Being There: The Lenape Scorcher
(2016) TEXT MESSAGE: Hi Brian, Just wondering if there was an extra high wheel for tomorrow’s [Lenape Scorcher]?
Moments later my phone rang. It was Brian of Doylestown Bike Works. “So have you ever ridden a high wheel before?”
“No. I was thinking of coming down early, trying it out, and seeing how it goes.”
“These guys are gonna be going for it. How about we do some riding outside of the race?”
This worked out nicely. I made the effort to be part of the Lenape Scorcher high wheel race, part of the bike-racing docket for the Bucks County Classic and was subsequently talked out of it. Once I got the full details upon arriving to the Doylestown Arts Festival, around which the bike races encircled, I realized I would have been extremely terrified to take part in this first edition of Penny Farthing racing.
It was the crescendo of races that transitioned amateur racing to professional racing. In between were kids races of varying lengths on the finish straightaway. The younger wheelmen and women started close to the finish line while the older young wheelmen and women started farther back. Behind all those groups were the daredevils of the day, standing by their gigantic front wheels and their chintzy rear wheel. It was the high wheel race for the day.
Fourteen riders would eventually line up, two wheelwomen and eleven wheelmen. There was one junior wheelman among the ringers. The race participants came from either Maryland or Pennsylvania. There was one dark horse from West Virginia. Their course would be an up and back twenty-minute race along the criterium course’s finish straightaway. The straightaway from the criterium racer is relentless uphill, making the finishing kick and thing of beauty. Sprint too soon and the rider could lose steam. Wait to go for it too late and the attackers could stay away to the line. This was half the course of the high wheel race. They would do a U-turn and then plummet down the same incline to a second U-turn to come back uphill. I positioned myself outside the downhill turn.
What was incredible was the beauty of it all. Here we were in 2016 watching century-old hardware negotiating tight turns. The bikes looked so unnatural yet so in tune at the same time. Watching the riders’ varying styles of descent, from pushing back on the direct drive pedals to climbing onto the step and letting the bike run its course made for an awe-inspiring scene.
The downhill turn was nothing short of pure concentration. It was poetry in motion. Those gigantic wheels with the solid rubber tire sliced a remarkable apex. I looked closely to see how much room each rider had on the inside tread. The answer: not much. The rim was oh so close to the pavement throughout the turn. And yet these wheelmen and women negotiated the corner as if they had only victory to worry about.
There were several bowties. There were knee-high socks. One rider donned not just horse riding pants, but also thick gloves. Those were his brakes. There were a couple of bikes with functional brakes, too, as well as bulbous springed leather saddles. It was debated that one bike might have been conspicuously carbon fiber, for its fork blades looked suspiciously aerodynamic for a century old design.
The race was given twenty minutes on the day’s docket. Every spectator was enthused by the spectacle of what they were watching. In the end, Dan, one of the remarkable mechanics at Doylestown Bike Works, and a newly minted Doylestown high wheel speed record holder, came in second. But really I think many people were inspired to see these bikes return to Doylestown’s road in a large amount. As far as inspiration from this weekend goes, it is quite possible this race could be the beginning of something big, and it starts by getting the courage to sit atop a gigantic front wheel.