A record number of people on high-wheelers gathered last weekend in Zaltbommel in the Netherlands. People from 10 different countries had travelled to this town to attend the first Open Dutch Penny-Farthing Championships. With a tour on Saturday and races on Sunday the weekend was a celebration of these historic bicycles. The weather was great and the people were lovely: fine ingredients for a jolly good atmosphere. After two fun days it was very unfortunate that the race had a disheartening ending.
Races and gatherings for lovers of penny-farthings do take place in countries like the United Kingdom, Belgium and even Australia, but never before had there been an official race in the Netherlands. Until last weekend, that is. The local athletes club supporting cycle racing in Zaltbommel organised this festive weekend including the open Dutch championships. There were 36 contenders racing in three heats and a final. Representatives from the United Kingdom, host country The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Canada and even Mexico (okay he lives in London, but still) raced the 1.6 kilometre long route on the streets of the historic fortified town of Zaltbommel. This meant that 650 metres of each lap was on cobble stones. In the heats the race was over 10 laps, the final was even 15 laps!
When I cycled to Zaltbommel on Saturday, just 13 kilometres from my home town ʼs-Hertogenbosch, I had no idea what to expect. But just outside the town I already met part of the group. They had found each other on the parking lot and after assembling their penny farthings or high wheelers, they had immediately taken their classic bicycles for a test ride. You can’t help but smile when you see people on these tall machines. When the group later arrived at the official starting point of the tour (many of them in period costumes) dozens of people who had come to see them also smiled. Many people studied the bicycles. Some were old, others were modern replicas. The high-wheelers had only been common on the streets for about 20 years. From the 1870s to the late 1880s these ancestors of the modern bicycles were the toys of the upper class. The Netherlands’ first cycle track, built in 1885 on the Utrecht Maliebaan, was actually a race track for high-wheelers. The invention of the chain drive, which led to the safety bike with two equally sized wheels, marked the end of the popularity of the high-wheeler. They continued to be used for racing though, until the 1920s even. Since they don’t have pneumatic tyres they are not very comfortable and their height of up to two metres makes a fall a long way down.
There were almost 40 enthusiasts who were eager to make the cycle tour from Zaltbommel via Rome and Bern back to Zaltbommel. The organisation had carefully plotted a route to include these two places “to make the tour appear much longer than it really is”. Everything shows that it was all about fun this weekend. The tour drew a crowd of onlookers and also the local press. Arie Liefhebber, who was involved in getting this many people to Zaltbommel, said that this was the highest number of high-wheelers to be together at one place in the Netherlands in modern Dutch history. I simply joined for part of the tour and I wasn’t the only one. A man from Zaltbommel also came along on his “normal” bicycle. “A fun way to get to my kilometres this week” he told me. “I decided to leave my e-bike at home, I wouldn’t want to make it too easy for myself while they are really working!” And it was hard work. Filip Ponseele, 54 years-old from Flanders, told me that he hadn’t been on a high-wheeler in 30 years. “I borrowed this bike for the occasion and I’ve only been on it from 10 o’clock this morning” he said, while we were the final two in the parade. “but I am beginning to regain my confidence!” In his 19th century outfit, with his “Watson” hat, tweed jacket and plus fours, Filip looked much more British than Flemish but he blended in nicely with the many real Brits who were riding. On Sunday he proudly showed me the medal he had received for completing the 48 kilometre tour. He wouldn’t take part in the race though, he left that up to his son, Simon Ponseele, who was declared winner of the third heat, even though he had crossed the finish line hand in hand with Eric Daguin for France after the two of them had taken first and second place alternating in every one of the 10 laps.
The second heat had a much clearer winner. Bruce Walsh from Great Britain had taken the lead from the first few metres and he rode solo in the lead for the entire heat. A similar thing happened in the final, which was even longer with 15 laps, where he took the lead in lap 3 to never give it back. Bruce was the clear overall winner of the day, but sadly he was unable to attend the winner’s ceremony. Just metres after Bruce had crossed the finish line something went horribly wrong when he tried to dismount his high-wheeler. After his fall he had to be taken to hospital by ambulance with what seemed a severe hip injury. A sad ending to an otherwise great weekend in Zaltbommel. We can only hope that Bruce’s excellent physical condition will help him get a speedy recovery. I’ve already seen on the internet that Bruce himself called this a “brilliant weekend” and he thanked the first aiders, but he needs to stay in the Dutch hospital for a while longer. All in all the day was not completely overshadowed for competitors and spectators alike. Best Dutchman was Arie Liefhebber in fifth position. He had been European Champion in 2017 and World Champion in 2018. The final results showed 8 competitors from Great Britain, one of which a woman, or half of all the people who reached the final. I do hope this first edition of the Open Dutch Penny Farthing Championships won’t be the last.
|5||32||Arie Liefhebber||1st Dutchman|
|14||26||Francesca Daisy Hill||First woman|
|16||40||Wilbert van Schaaik||2nd Dutchman|
My video of the tour on Saturday.
My video of the races on Sunday.