Penny Farthing Racing: Reflections & recollections
Barry Golding 19 August 2021
I first dipped by toe in the art of penny farthing bicycle racing in 1975. Whilst I had ridden a bike as a teenager in Donald, by my 20s in the 1970s I didn’t even own or ride a normal bike. By 1980 I had won the Australian Penny Farthing Racing Championship three times and retained the trophy.
This blog is my previously untold, back story of how all this happened. I took the bike for my likely last public ride at a commemorative event in Kingston, Victoria late in 2018 age 68. Having found it surprisingly difficult to get on and a tad scary to jump off, I realized I had lost the courage and dexterity to still ride the 150 year old bike safely into my 70s.
The back story starts with our former full time Australian folk music band dating back to the early 1970s, ‘Mulga Bill’s Bicycle Band’. We chose the Band’s name after Banjo Paterson’s poem of the same name, about an Australian ‘bushie’ who unwisely swapped his horse for a new-fangled penny farthing bicycle with disastrous consequences in ‘Dead Man’s Creek’. It was logical that we looked out for a real penny farthing to use as a backdrop for the band on stage. At that stage riding one was certainly not on my radar.
We came across and bought an original penny farthing in fairly sad condition from a secondhand shop in Clare, South Australia around six years before in the early 1970s. I recall we paid around $200 for it. First it needed some basic repairs to the huge, rusty front wheel particularly the rim and spokes. The back wheel was so rusted it had to be replaced with a similar sized solid rubber pram wheel.
We tracked down a Melbourne-based pram manufacturer who still stocked long lengths of solid pram rubber with a spring inserted, in order to replace the rotting solid rubber front tyre. The guys at the pram factory in Sunshine (suburban Melbourne) delighted in showing us how to cut the rubber to length exposing a few turns of its embedded spring by cutting back some of the rubber, then screwing the ends of the rubber back onto itself, and rolling and snapping the tyre back onto the rim. Chisel grips replaced the rotten wooden handlebar grips and we found a new old-style leather seat. Some antique style pedals were welded onto the rusty pedal cranks. She was an ugly ducking: safe enough to learn to ride but certainly not to race.
I learned to ride in the relative safely of the back lane behind 177 Park Drive in Parkville. In the lead up to the Mulga Bill band days I rented a dank, windowless half cellar behind the terrace house, earning the name ‘Bazza The Rat’ from the house residents who partied at all hours in the loungeroom above. I initially propped myself gingerly against the walls in the back lane to learn to start and stop. What I quickly learned was that the balance once you are moving is relatively simple, once you realize that thrusting on one pedal tends to force the big wheel in the opposite direction. Balance thus involves constantly using your arms to counter the push of each pedal stroke. Having dropped the huge 48 inch wheel sideways very heavily onto my knee and ending up in hospital, I also realized that the necessary art of getting on and off safely was critically important.
Learning to ride (mainly getting off)
After recovering from the knee injury, I resolved to find a way by trial and error to safely get off. Getting on at this early stage was still by propping against something high. At this stage I’d never seen anyone ride a penny farthing . If Google had been around then I would have found all the options for getting on and off safely on YouTube.
The jagged, rusted peg above the small back wheel I later discovered was designed to help gentlemen in the 1870s, when my bike was made, slow down, step back and elegantly ease off backwards. Initially I found it could instead get off by slowing right down, letting the bike drop sideways, putting my leg out straight as the wheel fell and grabbing the opposite handlebar to support the considerable weight of the bike as it fell. This sort of worked at slow speeds, but I wouldn’t recommend anyone try it. Another way was necessary for the inevitable unplanned higher speed emergency stops, including to avoid people and traffic.
My bike still had the remnants of a rusty front brake levered off the right handlebar. Aside from its dodgy condition, the problem was that putting it on at speed meant the front wheel tended to lock and my momentum lurched the frame and handlebars forward, and me onto the road. I later found that some of the early riders got off by putting both legs over the handlebars, using the brake to stop and landing on their feet. I’ve since seen others safely do this, but I’ve never tried it, it was not easy to grab the bike in the process and it was impossibly dangerous at speed.
By trial and error, I found another way of leaping off at reasonable speed. I still can’t explain how to do it, but it worked for me. Somehow, I waited until one pedal was in the down position, leaping off on that same side and running beside the bike to bring it and me to a halt. I found it worked OK at any speed I could run, as long as I didn’t lean on the handlebars on the process, or else the whole bike frame lurched forward, and my face would end up on the road.
