books, Penny farthing, Travel

Penny Farthing Friday. Book Report.

I have planned many epic bike tours in my head.  Whether it’s riding down the Pacific Coast from Vancouver to Baja, riding across the US, a tour of Italy, or a ride across Europe, I’ve romanticized the freedom enjoyed during a lengthy bike tour.  In reality, I have very little touring experience. It’s limited to trips of a couple days in length- on the coast of California- and can better be described as “bike-camping” than “bike-touring.”

Don’t get me wrong, I have traveled a lot, and I’ve traveled WITH my bike, riding in many of this nation’s fine cities.  I just haven’t traveled ON my bike much.  I will.  One day.  My old ride was a Cannondale touring bike, which was fully dressed with racks, bags, fenders;  built for the road.  I used the bike for work and it was a great urban bike.  Eventually it became time to upgrade- the wheels and drivetrain needed to be replaced, but it cost more than I had, or could spend.  I gave the bike to a friend, and downgraded to a bike given to me:  A spray painted camouflage Huffy- totally chopped and screwed.  No shifters- the rear derailleur was fixed into place, and acted as a chain tensioner.  Changing the gears on the chainring was possible however; through a simple, though slightly dangerous procedure.  While pedaling, you could reach down and grab the chain, lifting it onto the chainring of your choice.  No big deal.  I called the bike “Two Speeds of Trouble”, or “Trouble” for short.  While riding my new steed, I oft thought back to a sticker that I had on an old Stumpjumper that read- “I’d rather push my bike than ride a Huffy.”  Well- there I was, trying to think of new slogans- “Huffys are for Toughies” or “I’d rather ride a Huffy, than walk.”  I liked that old bike.  I think that riding a bike like that helped expand my love for all things two wheeled.  I rode that bike because if I don’t have a bike in my life, I’m just not that happy.  It’s a habit that I don’t want to kick.

Bike touring is often thought of as something for elite people.  You “need” to have a modern touring specific bike- with a 27+ gears and disk or cantilever brakes.  You “need” to have new gear- ultra light sleeping bag, tent, shoes, computer, all the bells and whistles straight out of an REI catalog.

The fact is that there is a human element to bike touring that is often overlooked.  The engine.  You can ride anything you want on a bike tour- heck- I want to read about a mini-bike tour.  The only thing likely to change if you choose a set up that is not optimal, is the speed you will travel, and the distance traveled per day.  If you have the time- then you can make anything work.


Back in the “old days” I sometimes think that people were tougher.  I don’t know if that’s true or not, but the people that ate boot leather when times got tough were definitely of a different mind, if not body, than those of us that eat Top Ramen when times are tough.  There was a time when riding a bike was done on hard rubber tires.  When a one speed was all you needed, and you didn’t need brakes, well, because they acted as more of a hazard than a help.  Before synthetic wicking fabrics and padded cycling shorts.  Before clipless pedals and gps units.  There was a time when all you needed to cross the country was a bike, a pistol, and maybe an introduction letter from an official stating that you were an upstanding citizen, and that you should be treated with respect.

To get a taste of times like this- pick up “Around the World on a Bicycle” by Thomas Stevens.  The original two volume work was published in 1887 in both the US and the UK and contained nearly 1,000 pages of text.  I borrowed a 1984 abridged version from the local library- which is in the Seattle Library system- or you can find a copy online, in the abridged, or two volume set (be prepared to pay a pretty penny for an old copy of the two volume)

“The first essential element of success is to have sufficient confidence iin one’s self to brave the criticisms–of a skeptical public.

So eight o’clock on the morning of April 22, 1884, finds me and my fifty-inch machine on the Oakland pier”

With that, Thomas Stevens started east; riding his newly acquired black Columbia 50-inch Standard High Wheeler- and carrying with him in his handlebar bag:  socks, a spare shirt, a raincoat that also acted as a tent and bedroll, and a .38 Smith and Wesson pistol.  He met up and was welcomed by many cycling clubs that were popping up in cities everywhere.  He also had to protect himself from mountain a mountain lion, dodge a wild horse stampede, and travel over very poor roads (you won’t complain about Georgetown pot holes when you think of Stevens crossing the Sierras in the spring with paved roads not invented yet.)  He arrived in Boston on August 4th, 1884.  In that, he stopped for 20 days along the way and rode 83-1/2 days, traveling a total distance of 3700 miles and completing the first transcontinental journey by bicycle.  That however, was only the beginning.

He then went on to travel through more countries than you can count on both hands, and was met with varying degrees of hospitality including spending the winter in Teheran, Iran- as a guest of the Shah, and having to be hidden while in China, as rioters were unhappy because of a war with the French, and he was the closest around that resembled their enemy.

The bicycle portion of the book ends on December 17th 1886 (123 years ago), with, by Steven’s account, totaled 13,500 miles.

Reading the abridged version was a little difficult at times, it jumps around quite a bit- which I guess is fairly necessary in anything that goes from 1,000 pages down to less than 150.  My favorite part of the edition that I read was the artwork.  The original engravings by W.C. Rogers and others were reproduced to the exact size and included as they did in the original work.  One of my current favorite images of all time right now is the one of Thomas Stevens hiding behind his 50″ wheel, taking aim at a mountain lion with his little snub nosed .38 pistol.  I can just imagine: “Yeah so I was just riding along and this damn mountain lion came up and was going eat me, so I just pulled out my gat and popped a round off, scaring that little bastard away.   Yeah, it was no big deal.  So I got back on my bike and kept riding”  So gangster.

Thomas Stevens (original engraving- Kelly 1887)

If you are a fan of travel, old-timey illustration, or history, you’ll likely enjoy this book.  Times were different then, but he still has a hard time in Afghanistan (he gets kicked out) and he gets charged twice as much when traveling the railroads because he has a bicycle (non-bike packages of the same size are not double charged- some things never change)  Many areas that Stevens traveled in were home to people that had never seen a bicycle.  What a trip that would be!  He does at times use porters and “coolies” to transport his bike over some mountain passes and rivers, and he looks down on these people as lesser, it feels a bit classist in this regard.  In this, you can definitely feel that it was written over 120 years ago.

All in all, it was well worth the read, and you should check it out- taste a little history.  I’ll now be adding a Penny Farthing Tour to my list of epic tours.



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