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Jul 18, 2023

Chris & Gui Play Penny Farthings

The evolution of the bicycle took a turn for the worse in the 1870's and 1880's in the form of a Victorian Era contraption popularly known today as the "High Wheel," the "Ordinary," or the "Penny Farthing." For a brief period of time the bike superseded its predecessors because the large front wheel made the bike faster and was okay-ish at overcoming ruddy, unpaved roads. Known as a "bicycle" in its own day, it was a rich's kids "dandy horse," was miserable as a climber, and was known for launching its riders into "end over" crashes resulting in deaths and disfigurement. By the late 1880's it was made obsolete by "safety bicycles" with equal-sized wheels, bicycle chain drive systems, and pneumatic tires. The "Penny" (as I like to call them) became a symbol of the Victorian era and always bring smiles and wonderment when we ride them around at parades and the like. Today there are a handful of Penny Farthing races around the globe, including just one here in the United States - the annual National Clustered Spires High Wheel Race in Frederick, MD hosted by our friends Eric and Jeanne Rhodes.

Doylestown residents David and Sue Gray of the The Wheelmen (a national organization devoted to preserving the early history of bicycling) first alerted us to this event which began back in 2012. When we heard that thousands of people pack the streets of Frederick, MD to watch a Penny Farthing criterium we just knew we had to get involved. Our man Dan Turner raced his own Penny at the event in consecutive years finishing as high as 4th place. However for many years the race has been dominated by Per Olaf Kippel (Tomallila, Sweden) who regularly laps the field, hosts Penny Farthing races in Europe, and even manufactures his own Standard High Wheel bikes. We got it in our heads that we needed to custom make our own "Lenape Scorchers" in order to bring the championship back to America and embarked on a three year, pandemic interrupted, "what the hell are we doing," quest.

On Saturday July 15th under a blistering sun, we entered Bike Works p/b Fred Beans elite racers Chris Meacham (Perkasie) and Gui Nelessen (Lambertville, NJ); and our UCI team mechanic Dan Turner (Ottsville) into the qualifying heats.

Look, here's the thing: these bikes are obsolete for a reason okay? They are terrifying to ride (much less race), they constantly feel as if there going to fall apart underneath you, and we'd never raced our own bikes in anger before. In addition to Per Olaf Kippel, there were a bunch of other experienced racers from England, Puerto Rico, Germany, and all over the United States. We had no idea what to expect so we brought a bunch of medical supplies. Both Chris and Gui advanced out of the qualifying heats into the championship final with no mishaps and the bikes remained intact. Some folks in the qualifiers are just there to parade their bikes in period costume and participate in the fun. We were there to race, dammit.

Kippel wasn't going to relinquish the championship without a fight. He took the early lead in a five man breakaway that included Fidel Enrique Irizarry (Rosario, Puerto Rico), former champion and hometown hero Eric Cameron (Frederick, MD) as well as our two protagonists. In previous years, competitive racers typically did laps of the course in 1 minute and 40 seconds, and this crew was doing laps 30 seconds faster. Half way into the 30 minute criterium Chris and Gui were able to negotiate around a crash involving lapped riders, pull into the lead, and finish 1st and 2nd respectively (a full 25 seconds faster than Per Olaf who finished in third place). The crowds cheered, beer was drunk, and Chris Meacham is your 2023 National Penny Farthing Champion, followed by Gui Nelessen in second place. Additional congratulations to the 2023 Women's Champion Sheryl Kennedy of Hagerstown, MD. Full results here.

Our team motto is "Race all the bikes" and we'd like to thank Eric and Jeanne Rhodes, the town of Frederick, the volunteers and sponsors, and all the competitors for letting us in on your party. Whether you were there to parade in costume or race the bikes -- we were overwhelmed by the camaraderie, the energy of the crowed, and the sheer joy on everyone's faces. We can't wait until 2024.

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