Martinborough is used to seeing people on bikes, but when Dave Frow cycles through the village heads swing and eyes widen in surprise and delight. That’s because his bike is an eye-catching Penny-farthing. Susan McLeary reports.

South African by birth and an engineer by profession, Dave has always loved cycling. “The first thing I bought after leaving home was a motorbike. I sold it coming to New Zealand in 1987 to work in the energy sector, and didn’t have one again for 10 years. 

“Back on wheels in the 90s I rode to Martinborough most weekends with friends; the Rimutaka Hill is an absolutely awesome road. My passenger filmed a ride over my shoulder and it’s historic footage now, before the road was upgraded. I did the Martinborough Fun Ride several times, training for the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge. Scotty’s venison patties afterwards were a highlight. 

“I got to love Martinborough and thought one day I would live here. Nalini Baruch (Lot 8) suggested a site on the Martinborough Olive Grove. The time wasn’t right then but in 2006 I found the same site was available again. So now I live on Lot 4.

“I’ve always loved speed and risk, so a Penny-farthing is quite a change of pace. With their huge front and small rear wheels, they have always fascinated me. Some years ago, I had the chance to ride one. After 30 seconds training I hopped on and wobbled up the road, thinking “I have to have one of these!”

Introduced in 1890 they were called The Ordinary Cycle or High Wheelers but now Penny-farthing is usual. The name is said to come from British coins, with the side view resembling the larger penny leading a smaller farthing.

Ever the engineer, Dave assembled his Penny-farthing in only 1.5 hours. 

“There’s definitely a knack to riding it; ideally not on gravel. You put one foot up on the mounting step, scoot along to get moving and then swing up on to the high seat with your other foot on the pedal. 

“Because the pedal is directly attached to the wheel, i.e. no gears, when you press on a pedal it rotates the wheel but also affects the steering. You are continuously resisting the side to side force with the handlebars, and it’s quite tiring on the upper body. The big front wheel also hits your leg, so it’s not easy to turn. 

“There are no brakes: you slow down by pedalling slowly. Because it’s so high you can see over cars and hedges to see what’s coming, and if there’s room you just ride in a large circle and come back. My wife Shelley thinks I’m crazy. 

“Dismounting is inelegant and takes practice. The proper technique is to find the little step with one foot and then step down. In an emergency I can just push back off the saddle, holding on to the handlebars and sort of jump backwards to the ground. 

“There are brakes available now for the back wheel and I think I’ll get them to feel safer. Early models had a front wheel brake, but it was quite dangerous with riders going over the handlebars.

“It’s fun to ride, not terrifying. It’s very smooth, dead quiet, and uncomplicated. When you’ve got going it’s very stable. I wear a crash helmet but think I might wear a flat cap which is more in keeping. 

 

The engineer made one constructive modification. “The mounting step was too close to the wheel, and risked your foot getting into the spokes. So I built a wider step, with an upstand to protect my toes.” 

So keep an eye out on Martinborough’s quiet streets, give Dave a cheerful toot when you see his Penny-farthing in action  …  and give him road room!