Penny farthing for unicyclists

I’ve recently read a book on the history of bicycles and have taken an interest to Penny farthings. I’m curious how difficult it is to adjust to a penny farthing if one is a good 36 Rider and regularly rides a fixed gear bicycle? I imagine that the adjustment is not a big deal. Experiences?

I haven’t ridden much on penny farthing, but I was neither riding 36er nor fixie and getting on penny farthing and starting the ride was just instant. I guess I would need some more to get confident with it, but there was virtually no initial learning.

Interesting getting comfortable commuting on a fixed gear road bike took a good few days even for a 25+ year experienced uni rider. The muscle memory for being used to a freewheel was that great.

It’s not so hard. I could ride a pennyfarthing (50") when my biggest uni wheelsize was 24". It’s a totally different feeling and needs some time to get used to, but you can ride initially. Sharp corners are hard, but the rest is fun.

It was Rogers video of the London penny farthing race which spurred on my interest in unicycles.
There is some seriously hard graft involved in the race to the finish.

In my (limited) experience riding penny farthings, I compare it to riding a big wheel, while sitting with a lot of your weight on a little training wheel. Main thing to keep in mind when maneuvering the bike is that it’s a giant wheel, with this thing sticking out the back. So when you steer, remember you’re moving most of the bike.

Also lean back when going over any sudden bumps. Getting your center of mass in front of the front axle is a bad thing (header). :astonished:

Beyond that, your riding position is, if anything, less aerodynamic than on a 36" with a handlebar, which will add some work if you’re trying to race it. And most penny farthings, at least the old school types, have essentially no brakes. So plan ahead.

I wish everyone would stop talking about penny farthings. They’re so damn cool, and there’s no way I can afford one right now, not to mention there’s no reason I “need” one, but the more people talk about it, the more I want one! If this keeps up, sooner or later I’m gonna cave and starting looking into it, then I’ll start trying to justify the costs and figure out how to get the money, and then it’s all over with…

To help ease the temptation, imagine riding fast downhill and then having the wheel stop on some obstacle. Just like a UPD on a large uni, right? Except that you can’t jump off and run it out because the handlebars are across your lap and keeping you attached to the bike. So instead you pivot over the top and faceplant.

I gather that the way to mitigate the faceplant risk when going downhill is to lift your legs over the top of the handlebars and coast. Of course then you don’t have any meaningful braking.*

Check out this video where the tyre comes off the rim at speed:

All that said, I’ve had a hankering for a penny farthing for a while too :-). I am taking the injury risk seriously though, as I would probably end up doing silly things on it. Unis are just more safe.

  • There’s no reason you couldn’t have a disk brake mounted on a penny if you built it to fit. The UDC pennies have ISIS cranks so you could even fit Spirits and an external disk. Pull the brake lever too hard and you’re back into faceplant territory though. And of course it wouldn’t have “the look.”

If it’s any help to you tempted ones, I don’t feel the urge to own a Penny. For one thing, a decent sized one might not even fit into my minivan. Plus it’s a bicycle.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that… :stuck_out_tongue:

OMG, lightbulbjim! That was a bad crash! I could see he was going too fast when the wheel was wobbling as we went faster and faster and struggled to keep control. I’ve had similar experiences on a skateboard, and once you’re going too fast to keep control and can’t run out of it, you’re screwed! All you can do is hang on, pray, and try to crash somewhere soft. That video is certainly a deterrent for me! That said, I don’t usually ride very fast on anything but a bike, and after 3 weeks on my 36er, I’m still paranoid when I ride any faster than I can run out of. The most violent UPDs I’ve ever had in 30 years have been on my 36er. I can’t imagine wrecking on an even larger wheel!

I noticed in the some of the more recent penny farthing race videos that they have rim brakes on the front and back wheels. I’m sure they have to be used carefully as you would with a uni brake and the technique is different from a standard bike.

Nope! Nothin’ wrong with a bike. :slight_smile:

It’s Different

I ride all three – a Bianchi Pista fixed gear, a Boneshaker reproduction penny farthing and a 36er. I think we have a natural headstart in moving from one to another, but they’re clearly all different beasts. I thought I was going to blow a knee out on my fixie when I’d try to coast (or even just ease up on the pedals) only to be reminded that I’d do no such thing.

Two big limiting factors when it comes to getting comfortable on a penny farthing are the handlebars that have been mentioned above and, at least in the one I have, the flex in the big, heavy wheel. I’m sure a UDC penny would be built to a much higher standard and would be more reassuring in that respect. Dismounting is also a challenge because you can’t reach the ground, so the best I’ve ever been able to hope for is some kind of controlled crash landing.

John’s comments about how impractical they are to transport is also important. I can’t get it in an SUV.

This is the manufacturer of my penny farthing:

@Brad – here are a few pictures from when I took mine to one of the weekly DFW meetups at Celebration Park.

As a general rule we have found that Unicyclists ride penny farthings very well. The only thing they need to get used to is the steering and the hitting the legs. Once that is sorted they tend to be on the fast!

The only problem we had was with a unicyclist who came to visit and we put her up on the Penny Farthing and she bombed around without a problem. In fact so well we forgot about her and after about 15minutes we heard this massive crash as she dismounted the hard way!.. we had forgotten to tell her how to get off!


oh yes… if you are interested in Penny Farthings. They hang out on a facebook group called League of Ordinary Riders


Cool! Very nice!

So, people did actually used to come to the meetings? Looks like you guys were havin’ fun. I guess I joined right when interest in the meetings died. Oh well! Maybe it will pick back up when the weather is cooler.