Many of us have ridden a bike. Covid restrictions and lockdowns saw a boom in cycling as people took to two wheels to explore their local area and get a dose of fresh air. But how many of us have ridden a penny-farthing?  

Not your average velocipede, yes, they have two wheels, but the similarities end there. Penny farthings were a symbol of the late Victorian era. The pedals are attached directly to the front wheel. Manufacturers soon realised that the larger the front wheel, the faster the bike could travel with a single rotation of the pedals. Long spokes and a solid rubber tyre on the front wheel did have the benefit of making the ride smoother. 

Colleagues at our Chiswick store had the pleasure of carrying out a service on the broadcaster, journalist and cycling advocate, Jeremy Vine’s penny-farthing. Head of Learning & Development at Balfe’s Bikes, Matt Gilliver who has many years of experience in the bike industry had the honour. 

Despite all his years in the trade, this was a new one for him. “I have never checked over/serviced a penny-farthing before. I was quite interested and looking forward to working on a cycle that goes back in time way before my life and from the very beginning of the cycling history.” 

Despite the many similarities with a conventional bike, there were still several challenges to overcome. “They are pretty easy to service but pretty hard to wheel true as I don’t think there is a wheel truing stand big enough. That said you have to go over the normal check and setup, i.e. 1 rear road calliper brake. Hand bars and stem bolts setup and saddle position. Though interestingly it has internal cable routing for the rear brake which is quite cool. For such a big front wheel the spoke tension was really well balanced and within the tolerance.” 

With Matt double-checking matters, Store Manager, Robin Foad suggested some additional TLC in the shape of some new bar tape on the grips area. However, penny-farthing brings new obstacles. With a different diameter to standard handlebars, you cannot use normal grips. Instead the team used PRO bar tape for comfort, but a stool was required to give Gilliver the height to fit the tape. 

Normally when a bike is checked or serviced, the mechanic will put it in a work stand for stability and ease of access. This is not something you can do with a penny-farthing, so the team had to improvise. “We used two normal back wheel floor mounted stands and the wall to keep it upright and stable to work on. Oh, and a box to stand on for height as I wasn’t tall enough.” 

Once the job was complete, Gilliver had to give it one final check, “At the end, I asked Robin to hold the bike so I could climb aboard and see what the seating position was like. I took the safe option and didn’t test ride the bike, as I didn’t want to risk myself or anyone else out. Plus, I would Have taken a fair few Strava KOMS.”  

With the work complete Mr Vine was very pleased to have his penny-farthing back and in tip-top condition. 

If you want to get your penny-farthing or conventional bike serviced, you can book it at any of our 12 stores.

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