The Penny Farthing Club (PFC) joined the London Scottish community in June this year and what a difference it has made to our lives!
Previously we had been a nomadic tribe, moving from one location and one event to the next with a trailer full of Penny Farthing bicycles. Six months on, we feel very much at home and proud to have such a fine building as our headquarters with secure storage facilities.
The Club was formed in 2013 when I was curious to know if it might be possible to play polo on these old Victorian style velocipedes. In my early 20’s I Captained England at bicycle polo and as a result thought it would be fun to play and entertaining to watch on tall bikes. The Club hosts an annual international Penny Farthing Polo match between England and Scotland, usually prior to a high profile horse polo cup game such as at Guards Polo Club, Ham Polo Club or Cowdray Park.
The PFC currently owns 20 Penny Farthing bicycles of various sizes, has 150 members and its purpose is build a community of riding enthusiasts who will enjoy the exercise, sport and to have fun! The Club has a busy schedule of events and provides opportunities for novices who come from all over the world to learn to ride whilst enjoying the sights of London and Brighton. In addition to teaching many hundreds of keen amateur cyclists and visiting tourists, we have also taught some high profile characters such as Mike Bushell, Radzi and Jeremy Vine.
There is something special about riding these fixed wheel bikes that don’t have any suspension, brakes, gears and sport solid rubber tyres. It looks difficult and dangerous and the typical reaction from a neutral observer is one of wonder combined with an instinct to take a photo. It puts a smile on people’s faces and young kids are amazed to see us ride past. Even teenagers think it’s pretty cool!
We have had a particularly busy summer. In addition to running our regular Sunday Penny Farthing Bike Tours through the Airbnb Experiences portal, our focus has been on raising money for charity, competition racing and setting new World Records. The end of July saw Eastbourne host the annual European Penny Farthing Racing Championships. Approximately 40 riders from the UK, Europe and occasionally from further afield such as Australia compete for podium places in a gruelling 40 minute closed off road race. This year, my twelve year old son Oscar was competing in his first race having learnt only a few months prior. I was nervous but left him to it, hoping he would not get into trouble. Towards the end of the race, I was in fifth place behind a flying Dutchman and riding hard to try an over-take down the back straight just before the finishing line. One of the back-markers swerved into me unexpectedly and we both crashed heavily. I was temporarily knocked out and suffered severe bruising and a little shoulder ligament damage. The other guy was carted off to hospital in a bad way with broken bones. Oscar cycled past his Dad to a respectable placing whilst I hobbled across the finish line in last place and straight into the St John’s Ambulance tent! It was rather unfortunate as the following day was the start of my 874 mile charity ride from Lands End to John O’Groats. Luckily, the weather was atrocious and our start had to be delayed by 24 hours which gave my body a chance to recover from its injuries.
David Fox-Pitt MBE, Scotland’s Penny Farthing Polo Captain and I set off from Lands End on 30th July, sponsored by Hendrick’s Gin and a number of other brands. We were aiming for a leisurely 80 to 90 miles a day which would see us into John O’Groats in eleven days. One of our Club members, Richard Thoday had just two weeks prior set a new Guinness World Record by riding LEJOG in a staggeringly quick 4.5 days! Despite severe rain, wind and numerous “near miss” moments with foreign left hand driven camper-vans, we made it to the top end of Scotland on schedule and we were pleased to raise £25,326 for Mary’s Meals, a charity that feeds hungry children in developing countries.
In 1886 a professional American racing cyclist called William Rowe set a record for the furthest distance travelled in one hour at an outdoor velodrome in Massachusetts. He rode 22 miles and 150 yards with assistance from three support riders. This record had stood for over 133 years and I figured it must be one of the longest standing sporting records in the history books. It was time it came back to Britain! In 2018, at Herne Hill Velodrome in South London during a festival of cycling, I organised an attempt on the record with round the world record holder Mark Beaumont as the top rider supported by seven Club riders including myself. It was a hot day and a stiff breeze down the back straight and everyone suffered. Mark achieved an amazing new British record of 21.92 miles but was half a lap off world record pace.
Fast forward another year and we were planning and training hard for another attempt. Only this time, I had taught two young pro-riders from GCN (Global Cycling Network) how to ride and race Penny Farthings and they were going to work with Mark to try and secure a new world record. But first we planned to set a benchmark record on an indoor velodrome and we headed to Derby Arena in September. The banks of the indoor track are 42 degrees and so steep that one has to be riding at more than 20 mph or you slip off the track. Everyone was nervous. The head of Guinness World Records even turned out to be our official adjudicator as the three racers took turns to ride for an hour around the velodrome. I had set a modest target of circa 25 km a few weeks prior but one of these lads was going to smash it and set a new GWR. But who would it be? Mark Beaumont set off first posting an amazing 33.86 km followed by James Lowsley-Williams who just missed out at 33.80 km and climbed off the bike in agony. Finally, Chris Opie ground it out and recorded an incredible 34.54 km (21 miles and 821 yards) claiming the Guinness World Record.
This was the warm up for the team pursuit of the historical one hour outdoor record held by WA Rowe of the USA. October in the UK is probably not the best month to be attempting one of the oldest and toughest cycling records but diary commitments of six key people prevented an earlier opportunity. The day was set fair as luck would have it and the three boys set off riding nose to tail at world record pace, switching the lead on each completed lap of Herne Hill’s 450 metre track. It was Chris Opie who crossed the line first and beat the ancient record by 20 seconds with a distance of 35.74 km or 22 miles and 369 yards. We celebrated quite enthusiastically that night!
During the Lands End to John O’Groats journey, to take my mind off the agony in my backside, I kept my mind active by learning new tricks on the bike. One trick was riding very slowly, another was “free-wheeling” downhill whilst standing on the back pegs and the last was mastering the art of riding without touching the handlebars. The good folk at Guinness World Records decided there ought to be some no handed records for Penny Farthings. So, on Thursday 14th November, with a smattering of spectators at Preston Park Velodrome near Brighton, I attempted and was awarded three GWR’s. They were the fastest speed recorded on a Penny Farthing with no hands - 29.6 kph, the fastest 10 km with no hands in 23 minutes, 23 seconds and the furthest distance in one hour with no hands - 26.0 km.
Anyone interested in learning to ride a Penny Farthing can meet me in London Scottish House and I’ll be happy to let you loose on one of our modern Victorian steeds. It’ll put a big smile on your face…
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