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The Penny Hour

This is dreadfully, dreadfully niche, but let's go there: the Hour record and Penny Farthings.

As we all know, the Penny Farthing - aka the ordinary, aka the high-wheeler, aka the Grand-Bi - dates to the first two decades of cycling history, early in the 1870s to late the in the 1880s. Bikes started off small but then, in order to benefit from gearing in an age before chains, the driving wheel grew bigger and biger and bigger (letting bikes come to be called Wheels). Then there was a period of innovation, where all sorts of rivals to the ordinary began to appear, bringing in different aspects of gearing. These were collectively called Dwarf Ordinaries and none of them really took off but some are really fascinating in a geeky techs mechs kinda way. Finally came the diamond-framed safety, in the late 1880s, which fully killed off the ordinary when it really took off in the 1890s after pneumatic tyres came in.

That, then, is how niche this is: a few years from the early 1870s to the late 1880s. But there's something about Penny Farthings that makes it a romantic kind of niche. So here are the questions:
  • what was the last Hour record on an ordinary? and
  • how far has anyone ridden an ordinary in an hour in the modern era?
Let's do the modern era first. There is no Penny Hour record. Or, that is, until a few weeks ago there was no Penny Hour record. Then the Guinness World Record people came in and a Penny Hour record was set in the velodrome in Derby, where Chris Opie rode 34.547 kms (21 miles 821 yards).

The old record? It's complicated. Complicating it is that most records in the early years of cycling were paced. Most racing was paced, whether it was match racing (one on one), mass starts, or even solo rides. Pacing carried through to the birth of the Tour in 1903, with one of Desgrange's innovations being to ban pacing on most stages (pacing, of course, hung around on the road in Bordeaux-Paris, the Derny-paced Derby of the Road).

So, the old record, it's totally unlike modern records. Modern records are unpaced. The old record was paced. The record itself dates to 1886, and was set in Springfield, Massachusetts, by an American rider called William A Rowe, who had a team of three pacers supporting him. He rode a distance of 22 miles 150 yards (35.543 kms) on October 25th of that year, in Hampden Park. (That's almost a full kilometre further than Opie rode solo indoors last month, but doesn't compare, being paced.)

It took until 1890 and the arrival of pneumatic tyres for a diamond-framed safety to set a new Hour record (35.972 kms, set by Harry Parsons in Paddington). But no one seems to have gone further than Rowe in an Hour while riding a Penny, making his the last Penny Hour. Until, that is, this year.

Mark Beaumont - the round the world in 80 days guy - tried to break Rowe's record in June of last year but he and his pacers could only manage 35.274 kms, 269 metres less than Rowe's distance from 1886. Beaumont and his team came back this year and last week in Herne Hill Chris Opie and two pacers managed to add 200 metres to Rowe's distance, bringing the furthest covered in an hour up to 35.743 kms.

Two hundred metres in 133 years, with the changes in bicycle technology and the changes in track technology (Hampden Park was clay and gravel, Herne Hell is concrete), it doesn't seem a lot, does it? So, what do you reckon, the record's surely on for beating, could we be about to enter a steam-punk era of Penny Hours?
 
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I think the biggest issue is going to be gearing. Penny farthing gearing is limited by the person riding it. It's direct drive, i.e. the pedals are attached to the drive wheel directly, rather than via a chain. As such, shorter people have to ride smaller "gears" and will have to ride at a higher cadence than taller people to achieve the same speed. Rowe's record was ridden on a 55" wheeled bike, that's similar to riding a 34-17 on a compact equipped bike. That's a really easy gear and you can likely get it to your most efficient cadence very easily, no matter the surface (within reason of course). Contrast it to Wiggins on ~112" gear (I'm not sure what Campenaerts used in the end, it was around 113-114"). Riding such a gear efficiently for an hour takes a WT level pro. To ride a similar gear would require a penny farthing with a wheel diameter of ~x2 that which Rowe rode (gear inches are the diameter of the drive wheel of a penny farthing with the same gear). That's obviously not going to be possible but to even increasing the gearing by a couple of inches means you need a rider with legs a couple of inches longer. Crank length can be adjusted a bit, but not a huge amount.

I think Chris Opie road a 52" wheel, he did when they set the non-paced record. That's already quite a big difference if you correct it against the 55" Rowe rode on.

It's possible someone will try to come up with a clever design to eek out an extra few inches over what it currently the largest wheel available (I think 56" is the largest you can get hold of but I've never really looked) or a really tall rider will get a 62+" built and set it on that, but I think the limits of the gearing will set a limit to what can be achieved.

Even in terms of aero gains there's probably not a load of distance available and I'm not sure what limits have been set on the bikes.
 
