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« Old bike designs die hard | Main | The Language of the Internet »

Old habits die hard

The Ordinary or Penny Farthing bicycle was the first enthusiasts bicycle.

In fact you had to be an enthusiast to have the nerve and the skill necessary to ride one of these somewhat dangerous mounts.

It came into vogue in the mid 1800s and even after the first chain driven “Safety” bicycle appeared in the late 1800s, the bicycle enthusiast did not immediately give up the high-wheeler.

It was not until John Boyd Dunlop invented the pneumatic tire in 1888 did the Ordinary finally disappear.

Just to mount an Ordinary was an athletic feat in and of itself; the big wheel was usually about 60 inches in diameter, so a rider would be seated well over five feet from the ground. In the picture above you can see a small step just above the rear wheel.

To get going on one of these beasts, riders first had to run, jump up and place their right foot on mounting step. Next give a couple of scoots with the left foot to gain speed, step up and place the left foot on the pedal and launch themselves into the saddle.

To dismount was a reverse procedure. Swing the right leg over to the left side; step down onto the rear step. Then jump off while the machine was still in motion and hit the ground running, grabbing the bicycle before it ran away.

Even after its demise, the influence of the Ordinary both on bicycle design and riding habits would linger almost to the end of the next century.

For example my father who was born in 1910 like most of his generation in the UK and the rest of Europe never owned or even learned how to drive a car. The bicycle was his main mode of transport; it was how he got to work each day.

To mount his bike he would do as everyone else did; he would place his left foot on the left pedal and scoot along with his right foot get the bike moving and then swing his right leg over the seat and start pedaling.

To dismount he would do the reverse, bring his right leg over to the left side of the bike and jump off while the bike was still moving. Even for brief stops in traffic, he would dismount and remount the bike each time.

Even ladies would use this same method except they would ride an open frame bike and would bring the right leg through the frame in front of the seat in order to mount or dismount.

There was neither rhyme nor reason to go through this crazy ritual to mount and dismount a bicycle except that it was the way they were taught. The way people before them mounted and dismounted the old Ordinary bikes.

I remember an incident that happened in England during the 1970s and is quite funny looking back. It involved an old “Geezer” on a bike and a group of racing cyclists (Including myself) out training.

The old feller was stopped at a red traffic light and in true old geezer fashion did not simply stop and place one foot on the ground, but rather completely dismounted his bike and was standing beside it with his left foot on the pedal ready to scoot off.

We were a group of six riders approaching the light. As we did so the light changed to green so we kept going. The old geezer gave a couple of scoots and then swung his right leg over just as we were passing. (Remember this was England and we were riding on the left.)

He caught the lead rider squarely in the side and kicked him off his bike and almost caused a major pile up. Luckily no one was seriously hurt and although it was not funny at the time, we laughed about it later.

I have told this story before, but thought it worth repeating. I would be interested to know if there are any bicycle riders in the UK that still mount and dismount this way; or has the habit completely died out.

I would imagine mounting a bike this way in today’s traffic; one would risk getting a leg torn off by a passing car


Reader Comments (9)

While it may be less common nowadays, I feel like that technique is alive and well- I know people of my own generation (I'm 24) that mount and dismount like that, and some even do it at stoplights (I thought that was really quite weird when I first saw it). It seems to be common among those that grew up riding bikes daily for transportation (a lot of my friends that grew up in Davis, CA- a great bike town- use that technique). It also is very similar to the techniques used by cyclocross racers, a fact that may have contributed to its longevity. I've tried it once or twice, but I really don't have to coordination to pull it off safely. Besides, more often than not I'm riding a fixed gear, which adds another level of complication to the technique!

June 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJeremy

I saw my friend dismount the tandem he and his girlfriend ride (he’s the captain) this weekend, by him swinging his right leg over the front of the handlebars—I would hope that girlfriend is having her feet steady on the ground so he can do this. I’ve ridden with them so much—I only just noticed him making this maneuver. It looked a bit tricky.

Cheers! Bruce

June 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBruce

What a cool post! Personally, although I do not completely dismount at traffic lights and such. I still mount all of my bikes - mans and womans, city and racing - the way your father did, putting the left foot on the pedal, using the right foot to give a few pushes, then hopping on. Sheldon Brown called this the "cowboy mount" when performed on a mans frame. A friend mentioned that my mounting style on my womans frame city bike looked "elegant", reason enough to keep doing it.

For more Sheldon Brown on starting (and stopping) see:


June 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTim

As for swinging one's leg over the handlebars, this is a technique I occasionally use after a particularly intense ride on my racing bike. The handlebars are so much lower than the seat it is easier to lift a tired leg over them.

June 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTim

It's interesting how you describe the origins of the manoeuvre, Dave. Aside from the safety bicycle overtaking the 'standard' back in the later 1800s - when did the freewheel mechanism, permitting the scooting action become common enough to allow this mounting technique to be used?

With the latter day revival of the fixed wheel/fixed gear, I've been led to believe in some readings that for some period in the past, that's all there was available for a while. From your post, I am now thinking there might not really have been much of an 'exclusively fixed' period in bicycling history.

June 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterkymbo

I've heard this method of mounting a bike dismissed before. I don't know if it really can be said that it originated in Penny Farthing days, or if it's just a coincidence.

Remembering to when I first learned to ride a bike as a child, it seemed like just a natural way of getting on. Most people didn't have "racers" with gears in those days, and it was a convenient way to get a running start. Most kids just started doing it naturally - boys did, anyway.

I still mount my road bike like that sometimes, but only when I first get underway. For one thing, with the high saddle heights, it's easier to swing the leg over the saddle once the other leg is already elevated at pedal height. It's quicker than leaning the bike over to lower the saddle height a little and then getting on top of the cross bar. Of course, when I'm already riding, if I stop temporarily such as at a red light, I only dismount over the top tube, and so there's no need for the big leg swing maneouvre at that point.

June 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPierre

I always wanted to try riding a penny-farthing, Dave, but never had the opportunity. These days, I'd probably be afraid to try it. Too many broken bones over the years have made me cautious. Still, if I didn't have to deal with redlights and traffic, I'd be very tempted.

June 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEd W

I read an interview of S. Brown with G. Petersen. S. Brown suggests that another remnant of the high wheeler is the way we pedal, with the ball of the foot above the pedal spindle. You can imagine that with a tall wheel between your legs you didn't have a choice to pedal that way. With modern bikes it's not necessarily, yet we do it. Or perhaps there is a better reason?

June 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterOlivier

As a child in the early 60s I was taught the scooter start, only occasionally use it now and then only on my flat pedal fetch bike. If I'm going to be getting off the bike at a stop I'll do a 'cross style dismount, it really is easier than stopping and then dismounting. Far better style as well.

For a stop in traffic I just put a foot down, slightly longer stops like waiting for a light or whatever I'll sit up, and take advantage of the overlap by using my clipped in foot against the front tire as a parking brake.

June 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRonsonic
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