Paul Schmidt's Bicycle Page:
Antique & Historic Cycling



Pictures, information on The Wheelmen and Answers to Common Questions below!



Background I  have loved cycling since I was a child, and still spend lots of time in the saddle on my modern road bike. I tend to get interested in the historic versions of things I use or do, and cycling is no exception. I had always seen the various antique cycles popping up here and there, but never imagined that someday I too would ride them. One day I drove past a bike shop that had a highwheel bike in the window, and I went in for a better look. It was a replica, or reproduction, and a rather historically inaccurate one at that, but I was still fascinated. The proprietor took it down and rode it up and down the sidewalk for me, but would not let me sit on it or ride it. Nonetheless, my 'historic' bug was on a roll, and I knew that I had to have one.

The bike dealer put me in touch with the the company in Wisconsin that had made his eye-catcher, but it turned out that the company was out of business. They did, however, still have some backbones, one rim in good condition, and a front wheel hub. I bought these and took them home with big plans. I made some parts, had a machine shop make a couple more, and had a restorer of antique bikes make a new set of spokes. A salvage company came up with a complete rear wheel of suitable size. A Schwinn dealer furnished handle bars, saddle, bearings, and miscellaneous parts. The pedals and cranks came from a derelict Schwinn unicycle that was hanging in the garage. A can of black Rustoleum spray pant and some labor, including redoing some welds, and I had a bike. A local wheelchair dealer supplied and mounted gray wheelchair tires on the rims.

My friend said, "Hang on while I do and errand, and when I return I'll help you get started on the first ride, and I'll stand by to call an ambulance if necessary." After the friend left, I took the bike to a nearby school parking lot and experimented coasting while standing on the mounting peg. The next thing I knew, I was in the saddle and riding. My friend was not too pleased to return and see me already underway!

This first bike was quite heavy, close to 70 pounds, and the reach to the pedals at their lowest was a bit too far for my leg length, so it was a lot of work to ride. After a few years, I bought a slightly smaller bike, ready made, from a company in California that makes simplified approximations of various antique bikes for circuses, parade riders, etc. Even though it had a smaller wheel, the geometry of the frame made the reach just as uncomfortable. It also, for liability reasons, had a noticeable rake to the front fork; I dismantled it and a company that made spiral staircases used their curved-railing bender to re-bend the backbone, making the fork closer to vertical. I modified both this bike and the first one to have somewhat more authentic handlebars and hand grips, and as such I rode them in many parades and around the neighborhood. Still, they were too heavy and too uncomfortable for longer rides, and lacked the elegance of the real antiques. I am rather short legged, and I was having no success in locating an antique bike that would fit me (most antique bikes on the market seemed to have wheel sizes almost 10 inches bigger than I wanted).

After joining The Wheelmen organization, I learned that the man who had made the spokes for the first bike also made fairly authentic replicas. I saved up and finally asked him to make one that would fit me like a glove. The result is my favorite of the three, and is the only one I still ride. The others are used by non-Wheelmen friends who sometimes join me in those local parades that don't attract other Wheelmen.

After many years of riding bikes that were either unauthentic or 'pretty much authentic', I decided that I wanted a bike that would offer the combination of being a faithful reproduction of a specific antique bike, in all its details, yet would have the advantage of reliabilty that usually comes with the newer bikes. I sold one of the less authentic bikes and bought the new bike in its place.

That's my favorite historic bike photo of myself (above)....the location is the Mantorville, Minnesota, during a ride hosted by the Minnesota Wheelmen.

All creatures who have ever walked have wished that they might fly. With highwheelers a flesh and blood man can hitch wings to his feet.
~ Karl Kron (Ten Thousand Miles on a Bicycle)

Equipment First Highwheel Bike:
High-Step Bicycle Company, Milwaukee, Wisconsin (no longer in business); only front rim, backbone and front hub were used. All other parts were found, fabricated, or adapted from modern bike parts and wheelchairs. Later modified with more authentic-looking straight handlebars with wooden knob handles by Napoli. Very unauthentic. A good, sturdy, stable bike for inexperienced riders! Finally sold this one as a starter bike.

Second Highwheel Bike:
Rideable Bicycle Replicas, Alameda, California (still in business); heavily modified by me. Lighter construction than the High-Step, and quite rideable, but poor frame geometry wastes leg length and saddle is too uncomfortable for longer rides. Later modified with more authentic-looking straight handlebars with wooden knob handles by Napoli. Very unauthentic. Not bad for parades, though. Finally sold this one as a decoration for a library.

