing it up together in one race.
There was also a Fixed Gear Longest Skid category, won by a continuous skid of over 100 meters, must be a new world record:


Jim Langley said...

Excellent, Peter! Notice that the skid contest is sponsored by the tire company Schwalbe that actually makes a tire for skidding too.