The bikes with a huge front wheel and small rear, with the cranks attached directly to the front wheel... What are they called?

Additionally, it seems they need to be very tall in order for you to achieve a full pedal stroke, so how is one supposed to mount this archaic device?

Old Timey Bike

  • 1
    There was a guy -- I think he lived in the Boston area -- back around 1890 who reportedly did a century a day for a year, on the rural roads around Boston. He apparently was independently wealthy ("old money") and had nothing better to do. And he did it all on a penny-farthing. Oct 29, 2011 at 22:57
  • Iddn't this cute? hiwheel.com/antique_replicas/mini_hiwheel.htm Oct 31, 2011 at 3:57

2 Answers 2


This is a "penny-farthing" bike. You mount it by putting a foot on the step above the back wheel, you push off, then climb up it towards the pedals as it moves away. (Like this video shows.)

The front wheel was so large for a couple of reasons: Since the pedals were connected directly to the wheel, the bike could go faster if the wheel were larger; and also, a large wheel functioned as suspension.

When the safety bicycle was introduced, it had pneumatic tires and drivetrains that allowed for gearing independent of wheel size, so the penny-farthing fell into disuse.

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    Also known as a High-Wheeler.
    – joelmdev
    Oct 29, 2011 at 16:32
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    It's interesting to note that the current measurement for bike gearing -- "gear inches" -- is related to the penny-farthing. The "gear inch" number basically identifies the diameter of the equivalent penny-farthing wheel that would travel the same distance in a single pedal revolution. Oct 29, 2011 at 18:15

There are multiple terms for those:

  • Penny-farthing (after two coins of different sizes)
  • High-wheel or High-wheeler
  • Ordinary (contrasted to the "safety" bicycle that came after it)
  • Bicycle is what they were called during their heyday
  • velocipede or vélocipède is a term for any human-powered vehicle and would often have been used to refer to them when they were common.

Enthusiasts of them tend to call them "High-wheel" or "Ordinary" bicycles, but more people know the "penny-farthing" term.

Most have a solid rubber tire. The large spoked wheel and rubber tire smoothed out the ride compared to the small-wheeled steel-tire direct-drive velocipedes that preceded them. A larger wheel gives a higher gear ratio, allowing for higher speeds.


That little "bump" on the frame above the rear wheel is probably meant to represent a mounting post. On one side there's a small post used as a step. The rider holds the handlebars, steps on the post, kicks off, then puts the other foot onto the pedal and the first foot onto the other pedal. I've seen experienced riders do it and it can be very quick and smooth. It's also possible to push the bike forward, step directly onto one pedal and mount, but that's trickier and less common.


  • When I was a kid, my grandparents referred to a tricycle as a "velocipede". Oct 29, 2011 at 18:17

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