Historical question

A book, The Fasting Cure, published in 1911 by American muckracker Upton Sinclair, mentions a man who “runs five miles in 26 minutes and 15 seconds, and rode a wheel 500 miles in seven days.”

Was unicycling so accepted in 1911 that you could just say “rode a wheel,” and everyone would understand, or does it mean a penny farthing bike, or am I completely missing the point and it means something else that I haven’t even thought of?

Casual Googling says it means bicycling, e.g.

Cycling Trade Review, 1890 - “He first rode a wheel in 1882”

Introduction of Bicycles to Korea - “He [Lansdale] is said to have been the first man that rode a wheel on Korean soil [in 1884]. The natives came running from all sides when they saw him pedaling through the streets of Chemulpo on his high machine.” (1899 newspaper obituary)

Agreed. Ngram. The usage might have started when the most familiar bicycles had one huge obvious wheel along with a much smaller one, but it looks like it continued to be applied to chain-driven “safety” bicycles.

Used as an example of figurative language in an 1897 book:

Wow, didn’t know about Ngram. Its possibilities as a research tool are endless! Thanks.

Glad it helped, Song. Yeah, Ngram is cool. Those books, journals, etc, are useful in a lot of ways, especially the older public domain stuff. I’d guess that the scanning and OCR work is pretty well automated and I wonder sometimes whether I’m the first person in at least a century to read something.

It would mean penny farthing or “high wheeler” also known later as an “ordinary bike” - in order to differentiate it from the “safety bike” which was an early version of the modern design with 2 equal wheels and chain drive.

There was also an American variant which had a large directly driven rear wheel and a small steerable front wheel.

I have ridden a genuine Victorian penny farthing. The small wheel hovers slightly at speed and to all intents and purposes it is a unicycle with a single stabiliser.