I also found that the best way to slow the bike at speed was to ignore the brake and use reverse thrust on the fixed wheel pedals. On hills, the trick was to hold the bike back until the gradient flattened out and it was safe to ‘let it go’. Once your feet were off the pedals, without a brake, you were effectively out of control. For all of these reasons, what we now call a ‘bicycle’ when it was invented was called the ‘safety bicycle’, and its precursor, the penny farthing. was called the ‘ordinary’.
Using the bike with the Band in the 1970s
I was the only member of Mulga Bill’s Bicycle Band who learned to safely ride the bike. We also bought a unicycle which we all tried but failed to master. We used the penny farthing on stage as part of an acted out a slapstick version of the ‘Mulga Bill’s Bicycle’ poem on stage in almost every concert. Tony Britz sat on the bike as Mulga Bill, while Chris Bettle recited, myself and another band member I held the bike and Jo Beams and Liz Eager hammed it up under a blanket as Mulga Bill’s trusty horse.
Once we started touring interstate including school concerts, we found ways of using the penny farthing before or after the concert on the road. I would ride and the kids in particular loved it. I developed reasonably safe ways of getting people from the audience to haul themselves up on the seat and try riding it with me running alongside to support and catch them on a big stage or on the road outside the venue. It likely wouldn’t pass a modern safety audit but it was good fun and memorable for those game enough to try it.
As I gained more confidence riding on roads, we would get the bike out of the Band bus or Kombi as we came into town where we were playing that night. I would sometimes hop on and ride into and through town. It was a good way of publicizing concerts and local papers got great pictures. When we played at the Adelaide Festival the Adelaide Advertiser reporter was luke-warm about taking pictures of me to promote the concert, asking, “Doesn’t the lady [in the Band] ride the bike, and would she sit on it instead?” The promoters slyly got around our firm “No” by organizing for a local model to sit on the bike, of course taking the snap from below featuring her long leg.
As an example of how the papers more commonly treated the story, the Sydney Morning Herald used the photo below (from 6 June 1976) taken in traffic on the edge of the Sydney CBD. The newspaper caption read ‘Barry Goanna Golding, a guitarist and vocalist in ‘Mulga Bill’s Bicycle Band’ found a way to beat Sydney’s train stoppages and the traffic problem yesterday on his way to rehearsals. He simply stepped onto his 1877 Penny Farthing bicycle’.
This 1976 photo confirms that by this stage the rusted front brake had been removed for safety, and the rusted mounting peg above the back wheel had been replaced by a more solid mounting bracket. The wide flair on my jeans firmly dates the photo to the ‘70s. Soon after I had a close shave when my flairs got caught between the main frame and the big front wheel, leading me to routinely tuck my pants into my socks for safety.
In 1975, the half hour episode of ‘Big Country’ featuring our band on ABC TV used images of me riding through the countryside and into Charleville whilst we were on tour in western Queensland to bookend the program.
Inheriting the Band’s penny farthing
After Mulga Bill’s Bicycle Band stopped touring in 1976, we divided up the gear we had accumulated, and my portion included the bike. The hills around Daylesford where I moved to were too hilly for much road riding, but most years over the next few decades I got the bike out and participated in the annual Daylesford New Year’s Eve street procession, weaving in and out of the floats and the fire trucks in the dark on a typically hot summer evening.
In the late 1970s I became an activist with the ‘Save Our Bushland Action Group Daylesford’, agitating to prevent pine plantations replacing native forest at Basalt and Eganstown. I rode from Daylesford to Geelong via Ballarat over two days as part of an event we called ‘Push for the Bush’ as an effective way of promoting and gaining newspaper and TV coverage for our cause.
The South Australian Championships
Long distances like the ‘Push for the Bush’ called for some serious repairs to the front wheel. I heard about a farmer in Booleroo Centre, South Australia, Brian Knauerhouse whose blacksmithing skills also included rolling penny farthing wheel rims on an original rim rolling machine. Brian undertook to roll and respoke the front wheel. This involved putting a thread on each spoke and screwing it into both the brass hub and the metal rim: a huge and painstaking job that he did almost for nothing as a labour of love.
Getting the bike from Daylesford in Victoria for repairs was something of an adventure. Twice I took the bike on The Overland train from Ballarat to Adelaide, then took a regional a train 220km north from Adelaide to Port Germein, a tiny, isolated settlement of only 200 people on the eastern coast of South Australia’s Spencer Gulf. It was a further 43km to Booleroo Centre. It was starting to get dark as I pedaled northeast towards the southern Flinders Ranges on my first trip. Fortunately, a local farmer with a ute took pity and offered me a lift with the bike to Booleroo.
