FREDERICK, Md.– It’s a truly unique sport and Frederick, Maryland, takes great pride in hosting it. A race involving vintage-style bikes, the kind with huge front wheels. They can be almost 5 feet tall, and have incredibly narrow tires.
Riding the pennyfarthings, or “ordinaries” as they’re sometimes called, takes skill: the narrow tires mean there isn’t much surface area gripping the road, and a collision can throw the rider forward with catastrophic results. But racers say the spectacle, and that element of danger, is part of the appeal.
This year, the winner of the Frederick Clustered Spires High Wheel Race is a newbie who rode to victory on a borrowed bike.
Winner Eric Cameron says a year ago at about this time, he was sitting in Brewer’s Alley, a downtown Frederick brew pub. In his words, he was ‘captivated’ when he saw the high wheel racers go by. He decided he would join them, but there was a hitch: he didn’t have a bike. A friend arranged for him to borrow one, and that’s what he rode to win in Saturday’s race.
Because he didn’t get his hands on the high wheel bike until about a month ago, his time in the saddle was minimal. At the awards ceremony after the race he said, “I’m on top of the world, I love it—and I love Frederick.”
In the women’s category, Angela Long of West Friendship, Md. rode to victory on her her high wheel– in high heels. “Actually, I use my heel to keep my foot on the pedal, and they’re thin enough soles that I can grab the pedals with my toes” she explains.
Long was hungry for the win. She’s raced every year since the event was established four years ago, and has always come in second. Perhaps her bike shorts helped tell how she pulled off the win: anyone trailing behind her saw the message printed on the back of the shorts. It read:”Kick butt”–and she did.
The sport can be dangerous. The high wheeled bikes don’t leave riders a lot of margin for error. When in a race, riders turn up the speed, and when taking corners, they lean hard. It looks as though a spill is imminent every time they turn. But safety is part of the race as well. During the course of the race, competitors were careful to call out their positions to each other to avoid crashing.
Despite the precautions, there was a collision. Rob Stull of Thomas, West Virginia collided with Larry Black of Mt. Airy, Md. Black left the race in an ambulance, but called race organizers hours later to say that while he had a dislocated shoulder and some lacerations, he was in good spirits. Stull had a bad scrape on his face and was a little unsteady at first, but got back on the bike to finish the race.
Stull says the crash happened when he called out to his wife in the crowd to ask for a bottle of water in the next lap of the race. When he turned back around, he could see he and Black would collide. “He was right in front of me,” he says, referring to Black. “I feel so bad–I didn’t have any opportunity to avoid it.”
The High Wheel Race in Frederick is the only one of its kind in the United States, and organizers say it’s grown dramatically in the few years since it was established. Riders say it’s a great chance to share a sport they love. And this year, proceeds from the event will benefit the Boys and Girls Club of Frederick County.