I think the biggest issue is going to be gearing. Penny farthing gearing is limited by the person riding it. It's direct drive, i.e. the pedals are attached to the drive wheel directly, rather than via a chain. As such, shorter people have to ride smaller "gears" and will have to ride at a higher cadence than taller people to achieve the same speed. Rowe's record was ridden on a 55" wheeled bike, that's similar to riding a 34-17 on a compact equipped bike. That's a really easy gear and you can likely get it to your most efficient cadence very easily, no matter the surface (within reason of course). Contrast it to Wiggins on ~112" gear (I'm not sure what Campenaerts used in the end, it was around 113-114"). Riding such a gear efficiently for an hour takes a WT level pro. To ride a similar gear would require a penny farthing with a wheel diameter of ~x2 that which Rowe rode (gear inches are the diameter of the drive wheel of a penny farthing with the same gear). That's obviously not going to be possible but to even increasing the gearing by a couple of inches means you need a rider with legs a couple of inches longer. Crank length can be adjusted a bit, but not a huge amount.

I think Chris Opie road a 52" wheel, he did when they set the non-paced record. That's already quite a big difference if you correct it against the 55" Rowe rode on.

It's possible someone will try to come up with a clever design to eek out an extra few inches over what it currently the largest wheel available (I think 56" is the largest you can get hold of but I've never really looked) or a really tall rider will get a 62+" built and set it on that, but I think the limits of the gearing will set a limit to what can be achieved.

Even in terms of aero gains there's probably not a load of distance available and I'm not sure what limits have been set on the bikes.
 
I think the biggest issue is going to be gearing.
I think Chris Opie road a 52" wheel, he did when they set the non-paced record. That's already quite a big difference if you correct it against the 55" Rowe rode on.
Yes, Opie tested on a 56" but down-geared to 52", as it suited him better.

Using that, by my calculations - back of an envelope with Excel - his cadence for the unpaced indoor record would have been about 139, while for the paced outdoor ride it would have been 144. (Someone do please check my math.)

Rowe, for the last of his three outdoor paced Hour records (all set on 55" wheels) would have had a cadence of 135.

Rowe himself, he first set an Hour record in October 1885, with 33.112 kms at the Springfield track, which would be a cadence of about 126. A year later, he did 34.847 kms at the same venue, which would have been a cadence of about 132. Two weeks after that, he did the big ride and pushed his cadence up to 135.

So Rowe's cadence goes from 126 (October 1885) to 135 (October 1886) and Opie's goes from 139 (September 2019) to 144 (October 2019).

The shift for Rowe between rides 2 and 3 - the two set in October 1886 - is relatively small, and you can credit it to any number of things, from the wind etc to form on the day (he said he'd been off the bike leading up to the ride, so maybe he accidentally benefited from some tapering?). But the shift from ride 1 to rides 2 and 3 is pretty massive (+1,700m in 12 months). Columbia, in their advertising bumph, talked up the changes in the bike, principally with regard to the construction of the wheel itself, with a hollow rim and full-tangent lacing of the spokes.

How that compares with the machine Opie rode I don't know. I was given some general specs for the machines used in the failed attempt in Herne Hill in June of last year and the 56" machines weighed in at 13.7 kg, which is actually slightly heavier than Rowe's machine. (Counterintuitively, Moser's Hour bike was heavier than Merckx's - you lose energy getting up to pace but gain other benefits once there, was the thinking.) While I would like to believe that a modern bike - even a modern retro bike - will be inherently faster than a vintage one, I do wonder whether that is so here.

One other factor that needs adding in is the pacing: Opie and his pacers appear to have ridden as if in a team time trial, all three on the track all the time. Back in Rowe's day, pacers were more like in Kipchoge's recent "marathon" distance record: they swapped in and out (pacing strategy was one area where Choppy Warburton was better than others, it's said). There was at least one point in Rowe's ride where he got ahead of his pacer, but generally they were taking the wind for him whereas if you're doing a TTT you're spending more time in the wind yourself.

The wind is the final factor: I know the first attempt in June last year suffered from poor weather (a storm had just blown through and the wind was still up) but I don't know what the conditions in Herne Hill two weeks ago were.

One area where I think Rowe must have had the advantage has to be that riding a Penny for him was, well, like riding a bicycle. Opie, he hadn't ridden a Penny before this year.
 
Some speculative math I maybe should have thrown in above:

A cadence of 145 with a 55" wheel, that'd give you about 38.200 kms, while with a 56" wheel it'd be 38.900 kms (+/-). Me, I think 40 kms is the obvious target (JW Stocks was the first to take the Hour record above 40 kms, paced, at Herne Hill in 1893, on a safety) and that's actually achievable (on the back of an envelope) with a 145 cadence and a 58" wheel.

If there's any wheel builders around, maybe they have some thoughts on how big a racing wheel can go before what you gain in gearing is lost in strength/stability, but I don't recall many racing Pennys being 60"+ in the reports I read, 56"-58" tended to be the limit then.

Anyone want to speculate what cadence you could get if you put an egg-whisk rider like Froome on one of these?
 

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