Racing the Penny

Tim Stirling sitting on his penny farthing

Long way to the top: Tim Stirling on his Penny Farthing. Photo: Eddie Barkla

We were fortunate with our time with Tim Stirling to gather many articles on a whole range of different facets of cycling history and machines. For several years, Tim and his wife Jodie attended the Australian Penny Farthing Championships in Tasmania (Evandale Village Fair). A great spectacle with up to 80 Pennies and competitors gathered from most Australian states and many international riders as well. Several of the top Australian Penny Farthing riders are also elite class national cyclists, at present a number are competing for international road racing teams in Europe and the USA. But, there are also many competitors still racing well into the 70s and 80s, and while the aim is to have fun, there certainly is a competitive aspect to the racing in Tasmania.

There are many events held on over the chosen weekend in February, from the ‘slow race’ over 20 meters, where the last rider over the line is the winner, a 1600 meter championship, right up to a 30km road race. Tim’s wife Jodie quipped that Tim was ‘too fast for the slow race and too slow for the fast race!’ With a wide grin and twinkling eye Tim did quietly reflect on the year a number of the main land could-a-beens (all Victorians) got a red hot team together and took the relay cup for the main coveted events, albeit in controversial circumstances. This was the first time in many years the strong Tasmania hosts had lost the trophy and the victorious Victorians were delighted!! Memories they will cherish for many years to come.

The Airport Sprint which was run on the Launceston airport runway (up until airport security was increased post 911) was an amazing spectacle. With 80 Pennies lined up across the runway for a 1 mile (1600m) dash. The runway is actually sloped and they would race the distance in around 2 minutes 8 seconds, that’s an average speed of 45 kph (just think the top speed would have been well above this average)! The spectators for this event were driven along the side of the runway in a bus, cameras firing away madly. The race record for the 30km road race around the hills south of Launceston, in amongst the traffic, is just under one hour which would be a great effort for the large majority of recreational rider to emulate.

The longest ride Tim has ridden any of his Pennies was 50km, but the Evandale Village Fair also conducts a 100 mile (160km) ride in the week preceding their annual racing event. Tim was quick to comment on the toughness and commitment of the riders with “sure they run the 100 mile event a week before the races just to allow the riders to recover!” Tim knows several Penny riders who have completed the 210km ‘Round the Bay in a Day’! It is hard to even imagine how these riders would feel after 200km on a Penny, because Tim sure knows how he feels after a 50km ride!

At Evandale during the Village Fair of 2000, the Penny Farthing riders set a Guinness World Record. This was achieved when around 80 Penny Farthings were lined up side by side (called a stack) where each rider’s hands are interlocked, a formation that takes plenty of time and skill to attain. While the Guinness World Record for distance achieved on a Penny over a 24 hour period is held by an Austrian who regularly competes at Evandale. He covered 525km in 24 hours (the distance of the Murray To Moyne charity event-on a Penny Farthing). This record was achieved in 2002 with an approximate average of 21.8 kph .

Each Penny Farthing is built a specific size for individual riders. The crucial factor when deciding the right size Penny is the inner leg measurement (similar to measuring a safety frame bike of today). The longer your legs, the bigger front wheel you can ride. Tim rides a 53inch (1.3m) diameter front wheel which carries him the distance of 4.2m per revolution of the wheel per full pedal stroke. Taking this into consideration, when tearing along at 50km/h his cadence (pedal rotation speed) is an amazing rate of 198!!

The years of competitive cycling shared with brother Andy has well fitted him for these occasions. Another interesting fact is, riding a Penny Farthing with a 53inch diameter front wheel is the same as riding a gear of ’53.’, which as all you cyclists will know is chain ring of 42 teeth and sprocket/cog of 22 teeth (commonly called a ‘granny gear’ for roadies and track riders an imperial 51.5 or metric roll out of 4.2m). Tim reflected there were a few moderate changes that can be made to change the speed of the Penny. He would change the cranks of his Penny between races, having longer cranks for the sprints and shorter cranks for the distance rides. The longer cranks gave the mechanical advantage to wind the big wheel up more quickly, while the shorter cranks required a higher cadence and were more manageable over longer distances. Time ran out for the chance for me to throw the leg over Penny but have realised that my legs are not long enough, there are times when being short is an advantage, this was one of those moments. “There’s always next time Eddie, Cheers, Tim”

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

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