Earlier this month, a small town in Cheshire hosted a gathering of British eccentrics and international bike freaks for a remarkable and rare event – the Knutsford Great Race.
This gathering of ‘olde worlde’ bicycles is only held once every 10 years. The first Great Race took place in 1980, organised by local bike club the Cheshire Wheelmen. That first race had three solo racers and 15 teams.
The 2010 event had 25 solo racers and 17 teams, with a total of 87 riders in all. It was a truly international gathering of cycling nutters, with riders representing New Zealand, Germany, the Czech Republic, Australia, Canada and the USA.
The main event of the day was a three-hour race on penny farthings around a 1km circuit of Knutsford Moor park. There were a few other shorter races that took place before this, featuring some very old and unique human-powered two-wheeled machines.
The hobby horse dates back to the early 1800s and is basically a wooden two-wheeled scooter that the rider straddles. The iron-framed boneshaker arrived in the 1860s sporting a vital new invention: pedals. From the pained expressions on the Knutsford racers’ faces, these machines offered very harsh rides. Indeed, it isn’t called a boneshaker for nothing). It was a blessing that they only had to complete one lap of the course.
Come 2pm it was time for the main race. Most were there to have fun and Victorian-era fancy dress was commonplace. Others were taking it surprisingly seriously though, and one American team were even seen gulping down energy gels on the start line. Their bike sported CrankBrothers 5050 downhill pedals.
Most of the penny farthings – or “ordinarys” and “high wheel” bicycles, as their owners prefer to call them – lined up behind the start line were original machines dating back to before World War I. Brands such as Singer, BSA., Rudge, Hillman, Triump and Rover (yes, the car companies) were represented. There were also a few modern-day recreations from US companies like Victory Bicycles.
The “starter pistol” for the race was suitably vintage and impressively loud: a cannon from the battle of Waterloo. BOOM! The racers impressed with their rolling mounting-up of their bicycles. Almost immediately the pack split into racers going for the win and riders who were there to just savour the day.
The 5,000 or so spectators quickly realised that the corners were the place to be. Watching the riders slow down and negotiate their tall, top-heavy, fixed-wheel machines around some almost 90° corners was quite a sight. Needless to say, the vultures in the crowd were sated; riders being suddenly hurled over the bars was a not uncommon sight. It’s a mesmerisingly long way to fall. Thankfully there were no serious injuries.
The winner of the 2010 Knutsford Great Race was Jim Brailsford (who also won the last event in 2000). He managed 107 laps; that’s just over 66 miles in three hours, at an average speed of 22mph.
There are more images from the race in the thumbnail gallery at the top of this page. Spectators have also uploaded plenty of videos to YouTube, and you can check out one of the penny farthing crashes in the clip below: