The first bicycles: Penny-farthing, high wheel, high wheeler, Man slicer, and boneshaker.


On my way back from a triathlon somewhere in western Ohio, one of those small towns near Troy or Ada immortalized by Sherwood Anderson in Winesberg, Ohio, I spotted these members of an old-time bicycle club out for a Sunday morning ride. The contrast between our Sunday activities struck me. I used to get up at 5 a.m. to drive to these races popular among type-A males. My bike was sculpted down to about 17 pounds, with an energy bar wrapped around the handle-bars. I rode the bike leg in a Speedo, not to lose time changing. I would finish those races completely spent, gloriously tired, sometimes napping on the grass or pulling over to sleep on the way home.

These folks rode bikes that were difficult even to mount. They clothed themselves to reenact a bit of history. These Penny-fathings were very popular between 1880-1915, and a lot of them were made in northern Ohio, which was then the Silicon Valley of American Mechanics. Even with that huge front wheel, some of these bikes weighed only 30 pounds. In 1884 James Stevens rode one from Boston to San Francisco. He continued to ride around the world! I imagine these people riding in his spirit.

Unfortunately the high-wheelers were prone to cause “headers,” pitching the rider over the bars. Hence the nicknames Manslicer and boneshaker. They were eclipsed in popularity by the Safety Bicycle after 1900. But these were the first machines to be called “bicycles.

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