At the Penny Farthing Race
One Saturday each Summer, the grand old meat market in Smithfield transforms into a velodrome where a lively range of contests – including fierce races for professional cyclists and playful dashes for City commuters in bowler hats on folding bikes – take place before for a roaring crowd, bringing hectic life to these streets that are empty for every other weekend of the year. And this year’s big attraction was a Penny Farthing Race, the first to be held in London since the eighteen eighties when the technology of the modern bicycle rendered them obsolete. Yet, confirming that the Penny Farthing is a vehicle to be reckoned with in the twenty-first century, forty competitors converged on Smithfield from the United Kingdom, Australia, America, Spain, France, Italy, Germany and Belgium to compete, some riding venerable old bikes from the nineteenth century and others astride shiny new ones enhanced by the possibilities of modern technology.
The challenge, the drama, the sense of freedom and the possibility that bicycles originally offered are vividly present with Penny Farthings. The unlikely marriage of man and machine that cycling entails becomes obvious to all on a Penny Farthing, when it has been lost by the ubiquity of conventional cycles. Quite simply, the larger the front wheel the faster you go and the problem is not, as you might imagine, going uphill but keeping control while coming downhill at breakneck speed.
On a Penny Farthing, you are always going to stand out from the crowd and you will get to see over the hedge too, even look down on motorists. And so, the idiosyncratic delight of the Penny Farthing attracts the individualists of the cycling world, those who would rather diverge from the pack and wish to do it on a crazy contraption with one great big wheel and one little tiny one – a beast that requires agility to climb onto and superlative balance to stay in the saddle. Those who cycle “ordinaries,” as specialists refer to them, require a certain strength of character, combining fearlessness and fun, because once you are up in the saddle your feet cannot touch the ground.
The Penny Farthings – many of which were more than a hundred years old – looked entirely at home lined up in the gloom of the market’s Grand Avenue beneath the intricate cast iron vault, where I took the opportunity to chat with some of the competitors in the half hour before the race, as they prepared to face the glare of the afternoon. “They’re fast, they’re spectacular and they excite the crowds,” enthused Phil Saunders, the succinctly spoken white-haired City gent who organised the gathering, as he stood with one hand on the saddle of his proud machine. Phil told me he has toured Japan on his Penny Farthing, and travelled abroad with it more than fifty times in the last twenty years to participate in races all over the world including Uganda, Kenya, Egypt and Jordan.
“I saw one in a museum as a child but it took me thirty years to go out and buy one for myself!” revealed Graeme Smith – who has been cycling his Penny Farthing for five years now – in wonder at his own equivocation. While Barry Denny, a veteran cyclist from Bury St Edmunds confessed to me that he bought a Penny Farthing as a dignified strategy because, “I can no longer keep up with ordinary bikes.” But the surprise of the afternoon was eager Essex boy Joff Summerfield who admitted in the midst of our conversation that he had cycled twenty-six thousand miles round the world on his Penny Farthing, showing me the dent in his pith helmet where he fell off in Tibet. As I stood in silent wonder at this mind-boggling endeavour, Joff helpfully explained he had panniers on the back for supplies and a basket on the front where he kept his stove for cooking. “It’s not as hard as it sounds,” he said in an unconvincing attempt to shrug it off.
Then, before he could say more, it was time to wheel the Penny Farthings out onto the track where the photographers and television crews awaited, and shots fired by the Portsoken Militia set the race in motion. The cyclists enjoyed one lap around the course together at a casual pace until they passed the starting post for the second time, when they sped away for a one mile dash, pedalling like demons. On the first lap, the bystanders were all entranced by the rare spectacle of so many Penny Farthings, but when the cycles flew away down to the Faringdon Rd and up Charterhouse St, returning by Long Lane before anyone expected it, a ripple of amazement went through the crowd – because in the first race in London for over a century, Penny Farthings had affirmed themselves as serious racers.
Joff Summerfield and the Penny Farthing on which he cycled round the world.
You can watch Joff Summerfield on his round the world Penny Farthing trip here
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