What was unusual about the penny-farthing bicycle?

what was unusual about the penny farthing bicycle?
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What was unusual about the penny-farthing bicycle?

Let’s go back in time to find out what was unusual about the penny farthing bicycle. Needless to say, this will be far from a normal feature we do on Cyced, but an exceedingly interesting one.

This magnificent machine was innovated in the 1800s and still turns heads today. One wheel large, the other small, traversing A to B.

We’ll jump in, and see what is so quirky and unusual about the penny farthing.

what was unusual about the penny farthing?

Facts on what was unusual about the penny farthing bicycle


  • The penny farthing bicycle was an invention that spawned from the creation of the tension spoke wheel, invented by a Frenchman. After iterations in the 1870s, Englishman James Starley created what we know now as the penny farthing. A brilliant collaboration from across the channel!


  • The name comes from two coins from the era. Guess what they are? Of course, the penny (the small wheel) and the farthing (the big wheel). Makes a lot of sense.


  • The large wheel on the front helps with speed uphills compared to it’s previous two wheel counterparts. Not being a bike engineer myself, I struggle to grasp the reasoning behind this. Something to consider though for your next ride contested with a few hill climbs. Albeit you may look a little silly.


  • Penny farthings are dangerous. It’s unusual because the bike is so high up, and wheel’s so odd, ruts in the ground caused riders to jut forward over the handelbars. They’re common and sometimes fatal and even attempts at changing the penny farthing handlebars resulted in throwing riders backwards instead. Don’t let that put you off though. If you ever get a chance to test the unusual penny farthing bike, give it a whirl.


  • There is an unusual penny farthing cycling club that host events down in the south of the UK. They have club training and bicycle polo as well as having gone on the velodrome at Lee Valley. I hope they were able to get to track speed…

  • The inventor’s own family member cannibalised the invention by inventing the  Rover Safety Cycle. Maybe a good thing because of the penny farthing bicycle’s safety issues. This bike’s seat was a lot lower with the front wheel also being a lot smaller, but still bigger than the rear side.


  • Crazy man Joff Summerfield did a world tour on the unusual penny farthing bicycle. An amazing feat even on a standard bike these days. He did it back int 2006 and had to ride over 23,000 miles. The thought alone makes me sweat and shakey.

  • Penny farthings didn’t have brakes! Probably why so many went head firsts when speeding downhill. Instead it relied on what we understand as the braking system of a fixie ( or a fixed wheel bicycle). A fixie relies on the rider to apply pressure to their heel to slow the bike pedalling down. What you’d find on a track bike at a velodrome.

  • Back in the 1880s, women didn’t tend to ride them because of their long dresses. It was very much a man’s bicycle, which has obviously changed in modern era. Instead women rode bike’s with three wheels; and the penny farthing’s inspiration.  The three wheeled velocipede.

How do you physically get onto a penny farthing bike?

Well that’s a very good question.

What you can’t see on the images is a foot-peg above the rear wheel. This acts as a step up to the unusually big wheel, where the saddle is.

It’s around 6 inches up, but just jumping up won’t work unless you give it a bit of momentum.

Before getting seated, you need to push the penny farthing bicycle forwards. It can be tricky at first and requires a lot of practice.


What is unusual about the penny farthing bicycle?

Pretty much everything! It’s a bizarre Victorian creation that takes some doing to even get on in the first place. And once you manage that you’ve got to take it very carefully so not to go head first over the handlebars.

Angus founded Cyced in 2016 and can be found at his local Parkrun in Manchester every Saturday. He also has a thing for data (as weird as it sounds) and loves visualising it through maps!

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