In the late 1800s, racing cyclists looped around tracks on top of two-wheeled penny-farthings—the first machine to ever be called a bicycle.
The video above, captured in 1928, shows biker C.J. Bowtle peddling furiously, his penny-farthing gliding along the track and passing his competitors in the one-mile race at the Challenge Cup in Herne Hill, London.
Inspired by the wooden-wheeled “boneshaker” velocipede, the penny-farthing was built by James Starley, known as the father of the bicycle industry, around the 1870s. Mechanics found that bikes could reach higher speeds the larger they made the front wheel, which resulted in the outrageously large front wheel of the penny-farthing. The name penny-farthing comes from the British penny and farthing coins, which, when placed next to each other, are of a similar size ratio to the front and back wheels.
The penny-farthing marked the beginning of cycling sports. However, bikers perched about five feet high and almost over the front axle on a machine without any brakes made this early form of bike racing extremely dangerous. “In their heyday, a lot of people died riding these,” Richard Thoday, the 2015 UK National Penny Farthing Champion, told the Telegraph.
Penny-farthing bicycles were known for causing headers—pitching riders head-first off the bike if the wheel struck a rock or rut in the road. Crashes sometimes resulted in severe head and neck injuries. Inventors made models with different kinds of handlebars that would prevent headers, like “mustache” handlebars that wrapped around the legs and the “Whatton” bars that went behind the legs.
The penny-farthing’s popularity declined with the advent of the safer bicycles. However, fans of the penny-farthing still partake in competitive races today, and unlike races in the 1800s, these bikers wear helmets. The first ever penny-farthing world series will be held this June in London.
Every day we track down a Video Wonder: an audiovisual offering that delights, inspires, and entertains. Have you encountered a video we should feature? Emailella@atlasobscura.com.