Ever heard of a Penny Farthing before? A historian of some sort who only specializes in coin collection or numismatics might think that the reference is one to bygone denominations of Royal Sterling currency. Well, the reference is, in a way, but not in the manner that you might expect. Another historian or a cyclist might recognize the reference is to an old style of bike - which it is.
The Penny Farthing is an odd bike that is so named because of the shape and orientation of its wheels. If you don’t recognize it by the name, you might recognize it by the description (or by a picture if you’ve looked one up by this point). It has a larger front wheel and a smaller rear wheel, which are very disproportionate in size. Modern bicycles, as you know, typically have proportionally sized wheels, so you might be wondering what the reason for this earlier design is, and it’s not cosmetic or whimsical.
It might appear to be the product of fancy, but it is actually rooted in engineering. Earlier bicycles - before the Penny Farthing - had wheels and tire sizes that were more similar to modern bikes. What they lacked, and the Penny Farthing lacked, too, was a suspension system. This made riding very rough, to the point that some earlier models of bikes were known as “boneshakers.”
The larger front tire helped to soften the bumps and irregularities of the road, and also helped to make it safer to negotiate those irregularities. A wheel’s ability to overcome an obstacle is tied to its circumference, and the front tires of the Penny Farthings have quite a large one. So, for one thing, the odd profile of the bike is due, in part, as an attempt to create a smoother ride.
There is another function to the larger wheel, and it has to do with the fact that this design predated chain drives. Without the mechanical advantage of a chain drive, the only practical way to improve the speed that a bike could attain was by attaching the cranks to the axle of a wheel with a larger circumference. The Penny Farthing design saw to this as well. The larger front wheel enabled a rider to achieve higher speeds than would be possible had the cranks been attached to a smaller wheel.
As for the name, it comes from the fact that a farthing is much smaller than an English penny. The farthing, if you are curious as to the matter, is a defunct denomination representing a quarter of a penny, and so the short history lesson has come full circle.
In the event that you were looking for an actual odd bike like a Penny Farthing then you’ll be pleased to know you can still find them for sale and thus still learn to ride them. In fact, there are some groups that still actively ride and race them. If you’re looking for a high-quality modern Penny Farthing (or another odd bike) visit Unicycle.com. There you’ll find a collection of unicycles, Penny Farthings, circus bikes, minibikes, and other functional curiosities to satisfy your interest to tackle something new. Plus, help is only a call away if you need it, at 678-494-4962.
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