Vintage penny farthing

The Penny Farthing or Ordinary Bicycle

The high bicycle, often known as a penny-farthing, is still referred to by enthusiasts as the ordinary, because before the safety bicycle was invented in 1885, that is what it was – the ordinary bicycle of the day. The first bicycle with wire wheels, made by Meyer of Paris, came to England in the summer of 1870 and the style quickly replaced the wooden boneshaker, which had itself only been in use for two years.
This time the build-up was more measured but amateur and professional racing attracted big crowds and during the next twenty years around 250,000 ordinaries were made.

The reason for the big wheel was simply to gain extra speed, therefore racers would ride the largest wheel they could bestride. On a 60” machine in 1882, the English athlete, H.L.Cortis, became the first man to cover twenty miles in an hour. Ordinaries were efficient and comfortable and even when carrying luggage, huge distances could be covered on the bad roads of the day. One hundred miles in a day was commonplace. A not so young rider in the Knutsford race has ridden 258 miles in 24 hours.

The ordinary did have one flaw, which you may spot. The machine was, and is, subject to headers or imperial crowners; the affectionate name for involuntary dismounts over the handlebars. With luck you will not be see any in the Knutsford race although we would ask you not to copy Victorian urchins and put sticks through the wheels.

By the late 1870s, bicycle-clubs were being formed in towns across the land and the countryside of north Cheshire was a popular haunt for clubs in Manchester and its suburbs. There was even a hill-climb up Alderley Edge. The famous Anfield Bicycle Club from Liverpool frequented Cheshire most weekends. Still riding, the Anfield will again be represented with a team in 2010.

Most of the machines in the race are original, some made by marques which later became famous in the motorcar and motorcycle world, such as Rudge, Humber, Singer, Hillman, Triumph, B.S.A., Swift and Rover.

In 1885, several chain-driven safeties were introduced, particularly J.K.Starley’s Rover. They were at first scorned as ‘beetles’ but soon proved faster in road races and when shod with pneumatic tyres in 1890, resulted in the early demise of the ordinary. Yet the memory of the Grand Old Ordinary remained alive and in 1907 devotees resumed racing. The tradition continues today the riders in the Knutsford Great Race 2010 all count the experience of ordinary riding as among the most pleasant and memorable of their lives.