Riding a Penny-Farthing in Victorian New Zealand
PEDALING SEVERAL feet above traffic on an old-fashioned bicycle was not what I was looking forward to as I finished up my 1000-plus kilometer bike trip around the South Island of New Zealand.
As I arrived in Oamaru, my thoughts were on sitting down, drinking a beer, and possibly tossing my rented bike into the ocean. After taking on steady headwinds and Andes-like uphills on a diet of peanut butter and Marmite sandwiches, I was ready to set aside cycling for a while.
My plan was to amble through the achingly cute historic section of Oamaru, New Zealand’s Victorian village. Much of the town has facades carved out of Oamaru stone, a type of limestone that is relatively easy to work and hardens to a marble-like consistency. It has loads of faux-Victorian architecture, and even a few city-dwellers who dress in period costume to go about their daily errands.
It’s also home to the Oamaru Ordinary Cycle Club, a group of throwback bicycle hobbyists who have been building, showcasing, and riding antique-style bikes since 1994. Their collection includes a copy of the pedaless Drasine, on display in the shop, and a penny-farthing, that improbable-looking steed with the giant wheel in the front and the wee one in the back.
I had the tremendous luck to happen upon the shop on a day it was open, which is how I found myself stepping onto a small platform and hurling myself up onto the uncushioned leather seat of the penny-farthing while Bruce, the able bike groomsman, stood nearby steadying me.
The steering was strange, like riding a tricycle. Every iota of movement up top translated directly to the wheel, setting me wobbling. I pedaled in long strokes, wishing I had a longer inseam, and kept Bruce in view over my right shoulder as he kept his hand on the bike.
Riding faster was easier. The bike felt much lighter than I had expected, and was surprisingly smooth, especially considering the tires were solid rubber galvanized on. And the view was fantastic, like riding a horse that rolled instead of clippity-clopped. I felt like I was riding in a tilt-shift photo, the giant girl in her tiny city. I was Alice-in-Wonderland on wheels, too tall for my own good, and on a bike of ridiculous proportions.
I tooled out of the parking lot and up a long street. When I noticed that Bruce was no longer touching the bike, I almost choked on my own saliva. It was like riding without training wheels for the first time. A crowd of strangers was cheering me on now. I made a very wide right turn and headed back down the mostly traffic-free street until I reached a lamppost, where I was instructed to dismount. All this without smacking my face on the pavement, many thanks to Bruce.
New Zealand is full of a hundred and one adventure sports of questionable wisdom, from rolling down hills in hamster balls to jumping off bridges. But for NZ$10, I’ll take the tip of the hat to Victorian times, along with the nifty certificate. And then I’ll get back on my multi-speed, normal-sized bike, with its panniers and brakes and things.
Try it for yourself:
To contact the Oamaru Ordinary (High-Wheeler) Cycle Club, write the club captain at email@example.com, or pop by for a visit on Harbour Street in the Historic District. As it’s run mainly by volunteers, hours can vary, though if you get in touch they’re sure to open up for you.
Learn about three new developments in bicycle tourism.