|Paul Schmidt's Bicycle
Antique & Historic Cycling
Pictures, information on The Wheelmen and Answers to Common Questions below!
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|Background||I have loved cycling since I was a child, and still
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
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
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
had made the spokes for the first bike also made fairly authentic
I saved up and finally asked him to make one that would fit me like a
The result is my favorite of the three, and is the only one I still
The others are used by non-Wheelmen friends who sometimes join me in
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:
Third Highwheel Bike:
Fourth Highwheel Bike:
Get a bicycle. You will [certainly] not regret it. If you live. ~ Mark Twain
My purpose in putting up this particular page is to share some
information regarding the first practical bicycle, the "highwheel"
These originated in 1871 and were pretty much replaced by the newer
(i.e. 'modern') bicycles by 1892. They were known in England, their
of origin, as "Penny-Farthings" (because of the similarity in their
to wheel size ratio to that of the British penny and farthing coins),
elsewhere simply as "Ordinaries (The Ordinary)", but only after the
safety bike was invented...these older machines were then the
bike that most people had. There are other antique bike types, and
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
Bicycles, 2nd edition, by G. Donald Adams, published by the
History Bicycle Museum, Orchard Park, New York. firstname.lastname@example.org
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
< What does it look like up there?
The view is unparalleled, but you are really only as high as
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
bikes, but at 'meets' they are often tied to a rope strung between two
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
as many as three bikes. Some people fit the bikes into full sized and
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!
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)....it 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
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
wire that is inserted through the hollow core of the tire (a 3/4"
tire might have an inner core of 1/8" diameter). The wire is under
tension and the rubber cannot shift, slide, or come out of the rim's
The rubber is actually cut somewhat longer than the circumference of
rim and is compressed lengthwise when installed on the rim. This is the
same technique used for wheel- chairs. A special kind of tool,
in either hand or bench mounted versions, is used to simultaneously
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
the joint and the seam becomes almost invisible. Most tire rubber is
in color, although some bikes use black neoprene or gray wheelchair
|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
more to restore. Authentic reproductions, such as Kennedy's and those
by Victory Bicycles, cost between $2000 and $4000, depending on
Unauthentic replicas such as those of Rideable Bicycle Replicas are
hundred to $1000 (the picture at left is of a typical unauthentic
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
This old engraving shows both methods of coasting.
|Links||The Wheelmen||Pedaling History Bicycle Museum|
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Copyright Paul Schmidt 2002
revised December 2007