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I recently picked up a vintage penny-farthing (high wheeler) at the flea market and, after restoration, adopted it as my normal mode of transportation.

It works well for the most part, but going downhill terrifies me as I don't want to lose control and fall from more than a meter up.

Certainly this problem has solved before. How can I safely go downhill? Are there reliable braking systems?

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@ Laurence - "Penny-farthing"? And how does it relate to going downhill? I think that you're confusing the U.S. contingent. – user313 Mar 15 '12 at 21:53
@wdypdx22 – Mac Mar 15 '12 at 22:17
@DanielRHicks "High-wheeler" and "ordinary" are common terms for them. I added "high-wheeler" to the question because it's descriptive and not confusing. – freiheit Mar 16 '12 at 2:11
A penny farthing is a high wheeler bicycle. Riding downhill is an issue because there is no freewheeling, and the large wheel maintains its momentum when you brake which tends to catapult the rider over the bars. If they don't learn to bail feet first, they often land face first. – zenbike Mar 16 '12 at 9:05
Anyone who wants to see one of these, go to any large steampunk convention (like this one, it's held every year) and you almost certainly will see a penny-farthing. – Neil Fein Mar 17 '12 at 16:50
up vote 9 down vote accepted

I've never ridden a penny-farthing, but one technique I've seen used for going downhill is to put both legs over the handlebars so that the rider's legs are sticking out front. That way your feet are off the pedals to facilitate coasting, and if you fall you're likely to land on your feet instead of on your head. Try to get your weight as far back as you can, as that will make flipping over the handlebars less likely.

The penny-farthings I've seen had a spoon brake. A lever that pushed a paddle against the tire. You could probably put a regular rim-brake of some sort on there, instead.

Be careful with braking on a penny-farthing, especially going downhill. It's easy to go over the handlebars. Gently apply the brakes to control your speed, don't yank them and try to slow down quickly.

Or you could walk it down the hill... Downhill penny-farthing riding is a good way to break your neck or skull.

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There's a video showing that technique here - – Tom77 Mar 16 '12 at 15:15
This is absolutely brilliant! – Laurence Adams Mar 18 '12 at 2:32

Forget trying to use the brake to slow you down. At best, the brake may shed a little speed if you're not travelling too fast, on the flat, but backward pressure on the pedals is the more effective way to lose speed (again, only really possible on the flat). The brake will be 100% ineffective once you gather momentum and head downhill. There is one hard and fast rule to follow: If you can not see the bottom of the hill, or there are obstructions further down, which will require you to slow down or stop, then don't even attempt to ride down. Dismount and push the bike downhill.

If the view forward shows the route to be clear, and you can see the bottom of the hill then it is acceptable (though not easy for a beginner) to raise your legs over the handlebars and rest them on top. This keeps your feet out of the way of the madly spinning pedals. You will not be able to spin your legs fast enough to keep up with the pedals, so don't try to - it will end with injury of some sort.

Ignore the advice about applying the brake gently to avoid going head-first over the handlebars. You will never achieve this by using the brake alone. The original spoon brakes are just not powerful enough, and certainly will not stop the wheel quickly enough to send you over the top. "Headers" as they are known, are caused by other problems, such as the front wheel suddenly stopping because it has hit an obstacle, or become lodged in soft ground.

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A caliper-style brake would not be ineffective (at least, until, you go head over handlebars). The brake would be positioned on the rim of the wheel, where it has nearly 1:1 leverage. From there, it's a question of how much heat the brake can dissipate until it overheats. Given that the brakes on my road bike can dissipate my weight going 30 MPH down a steep hill and not even show the slightest bit of wear, I'd wager a guess that calipers on a penny farthing would do just fine with the occasional hill; facial ablation aside. – antiduh Jun 27 at 20:36

The problem definitely been solved, and you probably see the solution in use every day. They're called "safety bicycles" because they're, well, safer. A suggested, once you have a safer frame design there are many brake designs to choose from, but on an ordinary your choices are basically air resistance and facial ablation.

