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Riding a High Wheel

By - August 14, 2014

Tim Schmidt of the Wheelmen brought a high wheel bicycle to the Susquehanna Rail Bridge meeting for me to try riding.  If you attended last Thursday’s Olde Timey Bike Fest at the Maryland Historical Society you are familiar with the group, but for those of you who couldn’t make it, let me introduce.  The Wheelmen are antique bike enthusiasts.  The national organization seeks to keep the American bicycling tradition alive by promoting the restoration and riding of antique bikes while also promoting bicycling as a part of modern life.  They are active in Maryland and attend festivals, parades, and other public events to showcase the bicycles.

Of course, their love for antique bikes extends further than simply showing off the bikes at special events.  Here is an account on Crazy Guy on a Bike from a wheelman who pedaled around the world on his high wheel.  At the Olde Timey Bike Fest they rode through Baltimore with us, and Tim was telling me about riding his high wheel from Delaware to Indiana.

They have some events in Maryland coming up:

Saturday, August 16th, is the Clustered Spires High Wheel Race in Frederick

June 30th – July 3rd is the 2015 Annual Wheelmen Meet in Chestertown, Maryland.  The will have demonstrations, rides, and rodeos, so be sure you put it on your calendar today.

Be sure to also check out their Event Page for events in and out of the area.

Tim brought me a smaller high wheel to learn on, and fortunately the parking lot at the Community Fire Company of Perryville was large and had a completely clear section.  Helmet on head, I rolled up my dress pants and removed loose articles that could catch during a rapid dismount, and I was ready to learn.  Even shoelaces can be problematic, Tim told me.  Your foot is so close to the wheel that it is not unheard of for shoelaces to get tangled up in the spokes.

Getting on and off are the hardest part of the high wheel, so we practiced to get a little muscle memory.  There is a small step on the back of the bike, but it’s small and I really had to reach for it.  After practicing with Tim holding the bike we moved along to me scooting the bike along and practicing coasting.  Slowly, I was getting a little more confident on the bike until it was finally time for me to get on and pedal.

I have never ridden a fixed gear bicycle before, and the high wheel is the ultimate fixed gear.  The pedals are right there attached to the wheel, so not only do you always have to pedal, you also have to be mindful that every movement you make with your legs will directly impact the wheel (and your steering).  My arms were actually tired from countering my legs to keep the front wheel straight.  I made several big circles before dismounting, or at least attempting to dismount.

The first attempt was a complete failure.  I couldn’t find the step in the back, and as the bike started to slow down too much (remember, you can’t just stop to dismount!) Tim told me to keep pedaling and try again on my next circle around.  My second attempt was successful, but I knew that I had to try it again.

So up I went again, this time turning a little more and making smaller circles as I got more confident on the bike.  Getting on was much easier the second time, and getting off just required faith in myself that I could land on my two feet.  Logically I knew that once I was on the step it wasn’t a far jump back to the ground but when you’re coasting on the bike wondering if you’re going too fast it is definitely nerve-wracking.  Mind you, I felt like I was going blazingly fast, even though I obviously was not.  I also felt like there was a huge hill, but remember, I was in a parking lot.  You can see in the pictures that it’s pretty much flat, so my perceptions of speed and grade were very off when on the bike.  All in all, it was a lot of fun and not as different from riding a bike with wheels the same size as I thought it would be.

Think riding a high wheel is something you would like to do?  Don’t want to try but love all things historic or unusual?  Want to see a parade that features olde timey bikes?  Go check out the Wheelmen!