The history of the bicycle, that glorious perfection of human-powered, carbon-free transportation and sport, has a deeper local hook than you probably realize. Did you know the first American bicycle was built in Maryland?
Initially invented in Germany, the “velocipede” — predecessor to the modern bike — looked like today’s bicycle but without the pedals. It seems kind of boring in hindsight, but basically people sat on the seat, held the handlebars, and pushed along the bumpy roads of the time with their feet. Nonetheless, in late 1818, Baltimore piano-maker James Stewart picked up on the European design and crafted the first velocipede manufactured in the United States.
Not long after the Civil War, pedals were finally attached directly to the frame’s front wheel (who gets credit for that development remains a matter of debate), and, well, the whole cycling thing eventually swept the U.S. with the advent of high-wheel bikes in the late 19th century. Also known as a penny-farthing (the names comes from the vastly different-sized British penny and farthing coins), high-wheel bike races became very popular but then, of course, disappeared with the development of the speedier, more agile — not to mention safer — modern bicycles.
Unique to Frederick, however, is a revival of the Victorian-era sport. For the third year in a row, America’s only high-wheel bike race, and one of just a handful in the world, takes place this weekend with the Frederick Clustered Spires High Wheel Race. Held in conjunction with fifth annual Tour de Frederick, the High Wheel Race festivities officially gets under way Friday, with a “meet the racers” event open to the public at Westview Promenade.
The throwback bicycle race is expected to draw a big crowd, as it has in the past.
“We had 2,000 spectators the first year with very little publicity and more than doubled it last year with an estimated 5,000 people,” said Eric Rhodes, who founded the event three years ago with his wife Jeanne.
There’ll be live music, a Roaring ’20s band and a barbershop-type quartet to sing the national anthem before the start.
Also Saturday, an antique bicycle show will be on display from 3 to 5 p.m. in front of City Hall.
“Downtown Frederick is just the ideal location for a race like this,” Rhodes said. “You literally have bikes from the 19th century racing in front of buildings dating back to the same time. We’re also seeing more people (including the bicyclists) dress up in period costumes — women in Victorian dresses and men wearing fake handlebar mustaches — getting into the spirit.”
Rhodes noted that three-time former Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, now the only official U.S. winner ever, was on hand for the inaugural race and was blown away by the size and enthusiasm of the crowd.
“He told me that when he goes to a bike race in the United States, most of the spectators are either friends or family of the athletes and that’s about it, but people really came to see the high-wheel bikes and the race, and that impressed him,” Rhodes said. He added that the star of the new ESPN documentary, “Slaying the Badger,” chronicling his epic battle at the 1986 Tour de France with Frenchmen Bernard Hinault, even tried his hand at riding a high-wheel. “He looked a little rickety up top there,” Rhodes said with a laugh, “but I give him all the credit in the world for trying it for the first time in front of all those people.”
Rhodes — who occasionally commutes to work at the Frederick County Public School administration building downtown on his high-wheel bike, “when I don’t have to take the kids to daycare” — said the current resurgence in bicycling across the U.S. explains some of the interest in the old bikes. He also believes people are interested in the high-wheel bikes because they are antique machines from a bygone era, and so few of the original models have actually survived. “Many were melted down into ammunition during various wars,” he said. But the biggest reason people love them, he believes, is their unique dimensions and startling height when there’s a rider in the saddle. “I think they are great works of art.”
On Saturday, 30 high-wheel competitors will line up in front of Brewer’s Alley Restaurant on North Market Street at least 15 minutes before the official start of the race, essentially a one-hour criterium around a two-block loop downtown. The winner is whoever completes the most laps over the course of 60 minutes.
The race not only draws local penny farthing enthusiasts, including Rhodes, who does the live race commentary, and Neil Sandler, publisher of the regional bicycling magazine Spokes, but enthusiasts from around the country. Last year, two-dozen competitors came from nine states.
“There’s been more interest each year,” Rhodes said. “When we reached 30 entrants this year, we decided to cut it off for safety sake — the first year we had to turn bicyclists away.”
The record to beat is 42 laps, set by Rick Stumpff, the 2012 champion. Racing on any bike can be dangerous, but high bikes are particularly awkward to stop and start quickly. Plus, riders are 9 feet off the ground (not good if they hit pavement). Stumpff, of Galena, Missouri, leading at the time, was taken by ambulance for medical treatment last year after a two-person crash at the corner of Record and Church streets.
He did, however, return to see the award presentations to Hagerstown’s Brian Caron, the race’s overall winner with 40 laps, and the women’s champion, Sheryl Kennedy, also of Hagerstown, who completed 38 laps.
“He told me, ‘I love this race, and I had to see how it ended,’” Rhodes said.