Building historic bicycles

A penny farthing beside a fold-up bike with 16 inch wheels

Penny for your thoughts: Penny Farthings are still popular with enthusiasts building their own. Photo: Eddie Barkla

Since 1979 Tim Stirling has owned and raced more types of bicycle than he cares to remember. Tim dreamed that one day he would own the ultimate bicycle; a Penny Farthing, machines that had fascinated him for many years. Pennies were the ultimate form of cycle for a very brief period of time, approximately 20 years from the 1870’s onwards and in Tim’s thinking sure to always be a real favourite for the crowd.

When Tim began to investigate the purchase of a Penny, he was amazed at the costs involved. Tim’s dream became reality when finding a Penny Farthing builder in Euroa, then visiting him, taking heaps of photos, sealing the deal all the more with the first ride (where Tim recollects thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing up here!!’).

From then on and with advice from several Penny Farthing builders it was time to bring out his hidden tradesman skills, Tim went about building his own, proving to be not only a lot cheaper, but also very rewarding. The pieces have come from across Australia, for example, the backbones come from Adelaide, rims from Sydney, solid rubber tyres from Melbourne even down to the badge purchased from the Bendigo Swap that was from the Winchester Company in the USA off a very early model.

Tim’s ultimate ride is a gentle cruise without any fuss, which becomes impossible when riding a Penny. Cars stop, people take photos, kids laugh and really, everyone, especially Tim are having a great time. The ride itself is just so quiet, no gears, no brakes, just the sound of the wind cutting through the 76 spokes in the front wheel. The solid rubber tyres also help to reduce any road noises, while the backbone flexes enough to smooth out ‘most’ of the bumps.

Of course the question of Mulga Bill came up and Tim shared some of his experiences. Apart from a few ‘gentle’ and ungracious dismounts, he hasn’t had any serious spills. But has seen his brother Andy fly through the air over the handlebars during the Penny Farthing races that were an exciting part of the Eaglehawk Dahlia and Arts Festival several years ago. Also, during the biggest Penny Farthing race meeting in Australia in Evandale, Tasmanian, Tim has witnessed competitors flying over the ‘protective’ hay bales into the crowd!! Spectacular, but not so much fun for anyone involved.

The closest Tim has been to any serious spill was tearing down Piepers Hill on the Eppalock road when the front tyre began to separate from the rim. Assure me, at 50km/h it was a scary experience, but following up, the more experienced Penny Farthing riders actually ride downhill with their legs up over the handlebars. They ride in this style to ensure if they are unlucky enough to ‘take a spill’, they go one way and the machine goes the other!!

There are only two difficult aspects to riding these machines, the mount and the dismount. The actual ride is a piece of cake (but still, not for the faint hearted due to being so far off the ground). The mount is performed using a small step which is welded onto the backbone. The rider scoots along with one foot on this step, when there is enough speed, the opposite leg swings up over the seat and off you go. While the dismount can be performed in several ways: Tim’s favourite is to throw his right leg off the rear of the machine and simultaneously ride the left pedal on the down stroke. “Sounds simple !” say’s Tim, ” but you don’t want to get it wrong!! ” Other ways the Pennies can be dismounted are left foot back onto the step and gliding or dragging the right foot until you come to a halt.

The longest rides Tim has ridden any of his Pennies is 50km, but the Evandale Village Fair also conducts a 100 mile (160km) ride in the week preceding their annual racing event. Tim also, has known several Penny riders who have completed the 200km ‘Round The Day in a Day’! This is hard to imagine how these riders would feel after 200km on a Penny, because Tim sure knows how it feels after a 50km ride!

We asked Tim about getting fitted up for a Penny Farthing. Each Penny Farthing is built a specific size for individual riders, the crucial factor being your inner leg measurement. The longer your legs, the bigger front wheel you can ride.

Looking forward to seeing you on the road soon God willing.

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