Given the state of the rusted rim, Brian did a splendid repair job. However, when I was giving it a decent try out at speed on the road back in Daylesford, the front wheel totally collapsed. Imagine straddling a hub with hundreds of spokes detached from the rim. I took the wrecked wheel to Ken Rodda, who then ran a mower and chain saw repair service in Daylesford. Ken also dabbled in motor bikes and had experience of re-spoking antique motor bike wheels. Ken came up with a new and creative way to repair the wheel. He painstakingly attached a short motor bike spoke with a nipple on one end through the rim, as on a conventional bicycle, and spliced and brazed the other end of the spoke onto fencing wire, permanently bronzing each wire onto the brass hub. He repeated this hundreds of times and then tensioned the wheel. It worked and he charged me nothing.
It was around that time that I discovered that Booleroo Centre then hosted the South Australian Penny Farthing Championships. I decided to go across in 1975 to try my luck. I found a simple way of transporting the huge bike in two pieces. The front wheel complete with front forks and handlebars fitted neatly into an old car tyre strapped onto the top of car roof racks. The stem that included the seat with the small ‘farthing’ wheel fitted neatly inside. Disassembling the bike into the two pieces is actually quite simple without tools, simply by unscrewing two nuts.
What I hadn’t thought about before my first race was that I was actually pretty unfit. While I road fast and confidently over short distances on bitumen, I had certainly not trained. And it turned out the South Australian Championship event was held over three laps on the very bumpy and only partly grassed Booleroo Centre Football ground. On the first of three laps, I flew. On the second lap, I ‘hit a wall’. On the third lap, most other riders rolled past me as I gasped exhausted.
It was good fun participating, but an important lesson in fitness training. Next time I raced in 1976 I was more prepared, and soundly won both the South Australian Championship and the Handicap that followed at Booleroo Centre. By the early 1980s the South Australian Championships were hosted instead at Strathalbyn (which I also participated in once) and in very recent years, in Tailem Bend.
The Australian Championships (at Tunbridge, 1970s)
During 1976 I heard about the Australian Penny Farthing Racing Championships, then held at Tunbridge in the Tasmanian midlands during the 1970s, before relocating to Evandale in 1983, where they have since been held in February for the past four decades.
Around that time, I started secondary teaching in Ballarat. At first, I tried training after school and sometimes in the dark on the quiet bitumen roads around Kooroocheang where I was then renting and living in the rented ‘Thornbarrow’ homestead. But the bitumen was hard on the tyres and not ideal for building up aerobic fitness. I came up with a solution: train on a grassed surface with similar resistance to the race itself, by riding laps at high speed around the edge of the Creswick Football Oval at Hammon Park.
However, putting the bike on and off the car and training on the oval after school on the way home was time consuming. So, I resolved, with Creswick hardware storekeeper, John Quinlan’s permission, to leave the bike at the store, do a quick change out the back and train at the oval nearby each night after school. Doing 50 laps at high speed worked wonders. John proudly referred to himself as my ‘trainer’.
My battered, patched up and unpainted bike, despite being original, was regarded as something of an ‘ugly duckling’ by some of the penny farthing racing enthusiasts, many of whom had antique bicycle collections. Its seat when I first competed was tied on with twine. Most people who raced at Tunbridge were seriously into antiques and reproductions and their bikes looked as new. The Championships at Tunbridge involved a ‘Monte Carlo’ type event over three laps of roughly triangular course, which I suspect from a Google search included Main Road, and either Lowes Street and Scott Street, or Thomas and Sutton Street.
Charles Smythe, a local antique dealer in Tunbridge was then the key organizer and I was billeted each of the three years I competed with a local property owner. The start and finish line were on Main Street and hay bales were placed on the acute street corners (as is now done in Evandale) to provide some safety from high speed spills. Having won the Championship Cup for three years running from 1978-80, I was deemed, as was the tradition in those days, to have won it outright and still own the cup.
The front of the engraved cup, below ,confirms that the ‘Australian Penny Farthing Championship, Tunbridge 1976’ was won in 1976 by a C. E. Clemons (and donated by Mrs Clemons).
Around that time, I did several memorable penny farthing road rides, including riding up Pewley Hill north of Kooroocheang, by far the steepest hill I ever successfully rode up or down. I now call it ‘Penny Farthing Hill’ when I regularly ride my road bike up and down it on the way down and back from Kingston to Guildford and Newstead via Sandon and Yandoit.
