Beyond the obvious difference of the saddle being 5 feet high, how is riding a penny-farthing different to riding a standard road bike? What unique skills are required to ride a penny-farthing?
Road cyclists often ask me this question when they encounter me riding my penny-farthing. It's a mystical beast little understood by many cyclists, so I'll take a moment to demystify the PF and the skills required to transition from riding a road bike to a PF.
There's actually a lot of overlap between the skills keen road cyclists rely on to stay alive sharing the roads with motor vehicles in respect to defensive cycling and also the Highway Code's strictures on cycling. Signalling and lane usage in respect to turning is exactly the same.
But the key skills unique to riding a penny-farthing that a road cyclist must learn can be summarized as:
Mounting & Dismounting:
Unlike a standard road cycle, mounting & dismounting is a 2-step process and must be mastered to the point that you can accomplish it without even thinking about it before venturing out onto the public roads. The PF cyclist has the intermediate task of stepping onto the mount pegs both before mounting & dismounting. However, with a little practice, it's really not that difficult as it sounds and can be learned in probably 1-2 hours of consistently practicing the skill. You'll see next that this is even a foundation skill to moderating speed... I've put together a fairly comprehensive video of the mounting/dismounting process which also discusses how to avoid it all going wrong, or if it does, minimising injury on bad mounts/dismounts.
There's no gearing on a penny-farthing, so if the cyclist wants to go faster, they pedal faster; no different than a conventional road bike. But, it's not increasing speed that's the challenge for a PF cyclist, but rather decreasing their speed. This is accomplished either using resistance on the pedals or a mechanical brake - usually a caliper type on modern PF's - on the small rear wheel. However, unlike a standard road cycle, a PF cyclist should not mash down the rear brake while on the saddle- it will cause the back wheel to judder and become unstable. Ideally a mechanical brake is most safely- and effectively- applied while standing on the mount pegs as this forces weight over the small wheel.
And more importantly, applying a mechanical brake- assuming one is fitted- from your mount pegs provides the cyclist the option to either remount or dismount depending on the reason they needed to brake. When I began cycling Penny-Farthings, I learned with leg-braking only which also ensured I never cycled faster than I could brake with negative resistance on the peddles.
On a standard road bike one can make relatively sharp turns; don't ever try this on a penny-farthing. Turns must be gentle and wide on a PF or the rider can be sent over the handlebars if the turn is too sharp.
But it's in respect to changing direction in relation to traffic that is the challenge for the penny-farthing cyclist.
Like road cyclists, PF riders have to slow when approaching a junction or roundabout to assess whether it's safe to proceed into it. However, unlike road cyclists, PF riders have the intermediate step of both moderating their speed and halting from their mount pegs; both are a two-step process. They must be prepared to either speed up and enter the juncture/roundabout, or step down and halt if it's unsafe to proceed. So changing direction is a bit more complicated than on a standard road cycle.
Small road debris and potholes that a road cyclist might be able to pass over safely could cause a Penny-Farthing rider to go over their handlebars - a "headover" causing serious injury or death. The rider's weight is directly over the large wheel which makes a PF quite twitchy. Anything that impedes the large wheel even momentarily could send the rider over the handle bars. One must always cycle over flat, even surfaces and navigate around ALL debris & potholes. Don't ever go through a deep puddle if it could conceal a branch or pothole.
When approaching tricky situations like busy roundabouts, do so on your mount pegs where possible. Obviously is the approach is uphill this isn't possible. But by being "Half-On, Half-Off" you're in a good position to halt if the roundabout/juncture is too busy to join safely, and if it isn't, you just re-mount the saddle and continue peddling. But as you can see, being able to quickly find your mount pegs to get in the "Half-On, Half-Off" position is essential.
You should gain these essential skills on roads where there is relatively light traffic and good visibility for you to see motorists and they to see you to enable you sufficient lead time to stop if necessary. With time & miles this will become second nature, but when you're learning, you'll need that extra time to dismount. You are asking for trouble if you venture out onto busy London roads while you're beginning. I learned the basic skills in my own housing development which has a main road with a few roundabouts in it. And I'd practice outside of busy periods like morning and evening rush hour traffic. I don't care how confident you might feel, it takes time and miles before these skills become second nature. Stay off of busy roads when you're perfecting these essential skills.
This is a very general description of the differences & hazards related to riding a PF. Indeed, these were the questions that I had when I started riding penny-farthings. I now have thousands of miles experience riding PF's on the UK's busy dangerous roads. There was info apparently on Facebook, but being a FB Refusenik I couldn't access any of it.
If you're a road cyclist - or any type of cyclist - who's keen to take up cycling a PF, I've put together a comprehensive resource that's been peer reviewed by other experienced PF riders, one of which has 40 years PF experience, so it's righteous. For those keen to learn more about the fine points of the above, go to:
It's not behind any required logins and universally accessible to all. Penny-farthings are epic bicycles, but to be fair they're also quite dangerous when you're a newbie. This site was conceived with the goal of helping folks stay safe while gaining the fundamental skills required to ride a PF - SAFELY.
PF riders are an eclectic bunch. We come from all walks of life and political persuasions, but we all find common purpose & fraternity in our love for these complex Victorian bicycles. We are a retired Royal Mail transportation manager, a gay doctor, former police officers, former special forces operatives, a few currently serving firefighters, a retired judge, a retired helicopter pilot, and an outstanding tyre guy who makes us all look like PF slackers. And others. All are keen to transfer our skills to help newbies learn to ride a PF safely so the tradition of these epic bicycles does not die out. There is no elitism or classism here; only love of olde worlde bicycles unites us all.
I've not ridden a PF, but I have tried a tall bike where the saddle was roughly even with my head. Both styles put you far out of reach of the ground.
The main problem is the gap in balance between Stopped and Moving. On a regular bike, you push off and you're doing ~5 km/h within half a crank revolution.
Getting the confidence to do that on a taller bicycle takes some doing. You simply cannot ride it slowly. There is a basement-speed that you must get to in order to gain stability.
Easy Mounting - the lazy way to do it is use a handy fence, street light, a low wall or similar. Clamber up the bike's frame using the steps in a PF or the frame of a tall bike, and get yourself in the saddle with feet on the pedals. Push off from your support and pedal hard - you NEED to get to 5 km/h as fast as possible to get some steerage way.
This is not a long-term good way to use the bike, just a way to get you moving in a space that has no obstructions or surprises.
Stopping - obviously when you stop you'll need to do so beside a support or somewhere you can rest a foot. A traffic light or street light is great. Trees are awful for support, and vehicles are a really bad idea too. Or you have to do a quick dismount and stand on the ground.
Perhaps avoid roads completely until you're confident. A pleasant horn is a good idea too.
- Trees are suddenly annoyingly low.
- Many kids and some adults are dumb-stuck and can simply stop in your way.
- Pets are as bad as usual at getting in the way.
- Gradients are very disconcerting, both going up and down. Try and avoid any climbs or descents when learning. Even gutter-crossings can throw the unexperienced rider.
Protection: A fall from that height can be unpleasant. You might choose to wear rollerblading wrist guards.
If the bike's going down, try and step over the frame and get both feet under you for landing. Avoid landing on your head, that's always a bad idea.
And have fun - its all about trying something new.