Ashburn man leaps into a century-old hobby

By Chris Wadsworth 

Ashburn is full of bike riders. During nice weather, they sweep down Claiborne Parkway and other area roadways in great flocks – moving in unison like geese or starlings. The W&OD Trail is often thick with cyclists in their skin-tight jerseys and shorts, feet clipped in pedals, heads down into the wind. 

But with all these bike riders one man stands alone. Matt Goodwin may be the only cyclist in town riding what many would probably call an “old-timey bike” – although it’s more properly known as a high-wheel bicycle. 

“They are also called ‘penny farthings’ – which is a reference to the mismatched wheel size,” said Goodwin, who works in federal contracting and lives with his family in Ashburn Farm. “British pennies are much larger than farthings [another type of coin]. Some people think of these bikes as a large unicycle with a training wheel trailing behind – that works for me.” 

Few images more easily evoke the late 19th century than the sight of a rider balancing atop a giant front wheel with a tiny rear wheel behind. It’s downright cliché. But a high-wheel bicycle is far different from today’s bikes – and it’s more than just the big wheel. 

Originating in the 1880s, the bike has no chains or gears. The pedals are connected directly to the big wheel, so the larger the wheel, the farther the bike will travel with each rotation of the pedals. 

The larger tires are also better at absorbing bumps in the road. “Compared to modern bikes, these are notably missing the air in the tires. The tires are solid rubber – pneumatic tires hadn’t been invented yet,” Goodwin said. 

Alarmingly, perhaps, high-wheel bicycles are also missing brakes. When mounting the bike, the rider steps on a small peg with one foot, pushes the bike forward and – as momentum picks up – climbs into the seat. To stop, it’s basically the same process – only backward. The rider resists the forward momentum with the pedals and then, as the bike slows, leans back and steps off via the peg. 

“Or simply jump off backward when things [get] hairy,” Goodwin added. 

Goodwin became interested in these unusual bikes in 2022 when he learned about an annual high-wheel bicycle race held each summer just up the road in Frederick, Md. It’s called the Clustered Spires High Wheel Race.

“The [high-wheel] bike is very popular in Europe and other places in the world,” said Jeanne Rhodes, who along with her husband, Eric, founded and runs the annual Clustered Spires race. “There are races in Australia, England, Belgium, and Sweden, for example. [But] our event is the only one of its kind in the U.S.A.” 

At the national level, high-wheel bicycle enthusiasts are a bit of an ad hoc group. There’s an organization called The Wheelmen that celebrates the history of bicycles and many of its members ride penny farthings. But otherwise any organized high-wheel groups are strictly local. 

At first, Goodwin just thought he would take his wife, Natalia, and their three daughters to watch the Clustered Spires race. But then a crazy thought occurred to him: What if he learned to ride a high-wheel bicycle and entered the race himself? 

“It seemed like something that was very accessible. If I could find a bike, I could teach myself to ride it. I realized that I had the time. It was November and the race wasn’t until July,” Goodwin said. “Reading the biographies of other racers, many of them seemed to just stumble into [the hobby], and I guess I thought I could stumble into it, too.” 

He quickly started doing research. Prices for a high-wheel bike span a wide range – from as low as $1,200 up to $5,000 or more. These are new, modern bikes built in the style of the olden days. An actual vintage penny farthing is usually pricey and hard to come by. 

“Most racers in our event ride modern reproductions rather than actual antique high-wheels,” Rhodes said. 

Goodwin looked for used bikes for sale online but couldn’t find any. He found high-wheel bike builders in England, Australia, Uruguay and California, but he ended up ordering one from Sweden. 

The builder, Per-Olof Kippel, had business in the United States and hand-delivered the bike to Goodwin’s home, where they assembled it in the living room. “We became friends,” Goodwin said. “He is a fixture at the Frederick race, having won several of [them] himself. I would estimate half the riders there are on his bikes.” 

Goodwin’s high-wheel bike has a front wheel that is 54 inches tall – 4½ feet in diameter. Goodwin is 6 feet tall, and the wheel reaches his armpits. The handlebars are at the same level as his shoulders. 

Photo courtesy of Scott Fields

Goodwin watched YouTube videos to learn how to mount the bicycle, how to best ride it and how to dismount. Still, he was nervous the first time he took the bike out to the track at nearby Sanders Corner Elementary School. 

“The whole family came out to watch. Honestly I didn’t know what was going to happen, and I was a little nervous,” he said. “I scooted around for a bit with one foot on the peg and managed to swing my other leg over and onto the saddle. The YouTubing paid off and I didn’t fall.” 

“The girls and I were super excited,” Natalia Goodwin said. “The girls were yelling, ‘That’s my daddy. That’s my daddy.’ I was confident he was going to get it. He did so much research and planned for months. And he never fell – not once.” 

Goodwin laughs as he admits he has fallen since, but it was well after his initial learning phase. 

Image courtesy of Scott Fields

One fun aspect of riding an old-timey bicycle is that many fellow riders – especially at races and other events – take it an extra step by dressing up in old-timey clothes. Imagine things like knee-high socks, bow ties, caps and suspenders. 

“One advantage of dressing up is that it elicits a great response from the crowd – and that’s just fun,” said Goodwin, who says he didn’t go old school, instead wearing an old bike jersey with the state flag of California on it. 

The Clustered Spires race last summer was Goodwin’s only race so far. Participants see how many laps they can do in a set amount of time on a loop through the streets of Frederick’s downtown. 

“The day of the race was thrilling. The competition was grueling, and it was a hot one out there, even for July,” Goodwin said. “I didn’t make the final round, but I’m proud of how competitive I was.”

Now, he’s looking to the future – the next Clustered Spires race is set for July – and, yes, Goodwin plans to be there. In the meanwhile, if you see someone riding a high-wheel bicycle around Ashburn, you’ll have a pretty good guess who it is.

(Image at top courtesy of Scott Fields)