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Old habits die hard

Posted Jun 03 2009 9:44am

The Ordinary or Penny Farthing bicycle was the first enthusiasts bicycle.

In fact you had to be an enthusiast to have the nerve and the skill necessary to ride one of these somewhat dangerous mounts.

It came into vogue in the mid 1800s and even after the first chain driven “Safety” bicycle appeared in the late 1800s, the bicycle enthusiast did not immediately give up the high-wheeler.

It was not until John Boyd Dunlop invented the pneumatic tire in 1888 did the Ordinary finally disappear.

Just to mount an Ordinary was an athletic feat in and of itself; the big wheel was usually about 60 inches in diameter, so a rider would be seated well over five feet from the ground. In the picture above you can see a small step just above the rear wheel.

To get going on one of these beasts, riders first had to run, jump up and place their right foot on mounting step. Next give a couple of scoots with the left foot to gain speed, step up and place the left foot on the pedal and launch themselves into the saddle.

To dismount was a reverse procedure. Swing the right leg over to the left side; step down onto the rear step. Then jump off while the machine was still in motion and hit the ground running, grabbing the bicycle before it ran away.

Even after its demise, the influence of the Ordinary both on bicycle design and riding habits would linger almost to the end of the next century.

For example my father who was born in 1910 like most of his generation in the UK and the rest of Europe never owned or even learned how to drive a car. The bicycle was his main mode of transport; it was how he got to work each day.

To mount his bike he would do as everyone else did; he would place his left foot on the left pedal and scoot along with his right foot get the bike moving and then swing his right leg over the seat and start pedaling.

To dismount he would do the reverse, bring his right leg over to the left side of the bike and jump off while the bike was still moving. Even for brief stops in traffic, he would dismount and remount the bike each time.

Even ladies would use this same method except they would ride an open frame bike and would bring the right leg through the frame in front of the seat in order to mount or dismount.

There was neither rhyme nor reason to go through this crazy ritual to mount and dismount a bicycle except that it was the way they were taught. The way people before them mounted and dismounted the old Ordinary bikes.

I remember an incident that happened in England during the 1970s and is quite funny looking back. It involved an old “Geezer” on a bike and a group of racing cyclists (Including myself) out training.

The old feller was stopped at a red traffic light and in true old geezer fashion did not simply stop and place one foot on the ground, but rather completely dismounted his bike and was standing beside it with his left foot on the pedal ready to scoot off.

We were a group of six riders approaching the light. As we did so the light changed to green so we kept going. The old geezer gave a couple of scoots and then swung his right leg over just as we were passing. (Remember this was England and we were riding on the left.)

He caught the lead rider squarely in the side and kicked him off his bike and almost caused a major pile up. Luckily no one was seriously hurt and although it was not funny at the time, we laughed about it later.

I have told this story before, but thought it worth repeating. I would be interested to know if there are any bicycle riders in the UK that still mount and dismount this way; or has the habit completely died out.

I would imagine mounting a bike this way in today’s traffic; one would risk getting a leg torn off by a passing car


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