Penny-Farthings, Fixies and Safety

Background Reading


Penny and Farthing Coins

Penny and Farthing Coins

When the Cycling Movement made “safety” its mantra by agitating for Protected Bicycle Lanes (PBLs) it brought into sharp focus an inconsistent practice still in vogue, the use of the brakeless fixed gear bicycle (i.e. “fixie“). To understand the “fixie” you have to reach back in history to the time of its predecessor the “Penny Farthing“.

The name given this style of bicycle was because of the innovative two-wheel design. Because these bikes were front wheel driven

Penny-farthinghigh wheelhigh wheelerMan slicer and ordinary are all terms used to describe a type of bicycle with a large front wheel and a much smaller rear wheel that was popular after the boneshaker, until the development of the safety bicycle, in the 1880s.[1] They were the first machines to be called “bicycles”.[2]

Although they are now most commonly known as “penny-farthings“, this term was probably not used until they were nearly outdated; the first recorded print reference is 1891 in Bicycling News.[3] It comes from the British penny and farthing coins, one much larger than the other, so that the side view resembles a penny leading a farthing.[4] For most of their reign, they were simply known as “bicycles”. In the late 1890s, the retronym “ordinary” began to be used, to distinguish them from the emerging safety bicycles,[5] and this term or Hi-wheel (and variants) is preferred by many modern enthusiasts.[6][7]

About 1870, James Starley, described as the father of the bicycle industry, and others began producing bicycles based on the French boneshaker but with front wheels of increasing size,[4] because larger front wheels, up to 1.5 m (60 in) in diameter, enabled higher speeds on bicycles limited to direct drive.[1][4][8][9][10] In 1878, Albert Pope began manufacturing the Columbia bicycle outside of Boston, starting their two-decade heyday in America.[4]

Although the trend was short-lived, the penny-farthing became a symbol of the late Victorian era. Its popularity also coincided with the birth of cycling as a sport.[4]

Origins and development

A penny-farthing photographed in theŠkoda Auto Museum in the Czech Republic

penny-farthing photographed in theŠkoda Auto Museum in the Czech Republic

Frenchman Eugene Meyer is now regarded as the father of the High Bicycle by the International Cycling History Conference in place ofJames Starley. Meyer patented a wire-spoke tension wheel with individually adjustable spokes in 1869.[4] They were called “spider” wheels in Britain when introduced there.[4] Meyer produced a classic high bicycle design until the 1880s.

James Starley in Coventry added the tangent spokes[4] and the mounting step to his famous bicycle named “Ariel.” He is regarded as the father of the British cycling industryBall bearingssolid rubber tires and hollow-section steel frames became standard, reducing weight and making the ride much smoother.[4]

Penny-farthing bicycles are dangerous due to the risk of headers. Makers developed “moustache” handlebars, allowing the rider’s knees to clear them,[11] “Whatton” handlebars, that wrapped around behind the legs,[12] and ultimately (though too late, after the Starley safety bike), with the 1889 American Eagle and Star, the position of big and small wheel was reversed.[13][14] This prevented headers, but left the danger of being thrown backwards when riding uphill. Other attempts included moving the seat rearward and driving the wheel by levers or treadles, as in the Xtraordinary or Facile,[15][16] or gears, by chain as in the Kangaroo or at the hub in the Crypto;[13] another option was to move the seat well back, as in the Rational.[13][17]

Even so, bicycling remained the province of the urban well-to-do, and mainly men, until the 1890s,[18] and was a salient example of conspicuous consumption.[19]


The penny-farthing used a larger wheel than the velocipede, thus giving higher speed on all but steep hills. In addition, the large wheel rolled more readily over cobbles, stones, ruts, and so on. Since rough-paved and unpaved roads were more common than smooth roads, the increase in rider comfort was significant.[citation needed]

The high riding position might seem daunting, but mounting could be learned on a lower velocipede. Once mastered, a high wheeler can be mounted and dismounted easily on flat ground and some hills. In some rare cases penny-farthings can reach 10 feet in height and must be mounted via ladders.[citation needed]

An important and unfortunate attribute of the penny-farthing is that the rider sits high and nearly over the front axle. When the wheel strikes rocks and ruts, or under hard braking, the rider can be pitched forward off the bicycle head-first, called “taking a header” or simply “a header”. Headers were relatively common, and a significant hazard: riders sometimes died from headers. Riders coasting down hills often took their feet off the pedals and put them over the tops of the handlebars, so they would be pitched off feet-first instead of head-first.

Penny-farthing bicycles often used similar materials and construction as earlier velocipedes: cast iron frames, solid rubber tires, and plain bearings for pedals, steering, and wheels. They were often quite durable and required little service. For example, when cyclist Thomas Stevens rode around the world in the 1880s, he reported only one significant mechanical problem in over 20,000 km, caused when the local military confiscated his bicycle and damaged the front wheel.

End of an era

The well known dangers of the penny-farthing[20] were, for the time of its prominence, outweighed by its strengths. While it was a difficult, dangerous machine, it was simpler, lighter, and faster than the safer velocipedes of the time. Additionally, the large wheel rode over bumps in the road more smoothly than smaller-wheeled vehicles. Two new developments changed this situation, and led to the rise of the Safety bicycle. The first was the chain drive, originally used on tricycles, allowing a gear ratio to be chosen independent of the wheel size. The second was the pneumatic bicycle tire, allowing smaller wheels to provide a smooth ride.

