After a three-year break, the National Clustered Spires High Wheel Race is making its way back to the streets of Downtown Frederick on July 16.
“People don’t normally see these bikes on the road,” says Jeanne Rhodes, event co-organizer. “If you are driving or walking, it really grabs the attention of someone when they see one.”
Her husband and other co-organizer, Eric Rhodes, used to ride high wheel bikes all over Frederick. Cars would stop, and folks would get out of their cars to take pictures and get a better look.
“It would make people smile,” Jeanne Rhodes says.
“People love riding them because it’s bringing joy to people, and they just think it is something new and different,” she adds. “To see one is one thing, but to see (a large number) going down the street, it’s a different and unique spectacle.”
Invented by Eugene Meyer in Paris, the high wheel was popularized in England with British engineer James Starley’s Ariel model in 1871.
High wheel (also known as penny-farthing) bicycles feature a large front wheel and a much smaller rear wheel. The quirky mode of transportation was quite popular until the safety bicycle took off in the late 1880s.
Today, these bicycles are mainly seen during parades, tours, demonstrations and rides. The Frederick race will feature antique and modern high wheel bicycles.
The large wheels can range in size from 36 inches to 54 inches. There are no restrictions put on the wheel size—it just has to be a high wheel bicycle. Rhodes notes that a bigger wheel can make you go farther faster, but it tends to be harder to navigate.
“You try to accommodate the biggest wheel you can for the size of your body that is comfortable if you want to win in this race,” she says.
More than 40 high wheel riders have entered the July 16 race including 2018’s winner, Sweden’s Per-Olof Kippel (also winner in 2017) who will be bringing along his daughter Ines to compete as well.
Many participants are from the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia areas, but others are coming from all over the United States—from as far as Texas, South Carolina and Puerto Rico, as well as internationally from the United Kingdom.
At noon that Saturday, the event will begin with a welcome to race watchers and an introduction of the participants.
There will be two qualifying heats beginning at 12:15 p.m. and 12:40 p.m., respectively. Riders are given 20 minutes to complete as many laps as possible. The top half with the highest totals will go on into the championship race at 2 p.m.
The start/finish line is outside of Brewer’s Alley, at 124 N. Market St., with participants going in a 0.4-mile loop down West Church, Record and West Second streets.
No parking is allowed on the race course.
In between heats and the championship, there will be an intermission featuring a low wheel race with bikes similar to those ridden by clowns at the circus.
“It always makes people smile when they see someone ride that bike,” Rhodes says. “It’s kind of the extreme opposite of the high wheel.”
There will also be a slow race down Market Street among several of the high wheel riders.
“Riding slow is actually harder than riding fast because you have to have a lot of balance and control,” she explains.
The event is free and family friendly, with many people bringing chairs and setting up along the route.
“People pick their favorite racers,” Rhodes says. “They cheer for them. It is just a unique event that you really can’t catch anywhere in the United States.”