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 late 1800s and even after the first chain driven “Safety” bicycle appeared the bicycle enthusiast did not immediately give up the high wheeler. It was not until pneumatic tires were introduced did the Ordinary finally disappear.
But even after its demise the influence of the Ordinary both on bicycle design and riding habits would linger for another fifty years or more. 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 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.
In fact the only way to mount a high wheeler if you couldn’t find a convenient fence to climb on was to run or scoot along with your left foot on a special step just above the rear wheel and then launch yourself into the saddle. To dismount you put your left foot on the step behind you, and jumped off to hit the ground running, grabbing the bike before it got away from you.
I even learned to mount and dismount this way and did so up until the time I got seriously into the sport and started to use toe clips and straps. I broke the habit because I would then mount the bike first and strap my right foot into the pedal and push off by beginning to pedal. To dismount I would come to a complete stop and put one foot down before dismounting.
Years later I remember an incident that happened in England 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 geezer 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 there 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.
Getting back to the old Ordinary high wheeler; its design was simple but limited. The steering tube was near vertical and the handlebars were placed directly above this. The rider sat quite close behind the handlebars in a fairly upright position, and in spite of this was still a considerable distance back behind the pedals at the center of the wheel.
This was a position riders of the day became used to so when the first chain driven Safety bicycles were built, seat angles were about 68 degrees, and top tubes were short to keep the handlebars close to the rider. This meant head angles also had to be shallow and a long raked front fork used to keep the front wheel clear of the pedals.
In the next fifty years, roadster bikes used for transport only stuck to the upright rider position with the handlebars close to the body. On racing bicycles as speed increased riders found they could go faster if the sat in a lower aerodynamic position. Top tubes became longer and head tubes (Steering angle) became steeper. This was a very slow evolution and by the time I came into the sport in 1952 the standard geometry of the racing bike was 70 degree seat angle, with a 73 degree head angle. With a seat angle shallower that the head angle meant the top tube had to be long.
I was taught in order to pedal efficiently I had to sit back and “ankle.” This meant on the down stroke the riders heel had to be below the pedal and on the up stoke be above the pedal. This I believe was a direct throw back to the high wheeler. The object of the Ordinary was to ride as large a wheel as the rider could handle, because of this cranks were relatively short. The pedaling motion was more in the ankles rather than legs pumping up and down. It has been said that Ordinary riders developed huge calf muscles.
With longer cranks I found it impossible to keep up this constant ankle movement when the pedal revolutions got up around 80-100 rpm. And thigh muscles are far more powerful than calf muscles so that is where the main source of power should be. I also found when making a maximum effort I would slide forward on the seat and end up riding on the tip of the saddle. As well as being extremely uncomfortable this had the effect of the seat being too low. In later years I would design a frame with a steeper seat angle and shorter top tube to place my body in the position it seemed natural to adopt.
In recent years there has been research and development into new materials for bicycle frames, but how much has there been into bicycle frame design? It seems to me over the years it has always been a mixture of slow evolution, what is easiest for the manufacturer, and what the leading rider of the day is riding. With only a few exceptions most top riders don’t get involved with bicycle design; they are more concerned with training and racing. And let’s face it; it is the rider that wins the race not the bike. Lance Armstrong could ride the worst designed, the worst built bike, and providing it didn’t fail or cause him to crash, he would still win.