Over the years I have had a few scary accidents. The worst one was when training at high speed on a hot back road one summer evening when visiting friends north of the Grampians. The front tyre had stretched and flew off the rim, locking the front wheel and dumping me on the ground. I ended up in Donald Hospital.
During one of the long distance road races, the main stem of the bike snapped off just above the back wheel, likely due to rust and fatigue, leaving me riding the big front wheel down a hill at speed, forcing me into the (fortunately soft) ditch at the bottom. On one other occasion when climbing a steep hill up to the School of Forestry in Creswick, the rusted main stem snapped off just under the seat, as a consequence on me pulling hard on the handlebars and pushing hard on the pedals to struggle up the hill. Fortunately, it was at low speed. As a consequence, I got a then penny farthing enthusiast, Norm Lemin (died 2012) to totally repair the rusted stem by inserting a sleeve but retaining both the original stem ends.
Australian Championships (at Evandale, 1980s)
The Australian Penny Farthing Championships in Tunbridge lapsed after 1980 but resumed in the picturesque village of Evandale 77km to the north (and 18km south of Launceston) in February 1983. In March that same year our son Karri was born. In 1984 we were living a long way north in Humpty Doo south of Darwin in the Northern Territory. In 1985 we were a tad closer back in Kingston, but Tanja was born soon after in May. Between 1983 and 1985 the Australian Championship was won by a South Australian: by John Wigsell (in 1983) and Alan Kloester (in 1984 & 1984).
We all went across as a family to the Australian Championships in 1986. From the late 1980s the competition had become international. It was still really good fun and our young sons Dajarra and Karri (then five and three) totally soaked up the vibe. But by 1986, my original bike was heavier than most reproductions and I was less competitive and unplaced. Doug Pinkerton (from England) won the Australian Championship that year (1986) and again in 1988, 1990 and 1992. Nick Bromage (also from England) won in 1987. In 1995/6 a Czech rider won and a New Zealander was runner up in 1995. Since its inception only two Tasmanian riders have taken out the Evandale-based Championship, with winners from all other states and also the ACT. By 1986 the events had diversified to include women’s and juniors races, a sprint (on the Launceston airport tarmac), a slow race, a slalom, a road race and a state relay.
I was teaching at Daylesford High School from 1985-88. With fellow teacher, Jo Beasley, for several years we made the nine day Great Victorian Bike ride a school bicycle excursion for students in late November early December. On the 1986 ‘Great Vic’ from Albury to Melbourne that included an overnight in Daylesford, I chose to ride the penny farthing, only having to dismount twice, once to ride down a steep hill near Lockwood South near Bendigo, and another on the last day to ride up a steep hill near Sunbury. By 1987 on a route that started in Stawell and included parts of the Great Ocean Road, I opted to do it easier on the ‘safety bicycle’.
I went back to compete in one of the South Australian Penny Farthing Championship events in the early 1980s in Strathalbyn, but by then the reproduction bikes were getting lighter than my 100 year old penny farthing and the competitors were getting younger. I recall one big bike wheel disintegrating while cornering in the championship and I figured it was time to give up racing.
I also participated in a 50-mile penny farthing road race from Albury Railway Station to ‘Drage’s Air World’ near Wangaratta. I recall I came in third. I also remember it was a very hot, summer day and without water biddens I ran out of water.
Riding it for fun since
The bike has been pulled out several times a year since, including for the Daylesford New Years Eve street procession, but also for many community fetes and events where I would ride and give kids (and not so heavy or not too tall adults) rides by running alongside. Our three children and their friends all enjoyed rides over the years. Since Karri (an experienced bike mechanic) is the only one who has mastered it reasonably independently and safely, he will most likely inherit it down the track.
Whilst working at Federation University in Ballarat around a decade ago I brought the bike in a couple of time to give the Physical Education students a demonstration of how it is ridden and to give several interested students a carefully supervised try out. One year I was asked to do a brief dramatic cameo, doing a quick zip across the stage of Founders Hall. One year I ride right along the inside corridor of T Building, Level 3 at Mount Helen, just to show how it was done, high enough to almost clip the overhead fluorescent lights. I recall did a similar mad dash inside the corridors of the Cloncurry Hospital in Western Queensland which I visited as a community contribution when Mulga Bill played an evening concert there in 1974.
As alluded to at the start, the last time I rode in public was for the Centenary of the Kingston Avenue of Honour in November 2018 (age 68). I felt unsteady and unsafe for the first time since I learned to ride in the 1970s. I was OK once I managed to get on but leaping off as I had done so effortlessly for four decades did not come easily. I’ve since had a diagnosis of osteoporosis and figure a hard fall on the road into my 70s may not end well.