Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of race participant Haig Colter. This version has been corrected.
It lifts you nine feet off the ground, goes about 10 miles an hour, and has no brakes and only one gear.
As a form of transportation, the high-wheel bicycle is embarrassingly slow and ludicrously impractical. But as a smile-inducing, heart-pumping sightseeing machine, the high wheel, also known as a penny farthing because its big front wheel and tiny back wheel resemble an old English copper penny leading the much smaller coin, is in a league of its own.
Twenty-five die-hard high-wheel enthusiasts were in downtown Frederick on Saturday, doing their darndest to raise the profile of the Victorian-era velocipede by competing in the Frederick Clustered Spires High Wheel Race.
The event was organized by Eric Rhodes, 37, the captain of the Potomac region of the Wheelmen, a national organization “dedicated to the enjoyment and preservation of our bicycling heritage.” It was the first high-wheel race in the United States, and one of only four races like it in the world. The rider who completed the most laps around the 0.4-mile course in an hour would be the winner.
“What’s it like? Isn’t it scary?” a middle-aged spectator asked racer Ken Matthews, 38, a graphic designer from Virginia. Matthews was standing next to his 51-inch Columbia Light Roadster (heights are measured by the diameter of the front wheel) after a test ride of the course.
“It’s not that bad.” Matthews said.
“How do you stop?” she asked.
That’s probably the most popular question high-wheel riders get, in addition to “How do you get on?” (there’s a little metal step on the side of the smaller wheel) and “How do you get off?”
“You have to plan ahead and you have to slow down,” says Keith Carter, 59, one of Saturday’s racers and a government contractor from Hagerstown.
Twenty men and five women competed in Saturday’s race. There were three married couples, one orthopedic surgeon and one Guinness record holder. Steve Carter, 68 and no relation to Keith, crossed the country on his high wheel in 33 days, setting a world record.
The youngest rider was Blaise Faber, 27, who came all the way from Phoenix. He had a camera attached to his helmet and a tattoo of a high wheel on his right forearm. That degree of dedication was hardly rare among the racers. Marie Autry drove 648 miles from Atlanta to make the race while Christopher Rhoten built his own 60-inch high wheel to compete. Steve Carter and his wife, Carolyn, restructured their family room in Plainfield, Ind., to store their 20 high wheels (down from a high of 60), a stunning number considering the average price of a high wheel. An original can cost $29,000, a well-made replica $4,000 to $5,000; cheaper, newer examples can be had for less than $1,000.
But to these riders, it’s worth it. It’s a great workout. Rhodes guesses that an hour on a high wheel is equivalent to two hours on a road bike. “You’re pedaling on the wheel that you’re steering,” explained racer Haig Colter, a 42-year-old information security worker. With high wheels, he said, “you have to carry your own body weight plus the weight of the bicycle,” 48 pounds on average. Racing bikes, by contrast, clock in at about 15 pounds, according to International Cycling Union rules.
And it’s fun. People ask questions. They laugh. Riders get a great view of the neighborhood.
It can also be dangerous. Contestant Alison Torpey, 54, fell off her bike toward the end of the race and was taken to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. As of Sunday evening she was said to be in stable condition.
After the race was over — Rick Stumpf of Missouri won the men’s race with 42 laps, and Carol Kennedy of Hagerstown the women’s with 37 — the racers pedaled around the course one more time. Wobbling on a high wheel was someone accustomed to going a bit faster: three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, in town for Tour de Frederick, a weekend-long charity bike event.