Third Highwheel Bike:
Kennedy custom built with 49" wheel. Quite authentic in all details, except that Kennedy mixed and matched various features of different historic bikes to make his own design. I opted for sealed ball bearings on the wheels for trouble free riding, and also requested a high degree of spoke interlacing to strengthen the wheels and reduce spoke noise. A very light and comfortable ride, and accepted at meets by other riders with actual antique bikes. More miles on this one by far than the other two.

Fourth Highwheel Bike:
Victory custom built with 50" wheel. An exact replica of an 1885 Victor Ordinary with Brooks "Century" slung leather saddle. Made by Diane Blake and Alan Snelling in Orlando, Florida, using some castings from Jim Spillane of Connecticut. Certain key components, such as spokes, made from stainless steel, with all other parts made from materials similar to the original. A very responsive machine, and a worthy addition to the bike stable, taking the physical space formerly occupied by the second bike (above).

Dockers "Classic Fit" pleated  black slacks, cut off below the knees, with elastic to keep cuffs from sliding up and down the leg while riding, and 'antique' looking brass buttons. Long and short sleeved white 'dress' shirts with a home-made short neck tie in the Wheelmen Illinois State color, and various white T-shirts and sweatshirts. Gray suit jacket. Black "Greek Sailor's Cap" from Hatquarters USA. Black 'jazz Oxfords' (narrow profile, low heel, thin sole) shoes for warm weather parades and other occasions requiring most authentic appearance. Black Etonic 'Trans Am' shoes for longer and/or colder rides (these are basically tennis shoes without all the fashionable odd shapes and color inserts, and with soles that are the same width as the upper shoe, in order to fit inside the pedal side flanges). Lycra bike shorts, for use under the Dockers for longer rides, instead of underwear. Long gray socks that go up above the knees (from a big-and-tall men's shop); not used for informal rides. Black men's 'Danskins' dancer's tights for use under the Dockers and long socks when it's cold, their rough texture also helps grip the socks and hold them up! Black lightweight leather gloves for more formal rides in colder weather. Black and/or gray leather biking gloves for longer rides. No gloves at all for most parades. 

Performance 'Monsoon' hydration pack. Leather saddle bag with compact tools for making most kinds of adjustments. The old bikes do not use the same tools as modern bikes, and many of them are modified standard tools, so it it important to always have them along in case of breakdown.

Get a bicycle. You will [certainly] not regret it. If  you live. ~ Mark Twain

My bicycle, my bicycle
Is of the latest kind,
It has a great big wheel in front
And a little one behind.

Full many a time I've mounted it
And pedalled with a will;
Sometimes I manage to stay on,
Sometimes I have a spill.

The people stand and stare at me
As I go whizzing past
At seven miles an hour, and say:
"How can he go so fast?"

But high speeds do not worry me,
Nor does my journey's length,
For cycling gives me excercise
And Guinness gives me strength.

A man stood at the Pearly Gates
His face was worn and old,
He meekly asked the "Man of Fate"
For admission to the fold.

"What have you done," St. Peter asked
"To gain admission here?"
"I've cycled my High Bicycle
For many and many a year."

The Gates swung slowly open,
As St. Peter pressed a bell.
"Come in and take a Harp," he said
"You've had your share of Hell."

About Highwheel Bikes

My purpose in putting up this particular page is to share some general information regarding the first practical bicycle, the "highwheel" type. These originated in 1871 and were pretty much replaced by the newer "safety" (i.e. 'modern') bicycles by 1892. They were known in England, their country of origin, as "Penny-Farthings" (because of the similarity in their front to wheel size ratio to that of the British penny and farthing coins), and elsewhere simply as "Ordinaries (The Ordinary)", but only after the newfangled safety bike was invented...these older machines were then the 'ordinary' bike that most people had. There are other antique bike types, and other highwheel configurations existed (such as the 'Star' and 'Eagle'), but as I only ride the Ordinary highwheel, I will focus on this version. A nice book to read for more information is Collecting and Restoring Antique Bicycles, 2nd edition, by G. Donald Adams, published by the Pedaling History Bicycle Museum, Orchard Park, New York.

The Wheelmen
is the international organization for antique bicycle enthusiasts. Go to their website via this link. The site offers all the information one could ask for, and has a large photo gallery, plus a neat animation showing how riders mount the highwheel bicycles.


Use the Wheelmen Information
link to go to an an extension of 
this page.

Common Questions 

What does it look like up there?

The view is unparalleled, but you are really only as high as you would be standing on a chair or stool.

How do you get up on 
that thing? >

You push off to get some momentum for balancing, then step up to the saddle using a small mounting peg that is just above the back wheel. Getting off is the same process, but in reverse.

