Penny farthing riders view Prague from three feet in the air

Photo: CTK

The penny farthing bicycle has long since gone the way of the carrier pigeon and the coal-fired railroad train. Nevertheless, Czech devotees of these early bicycles gather from time to time to resurrect the spirit of the Victorian age, as they did last weekend in Prague.

Photo: CTK
I'm standing in Letna Park where 11 very distinguished looking gentlemen have mounted penny farthing bicycles, those are those bicycles that consist of one very big wheel and one very small wheel and they're riding around in old fashioned riding costumes with special grey jackets and short trousers and socks pulled up high.

You can tell from the music that this is a very dramatic occasion. The men are riding around in a figure eight formation and giving each other high fives as the two loops cross. They're all smiling they look terribly happy, very satisfied I think to be wearing their riding costumes.

"My name is Jan Kralik and I'm a member of the Czech club of velocipedists. We found the pictures from the time so our costume is exactly the same style as it was in 1880."

Why the short trousers?

"Well if they wore it 120 years ago so we have to have the same style. The weather is really horrible but we have to do it the same way."

Photo: CTK
After the trick riding performance, there was a one-mile race. That's a MILE, as in the unit of measurement which, like the penny farthing bicycle itself, fell out of use long ago - in most countries, anyway.

The race was supposed to be non-competitive, but early on a group of four riders broke out of the pack and whizzed to the finish line in tight formation. The winner, by a hair, was Josef Zimovcak, whose enthusiasm for penny farthing racing has also led him to complete much longer rides. Last year, he was the only velocipedist, as they're sometimes called, in the Tour de France, covering three thousand five hundred sixty kilometers in 21 days.

An experience, he says, which mixes pain with pleasure.

"Actually riding a penny farthing bicycle is very uncomfortable. That's why they stopped making them. And it's dangerous! Broke my arms twice, I've broken my jaw, and my ribs. I've had my teeth knocked out, and stitches around my eyes. The falls are always pretty bad, actually. But it's great to be sitting up high and look at the world."

So what exactly is it that compels men to mount these awkward vehicles and risk life and limb, three feet in the air, looking like they rode out of a Victorian-era lithograph? This onlooker, who claims to be friends with several of them, has a theory.

"I know three, four five people from this team. And I think it's a kind of exhibitionism. You will see."