The nephew of one of the men responsible for popularity of the penny-farthing was largely responsible for its death. James Starley had built the Ariel (spirit of the air)[21] high-wheeler in 1870; but this was a time of innovation, and when chain drives were upgraded so that each link had a small roller, higher and higher speeds became possible without the large wheel. In 1885, Starley’s nephew John Kemp Starley took these new developments to launch the Rover Safety Bicycle, so-called because the rider, seated much lower and farther behind the front wheel contact point, was less prone to “a header” (going over the bars).[4]

In 1888, when John Dunlop re-invented the pneumatic tire for his son’s tricycle, the high wheel was made obsolete. The comfortable ride once found only on tall wheels could now be enjoyed on smaller chain-driven bicycles. By 1893, high-wheelers were no longer being produced.[1] Use lingered into the 1920s in track cycling until racing safety bicycles were perfected.

Today, enthusiasts ride restored penny-farthings, and a few manufacturers build new ones.[22]


The penny-farthing is a direct-drive bicycle, meaning the cranks and pedals are fixed directly to the hub. Instead of using “gears” to multiply the revolutions of the pedals, the driven wheel was enlarged to close to the rider’s inseam, to increase the maximum speed. This shifted the rider nearly on top of the wheel. His feet could not reach the ground.[4]

The Attraction Of The “Fixie”

Fixies” are a contradiction when used on the road in an era such as ours where the justification for increased bicycling infrastructure is increased rider safety.

Fixies” as used here is in reference to a direct drive rear wheeled bike that is chain-driven but without benefit of a freewheel. As a result the stopping technique involves using the legs to “brake” the riders momentum. Some of these bikes are equipped with “panic brakes“. These are used in the event of an impending collision. Otherwise the rider learns to perform “skid stops“. This involves literally stopping the turning of the cranks by bracing the hips against the handlebars and allowing the rear wheel to “skid” along the pavement. Eventually the tires have to be replaced due to a series of wear patches that develop around the circumference of the wheel.

Like its Penny Farthing cousin steep terrain is its Achilles Heel. A young Latino youth was killed last year because he could not stop his bike from colliding with a wall at the bottom of a hill during a Critical Mass Ride. And another “fixie” gear rider evidently more concerned about the damage done to his helmet manages to kill a pedestrian in a crosswalk at the bottom of a steep hill.

The feel of riding a “fixed gear” bike is much different than experienced with a bike using a “free wheel” where you can “coast” when not pedaling. The problem is that brakes on such bikes are a bit of a contradiction. The method of stopping the forward movement of the bike is to cease pedaling. And in fact one stands on the pedals bracing against the handlebar to make this occur. A brake on a bike like this is somewhat pointless excepting “panic stop” conditions.

It is the thrill of being slightly “out of control” especially when in traffic that attracts young males (especially) to this mode of transportation. Because you cannot bail when riding at full speed you are forced to continue onward and to find a route through traffic without suffering injury. The feeling is a “rush“. There is a cycling movie called “Premium Rush” which plays upon this fact.

Much of the allure for these bikes has been spurred on by movies depicting Alley Cat races in places like New York, San Francisco and even Indianapolis. Alley Cat racers have no need or desire to use Protected Bike Lanes (PBLs) because their route across town can take them across sidewalks, pedestrian plazas, the “wrong way” down one-way streets, and out into traffic where they move between cars unable to avoid the “Door Zone” in the process.

For cyclists this is the last bastion of the “outlaw” culture of bike messengers. Riders of these bikes have a vested interest in avoid the “loss of momentum” brought on by stopping their forward progress. So things like “running red lights” and “blowing through stop signs” are as common in their world as pushing down on the pedals.

It is the ultimate hypocrisy that bike shops encourage the assembly of these kinds of bikes knowing full well that they are commonly used on city streets.

urbanyard_0Eighthinch Urban Yard – On site custom bike builds: Size, Specs, Colors. You pick the parts and we will build your new EighthInch bike just the way you want it! On site fixed gear conversions: Bring in an old 10-speed* and we will covert it to a fixed gear with an all new wheel(s) and drivetrain. *requires horizontal dropouts, 68mm bottom bracket, and 27/700c wheels. PLUS custom shirt printingbike polo shootout, N64 game lounge, test rides, free swag, prizes and more.

The irony is that these same bicycle shops are motivated to sponsor groups like Bikes Belong and The Green Lane Project while promoting the use of brakeless fixed gear bikes. What could be more confounding to the non-cycling public that to see groups of riders mourning the death of a comrade who dies essentially because he cannot perform a “panic stop” in time to avoid a collision. In fact one of the really tragic realities is that when ridden in the “Door Zone” riders of these bikes have been known to be crushed under trucks along their left side because they were attempting to evade a collision with a passenger exiting a stationary vehicle.

Can You Truly Be For Bike Safety And Promote Brakeless Fixed Gear Use?

That is the question I would like to ask my friends in the bicycle industry. Only you know whether “making a buck” is worth the possibility that someone will die needlessly. But assuming that the “bottom line” is what a Capitalist lives for then is it possible to promote “safety” in tandem with “brakeless bike use“? Is it possible that these two activities are in conflict with one another?

How do we justify the spending that PBLs represent by using “safety” as the basis for our argument while promoting the use of “brakeless bikes“?