Meet the UK’s National Penny Farthing Champion - from Matlock

PUBLISHED: 09:04 19 October 2015 | UPDATED: 09:04 19 October 2015

Robert at Matlock Park  Photo: Eric Ruthenberg

Robert at Matlock Park Photo: Eric Ruthenberg

Eric Ruthenberg

Andrew Griffiths meets Matlock’s Richard Thoday, UK National Penny Farthing Racing Champion, for a ride around Hall Leys Park

Robert leading in the 'Pennies in the Park' event in Matlock  Photo: Eric RuthenbergRobert leading in the 'Pennies in the Park' event in Matlock Photo: Eric Ruthenberg

Richard Thoday, recently crowned UK National Penny Farthing Champion, is trying to describe the thrill of riding one of these earliest bicycles as we walk through Hall Leys Park in his home town of Matlock.

‘It is quite magical. It is not like riding any other bicycle at all,’ says Richard, who is wheeling his machine beside him. ‘They have a lovely flow and a feel to them.’

He tells me how a friend of his, an experienced racer of modern machines, describes it: ‘He says it is like cycling, but you are closer to heaven.’

I have just had my first ever experience of riding a penny farthing and I smile ruefully at this description. We are walking back through the park because I fell off it not just once but twice, an experience which statistically speaking must now be up on YouTube somewhere, given the number of cameras that suddenly popped out and apparently always greet the appearance of a ‘penny’.

Richard Thoday competing in LondonRichard Thoday competing in London

The point is, I can interpret that ‘closer to heaven’ comment in three ways:

First, the literal way. You are a good few feet closer than on a ‘normal’ bike. I am a little over six feet tall and the saddle is around shoulder height. It is high up there. Corollary: it is a long way down.

Second, once up there and riding along, the experience really is rather ‘heavenly’. It is very much a whole body sensation, as each pedal stroke tugs at the steering so has to be subtly opposed with your arms. This produces the sensation that with each turn of the pedals, your whole body is joined up, man and machine as one. I can imagine in time this could become quite meditative – if you manage to stay on long enough.

But the third and perhaps most damning interpretation of the ‘heaven’ comment is: don’t be fooled by the picture postcard image because riding these things is so darned lethal that before attempting to mount one you should be prepared to meet your maker.

Richard Thoday with training partner Chris HeynesRichard Thoday with training partner Chris Heynes

It isn’t the riding along on a penny farthing that is so difficult – that bit is good fun – it is the getting on and off that can prove a tad problematic. Richard had been trying to show me the knack.

To climb on board, so to speak, he shows me a mounting peg just above the back wheel on the down tube. You put one foot on this, scoot yourself along with the other, then when you have picked up sufficient speed, hoist yourself up onto the peg and then onwards and upwards into the saddle.

Or that is the theory. In practice, that is the point where I took a face plant, much to the delight of the waiting Matlock paparazzi.

As their young children cheered and waved their ice lollies in the air, Richard laughed. ‘In their heyday, a lot of people died riding these,’ he says cheerfully. ‘The bike which followed on was called a safety bicycle for a reason. You have to take them seriously, you can injure yourself quite badly.’

Intrepid journalist Andrew Griffiths manages to get on the penny farthingIntrepid journalist Andrew Griffiths manages to get on the penny farthing

Richard Thoday, who will be challenging to become European Champion later this year, came relatively late to penny farthings. His first ever race was the iconic Knutsford Great Penny Farthing Race in 2010, a three hour endurance event so revered in penny circles that it is only held once every ten years. Prior to this his cycling experience had been confined to time trialling on conventional bikes with his local cycling club, Matlock CC.

There was no slow penny farthing awakening for Richard, no leisurely Sunday afternoon rides in top hat and frockcoat that led to the idea that racing them might be a bit of a lark. It was more in the manner of a late night internet epiphany.

A forum trail led him to the Knutsford race details, and with bleary eyes he filled in the forms to register for it. It was only the next morning when he realised the full impact of what he had done – and that he had better get hold of a penny farthing fast and learn how to ride it.

‘I had never seen a race and assumed that you’d pedal along in a straight line, get to a corner, slow down, carefully take the corner then speed up again,’ recalls Richard. ‘But no, it was full on from the start, elbow to elbow, leaning over into the corners. It was a bit of a nightmare.’

