When you tell someone you’re going to ride 100 miles, it generally raises some eyebrows. It’s not really the kind of thing I’ll tell people I’m doing anymore. When you tell someone you’re going to ride 100 miles on a Penny Farthing, they immediately mark you as certifiably insane and stare back at you in disbelief. I got some kind of enjoyment out of those stares in the lead up to my trip to Tasmania in Feburary this year.
It all started in February 2010, when I headed down to Tassie with the Dulwich Hill Bicycle club for a week of touring and to check out these famed Penny Farthing races in Evandale. The crazy ones would ride 100 miles on a Penny a day after touching down in Launceston, and then we would all go off on our fully loaded touring bikes the next day – returning just in time for the Nation Penny Farthing championships the following weekend. I wasn’t going to be one of those crazies, in fact I was terrified of these big wheel bikes all together. I was pretty tame in those days. Too scared to ride off road, too scared to ride more than 100km on the road, and too unfit and slow to fathom doing any of it anyway.
Somewhere during the year after that trip my thoughts shifted. I started wondering just how painful it could really be. I heard tales from Lindsay and others (who were Penny Century veterans) about not being able to walk up or down stairs for days afterwards, and having great difficulty sitting down let alone getting on another bicycle seat. Somehow, it all sounded rather attractive.
Di and Michael Sullivan, the terrific organisers of this marvelous event and wonderful hosts for my stay in Evandale, organised to lend me one of the Velocipede Society bikes when I expressed interested in the 2011 event. Standing at only 5’4″, I was somewhat concerned as to whether my feet would even reach the pedals. Rightly so, as I discovered that even on the small 48″ wheel (which also dictates the bikes gear size) my toes were uncomfortably pointed at the bottom of each pedal stroke. I am no ballerina, and I realised this would present a problem after a few km’s let alone 160 of them!
Luckily I came armed with a secret weapon: the cork sanding block. Purchased in a last minute panic from Mitre 10 before leaving Sydney, the cork sanding blocks did a rather stunning job of building up the pedals when fastened with over sized cable ties. Sure, your feet could only actually sit on two sides of the block and it annoyingly always spun around to the two wrong sides that had a bulging pedal in the centre, but I figured it would get me through the day.
Di put on a breakfast so calorie dense I could have done three back to back penny centuries and still put on weight… But I wasn’t complaining. With a belly full of baked bean toasted sandwhiches, home made muffins and lashings of coffee, I was standing on the start line with Bell (my beautiful Penny for the day), a camel back full of water and a very nervous smile.
Bell and I had a pretty slow start, but we managed to maintian pace with the other 15 or so riders that had made the start. We left Evandale and tackled our first railway crossing for the day, which sent the bike jolting and made me realise just how little those solid rubber tyres absorbed any bumps. As we got further from the village, the struggle with my sanding block pedals began. Every little rise where I had to put some power down would see my foot slipping and I wouldn’t be able to get back on the platform. At one point I had to dismount and by the time I was back on the bike, the others were pedalling off in the distance.
En route to Deloraine
Feeling as though I was left behind forever, I decided to go at the pace myself and the pedals dictated and began to really enjoy the scenery and riding the tall contraption. Up so high you could see absolutely everything, which is something rather enjoyable when you’re in a beautiful place like Tasmania. I winded through the streets until I was presented with a confusing corner where I had to stop to check where I was going. It was here I happened upon Phil, a visitor from the UK who had come to Evandale to ride his Penny. We chatted for a while about his adventures touring Japan on his big wheeled bike, and how he thought travelling in a hot air balloon was also a pretty cool idea. We went through stages where I would be in front, then him, and him being around made me worry less and less about not making the time limit.
The toughest stage of the ride was set to be Reedy Marsh. This was just before the half way mark of 80km at Deloraine, and was the part of the course that presented some actual hills to climb up. Now, climbing hills on a Penny is a rather ridiculous idea, but I found that I got the hang of it. You basically have to break it down in three stages: assess the gradient, decide if you can make it or not then either dismount or go at it full gas! If you make an error in the assessment or decision steps, then you’re finding yourself toppling sideways half way up the incline from a fair way off the ground. If you’re lucky enough to realise that this is going to happen a few moments in advance, it’s a good idea to find a comfy looking bush for landing.
Having ridden along certain that Phil and I were the back markers of the race for sometime, it came as a shock to see the rest of the field coming towards me. Going back through Reedy Marsh? I have to go back through here? My panic was soon soothed when one of the riders explained they had taken a wrong turn and were essentially doing the loop in reverse, which meant that I was not very far behind at all. Phew! A stop for a sandwhich in Deloraine was a welcome break before it was time to spin home.
And spin I did! Tailwind, 48 inch gear… All I really needed was a free wheel and I would have been cruising. But alas, my legs pedalled away with the momentum of the smooth flowing road. The miles were ticking by so quickly and I was enjoying my ride more every moment. People on the road side smiled and waved and I beamed back at them, thinking how silly I must have looked.
The last bakery stop for the day was filled with Penny riders stocking up on cakes and treats, and I pulled in with them not long after they had arrived. With more time to tell the story of their shortcut, I realised that they had a few more km’s to cover on the way back to Evandale which I had done on the way out. With all the fun I was having I was slightly dissapointed that my adventure was soon to come to an end, but I couldn’t wait to get riding again and jumped back on Bell.
Headwinds are pretty damn horrible on the road. Headwinds when you have the huge surface area of the Penny are pretty damn terrifying. It was like hitting a brick wall when it came, and with every revolution I wondered if I would make the next or if I would go toppling sideways into on coming cars or the alternative of a barbed wire fence. Along this stretch was where Di started following in her car and offering words of encouragement. I will be enternally gateful for that, as after over 9 hours on the most uncomfortable saddle you could imagine I was beginning to struggle with internal motivation.
The final 10 km’s to Evandale crawled by ever so slowly. We hit busy roads and the road signs started to tell me we were near. A quick run through Perth and then all I had to worry about was the final incline of the day.
I hit that incline, and I decided with every ounce of self confidence I had that I could make it to the top. I stomped my feet on those blocks hard, but my legs weren’t having a bar of it. They gave was at possibly the most inappropriate time, and as I went tumbling towards a very sharp looking guard rail I started to wonder how far such a thing would penetrate my skin and flesh… I must have closed my eyes, as when I opened them I had astonishingly landed with one foot on that sharp rail. I began to giggle, then chuckle, then before long I was in full laughter thanks to the incident I had just somehow managed to avoid. After a few minutes I figured out how to get out of my compromising leg split where I was in contact with both rail and Penny saddle, and a quick push up the hill saw me rolling back on Bell into town.
A cold ale and rubber stained legs
Di was waiting outside the Clarendon Arms, and I dismounted Bell feeling relatively fresh. It was done! I did it! Di and Michael revealed they had their doubts at the beginning of the day with my pedal troubles, but I managed to make it home and in second place. 10 hrs 32 minutes on a penny farthing, what a day. James managed to beat me by about an hour or so, and the others started to roll in about half an hour afterwards.
I enjoyed a cold Wizard Smiths Ale, made a couple of phone calls to relay my triumph and started to wonder how on earth I was going to ride 140km the next day with a fully loaded BoB…
The Evandale Village Fair and National Penny Farthing Championships are held in Evandale, Tasmania in February each year. I highly recommend checking it out! More info at their website http://www.evandalevillagefair.com/.