One Man on a Penny Farthing

Chapter 4: A Dogged Little Flat Tyre

Airport infrastructure and the ‘desal’ plant – A troublesome puncture –The biomechanics of riding a penny farthing – The fat lady at Botany Bay

With my dunderheadedness in relative order, and my usual buoyancy returned, I pointed my penny farthing towards Botany Bay. I pedalled past Cooks River Motorboat Club and over Cooks River Bridge, and was within a couple of miles from the end of my adventure. The trail left the serenity of the riverbanks and wound through airport infrastructure – motels and airplane catering companies.

I could smell the kerosene on the breeze from jet engines being tested in plane hangars, and what with all the noise and acrid fumes my sinus headache flared up again. I began hiccupping and burping, I was having quite an unpleasant spell. Thankfully all passed as the trail returned to the parkland alongside a tributary before rejoining the river at Muddy Creek.

As I rode by the market gardens the little back tyre of my penny farthing could take it no longer and sustained a puncture. I had the gear to tend to such inconveniences but found no end of trouble repairing the thing. I felt as though a naughty force was working against me, like it could run away with the whole lot and leave me stranded where I sat – almost as if this force was following me right from the start of my penny farthing adventure. Strange.

But I was tenacious; I persevered and fixed that dogged puncture and was back on the trail in no time.

Riding a penny farthing is an interesting experience. You might think it similar to a conventional bicycle but the sensation is somewhat different. For starters, a penny farthing is pedalled through the front wheel. When you push forward, say, with your left leg, you must compensate to make the bike steer straight by resisting the thrust through the handlebars with your left arm, then the same must be done by coordinating the right leg with the right arm, and so on once in motion.

It doesn’t take overly long to get the feel and balance but there is an element of stamina involved which seems to transfer through your limbs and torso, directing most of the pain into your backside.

I think I have the answer about why a penny farthing can cause saddle soreness. Consider this: there are five points of the body in contact with a bicycle (generally) at any one time – two feet on each pedal, two hands on the handlebars and a behind on the saddle. Disregarding all the mechanical paraphernalia for the purposes of this explanation, a bicycle has an axis through each of its wheels which are joined together – forks to frame – to make the machine what it is.

To highlight this point we need to compare the geometry of a conventional bicycle to a penny farthing, in relation to the biomechanics of the rider’s position on each. With a conventional bicycle two body parts are connected to the front wheel axis – hands on handlebars – and the other three – feet and backside on pedals and saddle respectively – to the rear wheel axis. There is an even distribution of weight spread over the machine.

On a penny farthing, however, there are four points of contact on the front wheel axis and only one on the rear. So in essence a penny farthing is steered using the buttocks and this is why discomfort can occur. I can tell you that this was the case for me, having nearly completed my thirteen mile journey. But enough of this jibber-jabber…

As I wended my way round the eastern bank of Muddy Creek and past Kyeemagh RSL Bowling Club I could smell briny seawater on the air, which my sinuses appreciated no end. I rode past the pipes and gear for the desalination plant being built, past the two old navy boats on their moors facing out to sea like sentries of years gone by, and under the Endeavour Bridge. Botany Bay was in my sight.

In that last little stretch to the bay I reflected about how much fun I had on my penny farthing ride down the Cooks River recreational trail. I felt somewhat decompressed and happy with my efforts regardless of my persistent sinus headache.

At the beginning of the breakwater where I was to finish my ride I pedalled past a large tattooed woman sitting on a rock among the haze of her own cigarette smoke. She said to me in a gravelly voice: “Oi! Give us a ride mate.”

I thought: Who said there’d be nothing waiting for me at Botany Bay? My adventure was over and the fat lady sang… kind of.

Botany Bay

Acknowledgements: I owe thanks to some people for their help with this project: to Garry for his photographic prowess; to Tab for some really funny ideas for the story and model construction; to Anthony for his advice about and supply of clay and tools; to Anthony’s daughter Rosie, about two years old at the time, for introducing me to Jerome K Jerome’s ‘Three Men in a Boat’, even though she was too young to read; to my brother for helping me build the real-size penny farthing; and to the cast of clay models who took on a life of their own and really drove me through the project – I admit on occasions I did talk to them.

The Cast

About Blair Paterson

Blair grew up and lives in Sydney’s Inner West. He first realised a love of nature and the outdoors during weekends and holidays with his family on the Hawkesbury River. From humble childhood pastimes building billycarts and tree houses to spending large chunks of time in the bush, Blair now embarks on outdoor pursuits whenever and however possible – by foot, kayak, bicycle or other. He has worked in Environmental Management and currently Outdoor Education. Some of his fondest travels to date have been around Australia and through the Indian Himalayas.
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