In late December of 2017 I saw an article online about the Clustered Spires National High Wheel Race in Frederick, Maryland. I knew there were races being held in places like Australia and Great Britain, but I had never heard of a Penny Farthing race anywhere in the U.S. Without giving it a second thought I burst into my living room and announced to my unsuspecting wife, “Do you know that there is a high wheel race outside D.C.? …and that we’re going!”
My love of the highwheel bicycle started several years ago when I picked up my first replica. It was built sometime in the 70’s and had spent many summers sitting out in front of Maxon’s Cyclery in Eagle River.
I enjoyed the challenge and thrill of teaching myself how to ride but found another unexpected advantage, the riding position.
Previous back operations have left many forward riding positions uncomfortable and drop bars almost an impossibility. It turns out that with a Penny the rider sits straight upright with the headtube tucked just in front of the saddle. This means no bending at the waist and ultimately the most comfortable riding bike I have, as long as I don’t fall off.
The race format at Clustered Spires sounds simple enough, but I found out that the course posed many challenges. Racers began with 20 minute heats, doing hot laps around two city blocks in downtown historic Frederick. Following the qualifying heats, the top 20 times would advance for another 30 minute final heat to declare a champion.
I knew that I was not likely to finish near the top, but I began training nonetheless. I spent the next few months pedaling a fixed gear on a trainer in my dining room until the snow melted and I was able to begin riding my Penny outside.
It is important to note that high wheelers are not only brakeless fixed-gear bicycles, but you are also unable to come to a complete stop or to dismount in a hurry so I made a point to ride through the newly paved cemetery a few blocks from my home. I have found that riding on a maintained surface, removing as much traffic from the scenario as possible and wearing a helmet have really removed most of the dangers associated with these bikes.
As the week of the race arrived, I was still working out bike rack kinks but was otherwise ready to go. Cranked Bike Studio in Neenah had caught wind that I was going to the race and hooked me up with a wool jersey complete with handmade felt lettering and Wisconsin on the sleeve. I was as ready as I was ever going to be, so we loaded up and hit the road and quickly found that you get almost as many smiles and waves with a highwheeler on your bumper as you do riding the bike.
When we arrived in Frederick, Maryland, we were immediately impressed with the beauty and history that surrounded us everywhere. We were also a little surprised at just how hilly this little town was, but it was buzzing with people overflowing onto the sidewalks from every eatery in town. We quickly began to see highwheel bikes parked everywhere and we knew we were in the right place. The comradery of the racers was instant regardless of what highwheeling background you came from.
There were a handful of different types of bikes that showed up including “real” antique highwheel bikes from the late 1800’s, replicas made sometime between the 1960’s and the 1990’s, and lightweight modern racing machines. Beyond that there were also different types of riders including hobbyists who ride highwheelers casually, racers who ride them competitively, and those who race one or more other style bicycles competitively but have switched over to a highwheeler just for this particular race. As someone with an older replica in his first competitive race, it quickly became clear that my plan was to simply give it everything I had on the qualifier. With any luck, I would make the cut and just maybe have enough juice left for a second race.
The morning of the race we had trouble getting over to hear the rules and safety concerns prior to race time as the roads were already blocked off and the sidewalks around the course filled with spectators. Riders were encouraged to take practice laps. This was everyone’s chance to do some tricks and put on a show for the crowd. My biggest trick was bringing my 5 year old son along who also rides a Penny Farthing. Together we clicked our heels in unison and stood with one foot on the seat and the other trailing in the air behind us. This was easily my favorite memory of the entire journey.
As race time approached a local quartet sang the National Anthem, and the racers were introduced. The field of racers were men and women from all over the U.S. and 5 foreign countries. I was slated for the second qualifying heat. My family and I found a spot at the bottom of Turn 4 and watched the first heat anxiously. There were only four left hand turns, and while the front and back stretches were flat, the side stretches were up and down a fairly severe grade. The final turn was downhill into narrow intersection, and it was sketchy.
Now it was my turn, and after watching the first heat, I suddenly had a renewed interest in making sure I was the safest rider I could be. The starter fired the gun. We were off! Naturally there was a small pile up while mounting that I got caught up in, but no one was hurt, and we were all flying around Turn 1 in no time. The temperature was in the 90s and everyone was going for it. Local kids were handing us water, and photographers lined the streets as thousands of locals crowded the sidewalks and cheered for their favorites. Turn 4 was every bit as scary as I imagined, and never got any easier. It was the fastest, most dangerous spot on the course and was where the largest crowds gathered.
I finished my heat with very little left to give, but even with that I didn’t make the cut for the final race. After watching the finals I can say that it may have been for the best. The competition was fierce, and the top racers were absolutely fearless. They were going into Turn 4 three to five bikes at a time, full speed with less than inches between them. It was a spectacle to see and an honor to meet and ride with that level of competition. Ultimately the race was won for the second year in a row by a Swede with an American taking the top female spot.
It was an experience of a lifetime, and one I will surely talk about for a long time to come. I met many incredible racers and enthusiasts from all over the world and got to represent Wisconsin along the way. The best part is that I can now unequivocally say that I am the undisputed 27th Fastest American Man on a Highwheel Bicycle in the U.S. in 2018.