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History pedals to the present

Vintage bike replicas roll the 19th century right into the 21st
by: L.E. BASKOW, It’s not for everyday riding, but A Better Cycle’s Aaron Truman takes his penny-farthing out when he wants to turn heads.

The hot new bicycle of the 1870s was the penny-farthing. Young men went crazy for it: Postal workers and bike messengers tore around the cobbled streets of London and Paris on the bikes, and clubs were formed for gentlemen to race against each other.

Fast forward to 2008, and Aaron Truman is Portland's answer to those men.

Truman, 31, is a cycle mechanic at the new bike store A Better Cycle at 2324 S.E. Division St. He's been riding a penny-farthing, or high wheeler, as it's sometimes known, since November 2006.

'It's a blast - I have no regrets,' says Truman, who on dry days keeps the bike chained outside the store to attract attention. 'It's a very interesting ride,' he adds, before taking a spin down a side road at a steady 10 miles per hour.

The 5-11 rider sits on a saddle that is 4-4 off the ground, which has advantages. Such as being able to see over fences.

'It's a bit like being in a highchair. If it's a nice day and I feel like turning some heads, I'll take it out.'

Truman's ride home takes him past a kindergarten at recess time, and invariably the children stop what they're doing and stare.

'The best thing is riding down the down the street and seeing a mother and child - you see the kid's eyes light up,' he says. 'That what it's all about, entertaining people.'

Old bikes were 'leg breakers'

With a high front wheel and tiny rear wheel for stabilization, the penny-farthing resembles a unicycle. Like a unicycle, the pedals connect straight to the front axle, although the rider's weight is farther back.

There are no brakes: The rider resists the pedals with leg power as on a fixed wheel.

'They also were called leg breakers,' Truman adds with a grin. 'If you stopped suddenly, on a rock or a pothole, you'd go right over the handlebars, but your legs would get locked in by the bars as you hit the ground. And then the rear wheel comes around and nails you in the back of the head.'

Truman has perfected the cowboy dismount, where it's quicker and safer to stop the machine by jumping off than by pedaling backward.

'I had one near miss when a driver blew though a red light as I was crossing, so riding this I'm a lot more cautious and aware of things going on around me than on a normal bike.'

And he knows normal bikes. Truman has an Ochsner road bike; a minibike for Zoobombing, on which he hit 42 mph going down West Burnside Street; a BMX Formula 1 bike; and a 1948 Gazelle, a Dutch-built German military bike that he takes to World War II re-enactments. He's also building a gravity bike, again for Zoobombing, without pedals.

'Bikes are like shoes - you choose depending on how you feel for the day,' Truman says. 'Some are for style, some are for comfort.'

He used to have 16 bikes in his garage but had to move 10 of them to get to his workbench, so he's been divesting lately.

The penny-farthing appeals to Truman because of its looks and because it's unique. He has ridden with the tall bike set, and did 8 miles at the Tour de Fat, but he's usually alone.

He knows of one other Portlander with a penny-farthing: 'A guy called Rabbit on Alberta. We keep meaning to get together and ride, but it hasn't happened.'

Truman has tried it with racing handlebars and marvels at the idea of getting an authentic calcium carbide lantern.

'It's the same type of lamp miners have used for a hundred years. It hangs down from the front axle inside the front wheel, between the spokes.'

Big wheel meant speed

The modern bicycle didn't really come into its own until the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Stronger steel and the demands of mobility gave rise to bikes that resemble those of today.

The big breakthrough was the velocipede, literally 'fast foot.' It began as a bike without pedals, good for coasting but not so hot going uphill. The boneshaker (it had no tires, but it had pedals) was invented in 1863 in France by Pierre Lallement.

A few years later, the penny-farthing allowed any rider with a sense of balance to propel himself forward with far greater efficiency. (The name came from the image of two coins, the large penny and the smaller farthing, placed next to each other.) The bigger the wheel, the faster the rider could go, but there were no gears.

Suddenly people were able to cover great distances under their own power. It was a quantum leap in transportation, but at $100 a bike, it was a luxury item. (It was bike riders who lobbied for the first paved roads to be built in Philadelphia and New York before there ever was an automobile lobby.)

In the United States, the English name 'penny-farthing' was replaced by simply 'the Wheel' or 'the Ordinary,' as opposed to the Safety.

When a high-quality drive chain was developed, it gave rise to the safety bicycle in the 1880s, which used gearing to get better speeds from a smaller wheel. It also had a low center of gravity, which made it far safer. By 1893, the penny-farthing was pretty much obsolete.

Replicas go to history buffs

Truman bought his bike from Rideable Bicycle Replicas of Alameda, Calif. Half of the $1,200 bill was the wheel.

Business owner Greg Barron builds 100 to 150 replica bikes every year, most of them penny-farthings, but also rickshaws and tricycles: things he calls 'high-wheel and hard-tire shaky bikes,' replicas of bikes made up until about 1915.

Barron's high-wheelers are available in 38-inch, 48-inch and 52-inch wheel sizes. His customers are history buffs, people into bikes in general, and those who love the novelty.

'Some buy them as decorator items, to hang on the wall,' says Barron, who builds the frames and wheels from scratch. 'It's not a raging fad, but there's a devoted following.'

He has raced penny-farthings on city streets with local riders and on tracks at Stanford University and the University of California at Davis. Most of the activity is on the Eastern seaboard, however.

Truman says he loves all his bikes equally, but he has a soft spot for the penny-farthing. It took him an hour of practicing in a parking lot before he got the hang of it.

'It's really just a unicycle with a training wheel. In the summer I hope to give lessons, let people try it out. And I'll come along and be their training wheel.'

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Aaron Truman's Penny-Farthing

Wheel diameter: 48 inches

Tire: Solid rubber

Saddle height: 52 inches

Weight: 32 pounds

Cost: $1,200

From: Rideable Bicycle Replicas of Alameda, Calif., www.hiwheel.com/boneshakers/index.htm

Top speed: 20 mph