Anyone who has read my book (A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History) knows of my past attempt to ride a high wheel bicycle. Imagine my glee when I heard about a high wheel race, the only one in the United States and supposedly one of only four or so in the world, taking place a short drive from my house. For this history geek, the race proved a few hours of great fun. The Frederick Clustered Spires High Wheel Race took place in Frederick, Maryland, founded in 1745. Its 50-block historic district features quite a few churches, hence the race’s name (from a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier). The city’s historic buildings offered an appropriate backdrop for the thirty racers zooming by high above the street surface and many of them existed in the heyday of high wheelers.
When the word “bicycle” first came into common usage in the 1870s, the term referred to the high wheeler. A decade later, when a new style called safety bicycle came along, most Americans referred to a high wheeler as an “ordinary.” The British, with their creative word descriptions, called it a penny farthing, because the ratio of the wheel sizes was similar to that of a penny coin next to a farthing. Today people from most of the British Commonwealth countries still use that term.
The high wheeler craze began in Europe in 1870 and finally jumped the pond in 1876. That year visitors to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia saw several English high wheelers on display, and an English racing champion rode his bicycle around the fairgrounds. Americans had seen two-wheeled contraptions before—starting in 1819 with variations over several decades, the velocipede (commonly called the boneshaker) had failed to spark the imaginations of the public and several versions faded from view. High wheelers proved different. One person who noticed those on display in Philadelphia was a Civil War veteran named Albert Pope. Within two years he started a business first importing and then manufacturing bicycles near his home in Boston. His company debuted its popular Columbia model in 1878. The “cult of the ordinary” quickly took root in Boston, home of the first American bicycle club, and spread around the country. A year later Washington DC, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Chicago all started clubs.
What was an extreme sport back in the 1880s could be considered the same today. I guess that’s why helmets are required. Many of the contestants rode reproduction bikes, but a handful rode original bikes from the 1880s. One man told me he only rides his original bike twice a year. The tallest bike stood at 58″ – that’s 4.8 feet above the ground!
Racers of both genders and a wide spectrum of ages, from seven or so states and two countries, clad in anything really (a few attempted period accuracy, though most opted for comfort or color over accuracy), lined up at the starting line and made a “penny stack.” Arms intertwined and holding the handlebars of the bikes on either side, the bike line posed for photographers and then each rider carefully climbed down for the start. The course was a .4 mile loop in downtown Frederick, with an uphill grade and a downhill, hay bales stacked at the turns to ease a crash. The winner was the person who could ride around the course the most times in an hour.
The riders lined up in rows of four and a barbershop quartet sang the national anthem . With a shout, they were off. As the race progressed they quickly spread out. After an hour, the female champion managed 38 laps and the male winner 41 laps.
I loved talking to the racers afterwards, hearing about their bikes and where they bought them, and celebrating their sportsmanship. All stayed calm during the race, no “cads on castors” in this bunch. I’m happy to see the cult of the ordinary is alive and well. You can bet that I’ll be in the crowd next year in Frederick cheering them on. And while I was tempted to request to ride one, I curbed my enthusiasm… this time. To learn more about high wheelers, read chapter 5 in my book! (and find out what Mark Twain said about the “graceful cobweb.”