< How do you park them without a kick stand?

They are usually leaned up against stationary objects, or even other bikes, but at 'meets' they are often tied to a rope strung between two trees.

Aren't they dangerous to ride? >

They are about as dangerous as a regular bike, except for the greater height, and the fact that the rider is perched just behind the center of gravity, which can cause the infamous "header" accident, where the front wheel stalls suddenly upon hitting a rut, rock, etc; and the rider pitches forward onto his/her head.

< How do you transport such a large bike?

Most riders have a home made carrier such as this one; they can hold as many as three bikes. Some people fit the bikes into full sized and mini vans or other trucks, and some have trailers.

Are they hard to ride? >

The large front wheel, with it's gyroscopic effect, is actually very stable. While they are harder to ride up hill or into a headwind, the balancing part is actually easier than with modern bikes. You can even turn around while riding and take pictures of other riders without falling over!

< Where do you ride them? >

We usually ride for parades, for recreation, for organized antique bike gatherings (or "meets"), and along with riders of modern bikes during organized riding events. 

People often take pictures of us and give them to us (such as both of these) helps to stop when they ask so they can get an address!

What kind of tires do they use?

Highwheel bikes use solid rubber tires which have no tube and require no air to inflate them. They are purchased from other Wheelmen who have contracted with rubber companies to produce the long extrusions of the proper type rubber. The rubber arrives in large coils and is cut to the required length by the cyclist. The wheel rims are simple U or V shaped channels, and the tires are held into the groove by the tension of a steel wire that is inserted through the hollow core of the tire (a 3/4" diameter tire might have an inner core of 1/8" diameter). The wire is under considerable tension and the rubber cannot shift, slide, or come out of the rim's channel. The rubber is actually cut somewhat longer than the circumference of the rim and is compressed lengthwise when installed on the rim. This is the same technique used for wheel- chairs. A special kind of tool, available in either hand or bench mounted versions, is used to simultaneously compress the rubber and tension the wire while on the rim, and the wire ends are welded before the tool is removed, after which the rubber snaps shut over the joint and the seam becomes almost invisible. Most tire rubber is red in color, although some bikes use black neoprene or gray wheelchair rubber.

How are they on hills?

Highwheel bikes have a fixed 'gear ratio' that is similar to the middle gears of a modern multi-speed bike. Depending on wheel size, a decent cadence will move the bike at 10 miles per hour or a bit faster. When it comes to climbing hills, the reader should imagine climbing the same hill on his/her modern bike while stuck in a medium gear while carrying a 40 pound load of equipment. Also, the rider is always at full leg extension while seated, so out-of-the-saddle climbing techniques cannot be used. Highwheel riders often charge hills, keep slowing down as they climb, and may end up walking part of the way up. Still, it's a matter of leg strength and will power. Going down hill has it's own problems, as described below.

What is the most common mistake made by new highwheel riders?

It might be that they forget that they cannot just put a foot down when they get in trouble, as they would with a modern bike. If a rider tries this, they quickly find themselves in a pile on the ground with the bike on top of them.

< Are they expensive?

Old highwheels often cost a few thousand dollars, and may cost even more to restore. Authentic reproductions, such as Kennedy's and those made by Victory Bicycles, cost between $2000 and $4000, depending on options. Unauthentic replicas such as those of Rideable Bicycle Replicas are several hundred to $1000 (the picture at left is of a typical unauthentic replica).

Do they have brakes? >

Mostly, they do - after a fashion! Most makers did equip their highwheels with spoon brakes on the front wheels, but but many riders found that they either did not work well (not enough friction to slow the bike on a hill), or worked too well (stalling the wheel and causing a "header"). Many riders never use the brakes even if they have them. Gentle braking is done by careful back pressure on the pedals as they are coming up.

On a downhill, a highwheel rider makes a decision to
walk or coast. Once the coast is started, there is little
the rider can do to stop until reaching the bottom. 
The rider cannot keep his feet on the pedals, since
they are spinning fast with the wheel. Hanging the 
legs beside the wheel is risky since they can easily get 
tangled in the spokes. Experienced riders usually drape 
their legs over the handle bars; this looks dangerous,
but is actually the safest method of coasting....
the legs stay out of trouble, and if an obstruction
is encountered and the bike pitches forward, the feet 
will hit the ground first, instead of the head! 

This old engraving shows both methods of coasting.

Links The Wheelmen

Victory Bicycles

Pedaling History Bicycle Museum

Rideable Bicycle Replicas

Back to Home

Copyright Paul Schmidt 2002
revised December 2007