One cause of the confusion in naming is that when safety bicycles were introduced in the 1890's the existing bikes were called ordinaries because that's what an ordinary bicycle looked like. The new-fangled things with little wheels, low seats and pneumatic tyres were called safety bicycles as a marketing strategy to differentiate them from the other sort. These days it's the other way round - ordinaries are rare, and safety bicycles are ubiquitous. Since then we've gained recumbents (not invented until the 1930's) and the "safety" has split into a whole range of sub-types.

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-1 doesn't answer the question. – whatsisname Mar 16 '12 at 14:11
I have to agree with @whatsisname; this doesn't answer the question at all. – freiheit Mar 16 '12 at 16:34

Yeah, I suspect that nothing better than the spoon brake was ever put on those things because hard braking would send you head-over very quickly/easily.

I recall about 30 years ago reading a story of an American cyclist who went cycling in China. When he rode with a Chinese cycling club they walked up and down all non-trivial hills. Walked up because the bikes were single speed, and walked down because their brakes were so crummy.

OTOH, there was a guy in the Boston area back about 1890 who rode a century a day for a year. On a penny-farthing. I would imagine that eventually you learn some techniques.

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Basically this is simple. Firstly make sure you control your speed from the first inch going downhill. The only way to do that effectively is by pressing back on the upward stroke. If you start early enough this will not cost too much effort and it is effective. Best remove any brake you have as this is ineffective and dangerous. Also try mounting your saddle further back on the bike. This will give you better control in any circumstance. And look ahead, more so than you are used to on your regular bicycle (this goes on the flats as well). ...and most of all have fun riding!

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This sounds really good and sensible, but I don't ride a penny farthing. I assume you do, it would be cool if you edited this a bit and added a description of your experience (or add it to your profile, or both)! – dlu Jul 17 '15 at 0:31

I have seen one with a mechanical brake. It consists of a lever not unlike modern levers connected to a rubber lined metal block that rubbed on the front tire near the top of the fork via linkage. No cables were used. Finding one might be quite a task. That being said, some of the reproductions use modern caliper brakes. They seem to have quite a following on the internet. Not knowing your location you might want to check for clubs in your local area.

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This doesn't answer the main part of the question, which is asking how to go downhill on a penny-farthing. – Neil Fein Mar 17 '12 at 17:06
Are there reliable braking systems? – mikes Mar 17 '12 at 18:09

Well, after breaking a rib on my penny farthing, I fitted a free wheeling hub from a slider kids bike (green machine) and fitted a disc brake going downhill is fun now and my feet stay on the pedals.

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A green machine, really? Blast from the past. I LOVED mine as a kid. – D.Salo Jul 16 '15 at 23:40

Well, I've just ordered my first high wheel bike, and have not ridden one yet, but in preparation I've watched hundreds of videos and read every description of riding techniques I can find.

There appear to be five techniques for slowing the bike on steeper grades. Two involve brakes: either a spoon brake fitted atop the front wheel, or caliper or disk brakes retrofitted to the bike. These both seem inherently dangerous, as the rider's center of gravity is nearly perpendicular to the front axle, and abruptly slowing the front wheel makes it likely that the rider will be propelled over the handle bars--the dreaded header.

A third involves dismounting the saddle, and standing on the mounting step on the back of the frame and using the other foot to rub against the back of the front wheel, which seems awkward to me, but again, I've no riding experience on which to judge that.

A fourth technique is to dismount the saddle, stand on the mounting step with one foot, and drag the other foot on the rear wheel, which I've seen done in several videos with good effect, and that seems a less awkward position, at least to the casual observer.

The fifth, and most common approach, is to exert back pressure on the pedals to prevent the bike from gaining speed in the first place. Obviously, if the bike has already passed a safe speed, this becomes less and less effective as the pedals will eventually spin too fast to keep one's feet on them at all.

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I read on another forum that the traditional way of doing this is to tie a rock or a stick to your bike, and let it drag behind you, so that when you're going downhill the object prevents you from going too fast. With that being said, there also exist bikes with freewheel hubs like the ones here.

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Dragging anything behind the bike to act as an anchor - that's some Wiley Coyote advice right there! Not recommended. – Criggie Jun 27 at 20:05
Welcome to Bicycles @Bob. Since you don't seem to have done it, please take the tour, and also read through the help center to learn how out site works. See you around! – andy256 Jun 28 at 4:57

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