Richard wasn’t discouraged though. His next outing was the London Nocturne, a tight 1.1km circuit around the Smithfield Market. He has now completed four of the famous Nocturne events, winning twice with one second and most recently a third position.

The 2012 Nocturne was particularly eventful. Richard decided to ride down to London from the Peak District on the penny farthing he had made himself, a ride which took four days. Disaster struck on the first day, when the weld failed on the mounting peg and fell off, which rendered the machine unrideable.

‘It was getting late so I wandered into the first pub I came to, and said: “Has anybody got a welder? I’ve broken my penny farthing.”’ Richard recalls, laughing as he does so.

Fortunately, as is the way with any good pub, someone knew a man who had, so he was soon on his way again, only to do a ‘header’ (hitting a bump and going headfirst over the handlebars – another occupational hazard of riding a penny farthing) on the canal towpath leading into town. Despite breaking a rib, he rode the race and finished second.

June found Richard competing in the National Championships at Eastbourne, a race which he won to become the UK National Champion. Next up is the European Championships in Bruges, in September.

It is easy to smile at the idea of racing penny farthings but from my own brief experience of riding one, the key word I would use is ‘commitment’. Once you go through the motions of mounting you are committed, and when you are up there and riding along you are so high up that again you are fully committed, until, well, you stop.

But the idea of really stomping down on the pedals, and getting that great big wheel spinning and banking into the corners, must take the kind of courage that would make even the likes of a champion sprinter wince before wanting to trade elbows.

‘Do you aim to win, in Bruges?’ I ask, as we sit beside the bandstand in the Matlock park and a stream of curious onlookers files past.

‘Yes, that’s right, it’s a race,’ replies Richard, dryly.

All right, perhaps not one of my best questions, but I am trying to find out how seriously he takes this penny farthing racing, or whether it is all just for a bit of fun.

‘I do take it seriously, yes, it’s racing,’ says Richard.

For the run up to the European Championships in September, his training consists of 70 or 80 mile rides on his conventional bike, and a 50 mile ride around the Peak District hills once a week on his penny farthing.

‘And you know about that, on a penny,’ says Richard.

He was disappointed in his third place this year in the Nocturne, just before the Eastbourne championship. ‘I’ve beaten the French rider before, so I should have been able to do it, I just wasn’t fit enough, so I kicked myself a bit afterwards,’ says Richard.

That French rider, Alexandre Voisine, will be Richard’s main rival in Bruges. The race will be on a tight course on a closed circuit in the town centre, and take over thirty minutes.

Richard is battling some demons too. He came off the penny farthing on his first ride out after the winter and injured himself quite badly. ‘I lost all my confidence for a while and wasn’t happy going round corners at speed,’ he says. ‘If it slides, it is a long way down and you are going to hit hard.’

The hills of the Peak District are perhaps not the best preparation for the tight, fast corners he will encounter in Bruges, but the local DFS car park is proving useful as a training ground: ‘Some tight turning and tight cornering,’ says Richard.

Racing is for the brave or the foolhardy, but having briefly ridden a penny farthing, I can see why one enthusiast I spoke to called the experience ‘addictive’. It is also one of those things that seems to bring a smile to everybody’s face.

Richard Thoday’s training partner, Chris Heynes, joined us at the bandstand. Chris rides his conventional racing bike as he paces Richard on his penny farthing on training runs – so do watch out for them as you drive around the Peak District.

‘The amount of joy and happiness that you can see on people’s faces as you are cycling behind Richard, when he is on his penny and I am on my normal bike, is amazing,’ says Chris.

‘Leather clad bikers with “Satan’s something or other” written on their backs will be slowing down and honking their horns and putting their thumbs up. Then young lads in their Citroën Saxos will be slowing down and waving at him. It is beautiful to see. I don’t know anything else that has elicited as much positivity,’ concludes Chris.

The public’s reaction to the penny farthing is all part of its appeal for Richard. ‘If you fancy having a go, then have a go,’ he says. ‘It is a really nice way to cycle. Not an experience to miss, in my book.’ w

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