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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
    
What is a penny-farthing? –  user313 Mar 15 '12 at 21:58
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@wdypdx22 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penny-farthing –  Mac Mar 15 '12 at 22:17
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@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
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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
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5 Answers

up vote 6 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 - youtube.com/watch?v=iUbrh0Ac29M –  Tom77 Mar 16 '12 at 15:15
    
This is absolutely brilliant! –  Laurence Adams Mar 18 '12 at 2:32
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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
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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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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
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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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