by Erik Ferguson
For the last few years, I've been riding a highwheel bicycle in New York City. I've had my picture taken tens of thousands of times as I rode in Five Boro Bike Tours, Critical Mass rides, Greenwich Village Halloween Parades, and other bike events. I've been asked thousands of questions. Here are the ones that I get asked the most, and my answers.
What is it called?
Original bicycles had many names. In 1817 there was the Draisienne or hobby horse, a two wheeled wood-and-metal contraption that lacked pedals. Around 1865 some bright spark attached pedals to the front wheel, and the velocipede was born! The velocipede was ridden somewhat like the bicycles we know today. The combination of wooden wheels and metal tires with unpaved roads earned them the name 'boneshakers'.
In the 1870s the first all-metal bikes were built. Solid tires and spoked wheels made for a much better ride (it's always the little things!)As the new metal bikes gained in popularity, riders began to go faster and farther. Manufacturers increased the wheel sizes, enabling riders to go faster with each pedal stroke. Highwheels were born! Throughout the 1880s and 90s the new machines, with their huge front and tiny rear wheels, became massively popular. Their unique and elegant look inspired such terms as Penny Farthing (like the large and small British coins).
Around the turn of the century, someone came out with a working chain drive. The new invention had made possible the design of safety bicycles, machines with two equal-sized wheels. Within a few years, they replaced the old highwheels, just as the new steam ships replaced the tall ships on the seas. The brief heyday of the highwheel bicycle drew to a close.
How did you get up there? How do you get off?
On occasion, I've been tempted to answer this one with some wise-ass comment about standing on a little bike, then stepping onto larger and larger bikes. The truth is a lot less farcical. Most highwheels have a little peg sticking out of the frame above the rear wheel. You put one foot on the peg, then scoot along with the other foot until you have enough momentum to keep the bike stable. Then you stand up on the peg, sit on the seat and get your feet on the pedals. It is a little tricky at first, but quickly becomes second nature. Getting off is basically the same operation in reverse, and with a little practice can be done very smoothly.
How long did it take you to learn to ride it?
Most people with a little riding experience--especially fixers--can ride a highwheel within a few minutes. Some take a little longer, but almost everyone can learn.
At first, riding the highwheel feels very strange because pushing on the pedals steers the wheel, which makes riding no-hands very tricky. Also, the long fork legs and large wheel make for loads of flex. However, as long as you allow plenty of space for turns and keep a little momentum going, it is not that different from riding a regular fix.
Well, I have tipped over to the sides a lot, but that's no big deal, as long as you do it sober. My first real crash happened after the September Critical Mass. On the way back from Brooklyn some guy in a black Jetta attempted to squeeze me into a parked car. Nurtz to that! As he merged into me his front fender pushed my pedal sideways, side-loading the front wheel, and causing it to fold. I pitched forward as the bike pivoted around the front axle. Luckily, I was able to roll out of it, and didn't end up under the car. I've never gone over-the-bars except while screwing around in the park--I soon learned that you can't do a messenger style skid, even on wet grass. Other than slapping a few quarter panels and dodging doors, I've had no other problems.
Where are the brakes? How do you stop?
Like on a track fix, you are the brakes. You just resist with your legs, and pray! A few highwheels are fitted with so-called spoon brakes that push a concave metal piece down on the top of the front tire. However, since this causes your weight to pitch forward, it can result in the dreaded forward crash. The one where you're holding the bars with a smile as your face slams into the pavement...
Where do you get tires?
Both tires are actually solid rubber, and they are sold by the foot. There is a little wire in the center, and that is joined at the seam and twisted to tighten the tire into place. They are also glued to the rim. I have put several hundred miles on the bike, and have yet to replace a tire.
Due to the long spokes and soft metal rim, the highwheeler is a little smoother to ride then you might think. But only a little.
Can you wheelie that thing?
Yes! Since the highwheeler weighs a ton and you are sitting directly on the front axle, it is hard to get much height, but it is possible. On one or two occasions I have been able to get the timing down and bunnyhop cracks and even manhole covers. Lifting the rear wheel is much easier. When you brake on a steep descent, the rear wheel pops up into the air all on its own. That can get scary.
Where did you get it? Where is it from? How old is it?
I have two highwheel bikes. The first is a 48" wheel Rideable Replica from California, the cheapest reproduction highwheel available. Right before the 2001 Five Boro Bike Tour, it puked the front wheel bearings, and I realized that I needed something a little more reliable. I found a company in Australia by the name of Edlee, and purchased a bike that had been used as a demo. It has a 46" wheel that is much nicer, and is closer to the original designs.
The original highwheels made in the 1800s were among the most technologically advanced products manufactured. In those days, before mass-production, skilled labor got the highest level of craftsmanship, pushing the limits of technology. That knowledge later transferred to autos and airplanes.
Riding the highwheel has really made me appreciate all the advances that make bicycles have gone through in the last hundred years or so. There is a lot to be said for pneumatic tires, freewheels, and brakes that work.
So finally... Why?
I think many fixers have been asked this, as well.
For me, I think it goes back to the early years, riding my first tricycle. The pure joy of hauling ass and cornering without a thought to all the bullshit that seems to creep into bicycling and life in general. This is getting back to my roots as a little dirtbag on wheels, and it still brings the same evil grin to my face, and the same pure enjoyment to my soul.
But, while the riding is great fun, I think the best part of the experience is watching the reactions of all the different people in the city. Since NYC is the epicenter of Batman-esque Gotham cool, it takes people a moment to break through the sugar glaze of daily life. After a double take, most of them smile, cheer, or point. Only a few are so far gone that they have no reaction at all. Kids are different--they immediately point and swear like excited miniature longshoremen. It's nice to know that I can bring a moment of joy and amazement into their lives.
I'll always remember the young businessman who came up to me one winter evening in Grand Central Station as I waited to go home after a moonlight ride through the frozen paths of Central Park. He was rushing, but immediately stopped when he saw the bike. He said, "I've had a terrible day, could I please see you ride? It would really mean a lot to me." I hopped on the bike and did a circle around the clock in the center of the station. Then I boarded the 1:20am train for home. Another great night of riding in NYC.
Special thanks to all the bike riders in NYC, especially to the folks at Times-Up, Bob Wright, Jeff Westbrook, all the messengers, everyone at Old Skool Track, and everyone who joins in for Critical Mass.