500 km by penny farthing: a different sort of ride around Tasmania

The story of 12 penny farthing riders cycling through the beautiful wilderness of Australia's island state.

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It’s been 140 years since the humble penny farthing bicycle was superseded by safer and more effective technology. But cycling isn’t always about riding the latest and greatest thing, and there’s obvious value in both preserving and building upon the history of our great sport. Which is why the work of Dan Bolwell, better known as ‘Penny Farthing Dan’, is so intriguing, if not important.

As featured on CyclingTips last year, Bolwell hand-builds wonderful bespoke penny farthings in Melbourne and those bikes are quite a sight to behold. In the following article Bolwell and Kelly Waldeck recount a recent six-day cycling tour around Tasmania undertaken by 12 riders on penny farthings. Because bikes aren’t just there to be looked at – they’re there to be ridden.

The Australian Penny Farthing Tour was born out of a desire to provide an opportunity for penny farthing riders to use their bicycles in the way in which they were originally intended. Penny farthings were designed for high-speed, long-distance riding, predominately for sports and adventure. The annual tour is designed to be challenging, but ultimately achievable and fun for any competent rider on a good bike.

This year’s tour, after a two-year break due to COVID, was held from February 21-26, and followed on from the weekend of the National Penny Farthing championships held in Evandale, Tasmania on February 19-20. Twelve penny farthing riders in total were joined by three road bike riders and a support vehicle for the six-day tour.

The route took in about 500 km around the north east corner of Tasmania, and included over 5,500 m of climbing. Contrary to what many believe, penny farthings, if set up and fitted to the rider, go quite well in hilly terrain, with a 10% incline being no problem. We usually travel along at 20-25 km/h on average and often in groups pacing is faster, just like in any cycling peloton. The support vehicle stopped and waited for us every 20-30 km providing water and snacks to keep riders refreshed and regrouped.

The tour started with an easy 65 km day, tracking the back roads from Evandale to Campbell Town, since 10 of the 12 penny farthing riders had competed during the championship weekend (we were joined on the tour by both the men’s and women’s national champions). And so the first day of the tour rolled through picturesque farmland and eased into the pace and routine of the tour.

This tour was the first for half of the penny farthing riders, four were joining for the second time, and a couple of us have completed all previous tours. It can be a life-changing experience for many of the participants, with previous tours increasing the confidence and skills of riders. At some point you get so used to the bike it starts to disappear and you feel like it’s just any other bike.

Day 2 was when the tour really kicked into gear, with a decent climb up to Lake Leake, and an awesome descent into Swansea. The day’s riding totalled 80 km, with the first half up, and the second half down in equal proportions. Kelly joined on her road bike and on the long downhills, tucked in behind Dan like she was riding pillion on our motorbike as we so often do on weekend days off, we cruised down through sweeping corners with Dan coasting on the rear steps at up to 60 km/h [penny farthing are fixed-gear bikes – ed.]

Day 3, while our longest day at 103 km, was also our flattest day, and so was seen – on paper at least  – as a somewhat easy day before heading into the bigger hills on day 4 and 5. The weather had other plans though and this stretch up the coast from Swansea to Scamander proved really challenging as we battled 35 km/h headwinds (gusting to 55 km/h) and rain, for a good three-quarters of the day.

The scenery was spectacular, the drivers mostly good, the roadworks muddy and sloppy, and the need for snacks and sugar was high. But everyone made it through the day, and the hot shower and beer waiting at the hotel meant that everyone quickly forgot the tough conditions.

Day 4 was always going to be a big day: 90 km, 1,600 m of climbing, the Weldborough Pass, Scamander to Branxholm via Derby. Mountain bike country. The day started out in misty fog, before clearing to a bright and brilliant, if somewhat humid, day. The climbing and descending was constant throughout the day, but how cool to say we rode over Weldborough Pass.

The Weldborough pub was a welcome reprieve for lunch, and we had a flying pass through Derby, to show the mountain bikers how it’s really done. The descent into Derby is a hoot! Then at the end of the day we had a long and consistent downhill into Branxholm.

Day 5 proved there was no rest from the constant climbing and descending, with a further 1,500 m of climbing on the 90 km from Branxholm to Launceston. We stopped in Scottsdale for brunch, and were met by a local Amish family who had wanted to see the bikes, and to share the stories of the first 30 km of the day.

Dan hit a blistering 75 km/h on one of the descents coasting on the steps and was eventually held up by a school bus, with all the kids waving out the window in absolute shock at this penny farthing following them at speed, following along behind till the bottom of the hill.

Matt was tailed down a descent by a delivery truck. When he met the driver later in the day, at the lunch stop, the driver admitted he couldn’t go as fast through the corners as Matt and so was happy to sit behind and watch.

Launceston was our last night as a group, with Pat and Maz heading off to continue their holiday in Hobart.

Our last day was a quick morning spin of 30 km out to Evandale, to finish where we started, taking back roads. We did manage a further few hundred meters of climbing, just to test out the legs! We finished up at the local bakery and cafe for a big brunch and settled in for a couple of hours to chat about the week and recount our adventures. The last day is always a strange feeling as you quietly ride with the thoughts of the week on your mind.

This year’s tour, while shorter in duration and distance than any of the previous tours, was amongst the most challenging, due to the significant climbing and technical descents involved

Tasmania is an absolutely beautiful state of Australia to explore. It is rich in forests and wildlife with quite a few flora and fauna species being unique to the area. It is common to see Tasmanian devils, quokkas, snakes, and many of the small marsupials only seen in Tasmania. We also got to see lots of wildlife crossing in front of us: wallabies, snakes, birds, and echidnas which in Tasmania have more hair that hides their iconic spikes and make them look like a ball of fluff compared to the Australian outback varieties.

The mountainous terrain provided copious amounts of technical and skilled riding. Tight, twisty corners down long and fast descents result in the need to either develop your riding skills or take the slow and safer option of walking for those particularly gnarly sections. Personally it is also a good opportunity for Dan to watch and learn from the tours which have been a major contributor in the design and development of his bikes as they need to be very high-performance and extremely comfortable to allow these adventures to happen as we do them.

With all the climbing and changes to the terrain also come variations in climate. We had good weather most of the week except for the wet and windy day along the coast. Generally though the temperature was quite pleasant so we mostly only needed the usual quality cycling clothing which isn’t particularly vintage but very suitable for this type of riding. 

Logistically it was the biggest tour that we have run, with 20 participants and the support vehicle, as well as three couples who brought their campers. A special thanks to Tony for being our driver, to Jo, Mel and Karen for driving so their husbands, Neil, Pete and Mark, could ride. And to all the riders, Tim, Matt, Pat, Maz, Lizanne, James, Joel, Naoni, Sam, Neale, Jo, Pete, Neil and Mark for taking up the challenge, and embracing the adventure of what a penny farthing tour is all about.

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