The history of the bicycle goes back to 1817 in Germany when a "walking machine" was invented by Baron von Drais to survey the forests that surrounded the town in which he lived. The design issue that made this machine a success over all predecessors was the inclusion of steering for the front wheel. Without steering balance could not easily be maintained.
Significant product experimentation continued for a considerable period of time but there was no commercialization until the mid-1860's when the "boneshaker" was sold by the Michaux family in Paris. This machine continued to have wooden wagon wheels with iron tires but included the use of cranks with pedals attached to the front wheel. The "boneshaker" was also produced in the U.S. by companies like Pickering in New York City and Shire out of
The "boneshaker" craze did not last long in the U.S., however. Development continued in Europe and the "boneshaker" evolved into the "highwheel" or "ordinary". The "ordinary" front wheel continued to increase in size over time and the rear got smaller. The increased diameter of the front wheel allowed riders to cover greater distances with each revolution of the pedals, allowing the bicycle to go faster. Wheel size of highwheels is limited, however, since the rider straddles the wheel but taller cyclists can ride larger wheels. For example a 6' cyclist can ride a larger wheel then a 5' cyclist. By the late 1870's the basic design of the large wheel in front and the small wheel in the rear had been standardized.
I first got the "highwheel" bug while working as a product engineer at Schwinn in the mid 70's, that 1970's. Prior to Schwinn setting up their Museum they stored their collection of old bikes in the same warehouse that we also used for testing. The iconic Keith Kingby was in charge of the collection at the time and was very protective of the bikes. I never learned to ride at that time, but I vowed that I would someday own a highwheel.
Fast forward 10 years and I am now living in Lansing and working for Motor Wheel. In 1987 The R. E. Olds Transportation Museum had two members of the antique bicycle club, "The Wheelmen", who gave a presentation on the history of the bicycle. These two members became great friends over the years since. To say I was hooked is an understatement. Within a few months I purchased my first highwheel from Doug Vandecar at what is now Riverfront Cycle on Shiawassee Street in
Lansing. That highwheel was a 52" 1886 Gormully & Jeffery American Challenge.
I attended the "The Wheelmen" national meet that year in Auburn Indiana. I will never forget the feeling the first time I mounted and rode my bike with over 50 other highwheels, it was so exhilarating. Over the next few years I rode this bike on five century's, over 2000 miles, and suffered a broken forearm from doing a "header". But that did not slow me down.
At the time I was having problems keeping the front wheel from breaking. There was no hill I could not climb, and that meant there was no spoke in the radial spoked wheel I could not break. It was clear that I needed a stronger bike. The search went on for five years as I searched for a 53" Columbia Light Roadster. After searching all over the U.S. I finally found what I was looking for. It was virtually right next door in Haslett, MI. The bicycle was almost complete and very sound. With a minimum of work, new leather on the seat, new tires, and a few nuts, I had it on the road. I rode the bike over 22,000 miles in this original condition until August of 2006 when I was a victim of a hit and run. An 85 year old driver claimed he never knew he hit me, despite dragging my bike over 100 yards. You would think that would be enough to put back on two wheels of equal size. Looking back there is no doubt that the highwheel helped protect my body from more serious injury from the car. If I had been riding a modern bike when I was hit by the car, he would have driven right through my hip. So I guess I can consider myself lucky on that one. Through the years I have had ten broken bones in three separate highwheel accidents, however none of them have had serious effects. And the important part, the bike has been restored. I now have over 43,000 miles atop a large wheel.
Enough of the bad stuff! It's the good times that keep you wanting more. My first highwheel century in 1988 on the Old Car Run from the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing to the Old Car Festival at Green Field Village in Dearborn. I have done that run ten times through the years. There is nothing like riding along with one and two cylinder autos. The sound of a one cylinder engine "achooing" along like someone sneezing as it approaches from the rear, or the tea kettle whistle of a Stanley Steamer blowing by at 70 mph is an experience like no other.
The adrenaline rush of completing 52 miles in 2 hour 50 minutes, a 6 hour 29 minute century, winning the International Veteran Cycle Association World Championship road race in 1991, or just besting my time for the local 20 mile ride keeps me wanting more. This past April I participated on a 30 mile ride around the boroughs of New York City. What a fantastic time meandering around the city, through Central Park, and over the bridges. It reminded me how great every ride is. Most of my riding however is done locally on the west side of Lansing and I still look forward to each and every opportunity to mount the highwheel. I'm still infected from the bug that bit me 27 years ago. I collect, research, and ride every chance I get. And the best ride I will ever have is the one I'll take tomorrow.