In for a penny...in for a pounding

Penny-farthings have been known to kill riders. So why does Joff Summerfield think he can survive a world tour on one? Mark MacKenzie talks to a man with a magnificent obsession

For most cyclists, choosing a crash helmet is a bit like choosing a haircut; not so much a triumph of the wallet but a victory for vanity. As any middle-aged pedaller will tell you, the Lycra never lies, but fork out sufficiently for a lid with a few bells and whistles and there's a chance that next time you tackle that monstrous climb on your local high street, you might be mistaken for Lance Armstrong, at least from the neck up.

Britain's Jonathan "Joff" Summerfield had a somewhat less sporting role model in mind when planning his own two-wheeled adventure. "I wanted to look like Michael Caine in Zulu," explains the 39-year-old engineer. After all, he says, if a chap is to pedal a penny-farthing bicycle around the world unsupported, he should at least look the part. Hence the pith helmet that has rarely left Summerfield's head since he set out from Greenwich in London last May.

He is currently on the Australian leg of what, by any standards, is a very grand tour. When we speak on the phone he is resting in Melbourne, the latest destination on a route that has taken him across Central and Eastern Europe and through the Middle East. He is off to Tasmania next, then New Zealand, after which he intends to backtrack to China and Tibet, where he will, he says with utter seriousness, attempt to become the first person to cross the Himalayas on a "penny".

Folk Down Under have grown accustomed recently to Britons travelling by unconventional means. Last week, 26-year-old Dave Cornthwaite from Swansea became the first person to cross the continent on a skateboard, a journey of more than 4,000 miles.

Summerfield is unsure what his eventual mileage will be, but it is certain to be an epic journey. Ten or so years ago, he was enjoying a successful career with a company constructing engines for Formula One cars, machines designed to go rather faster than the 11mph he currently averages on a good day. In 1996 he decided to go freelance and, as a keen cyclist and self-confessed "engineering obsessive", began building penny-farthings in his spare time. He took a stall at Greenwich's craft market and was soon selling his bikes to customers around the world.

With the pennies looking after the pounds, so to speak, he was following a well-ridden trade route stretching back to the 1880s: from the US, where the bikes were known as "highwheelers"; to Australia, which referred to them as "ordinaries", due to the fact they were the first bikes to arrive on the continent.

Given his racing background, it is hardly surprising that Summerfield's own machines are constructed from sterner stuff than the wooden specimens of old. With no frame as such, the single-gear bikes are comprised of a pair monstrous forks made from modern chromoly steel, with a tail, or "backbone", running down to a small rear wheel. Otherwise, insists Summerfield, the machines are true to the original design, new models rolling off the production line at £800 a pop.

Any rouleur worth his bottom bracket will tell you that is more than a fair price for a bespoke, hand-made bike, but there's a reason why what is, after all, an elegant enough looking design enjoyed only fleeting popularity. It was, in short, lethal.

"The most common problem was what the Victorians referred to as 'taking a header'," explains Summerfield. "If the front wheel jams or if you apply too much front brake, the back wheel lifts and the rider follows the arc of the wheel. The first thing to hit the ground is your head, and fatalities were common."

It's a manoeuvre with which Summerfield is painfully familiar and one that might, in one less deter-mined, have been a post-script to his own riding career on numerous occasions. This is his fourth attempt to get round the world on his beloved penny. In 2001, having moved out of his flat, sold his worldly goods and enjoyed a raucous farewell party, he was forced to abort his global expedition with a knee injury - on day one. It was, he says, with hint of understatement, "pretty embarrassing". Two years later, in 2003, an abscess, this time to the other knee, forced him to retire in Budapest.

In 2005, Summerfield decided to test a new version of his bike by riding over a high kerb. "The back wheel came straight up and I broke my elbow and my leg. That delayed me for another year."

Six weeks before this trip, the lamp he uses to navigate at night, which is fixed to the hub of his main wheel, jammed in his spokes - broken wrist, broken arm.

"I probably sound a bit like Captain Calamity," he says. No kidding. More to the point, why persist with the idea of a world tour?

"For me the bike sums up a great period of adventure," he says, "a time of real exploration, of journeys without maps." The Victor-ians, it is worth remembering, were the people who took bone china into the African bush when on safari; the idea that form need follow function is clearly a recent design maxim. Indeed, even a state-of-the-art penny-farthing is so unaero-dynamic, says Summerfield, that in strong winds he frequently has to get off and push, even going downhill.

Mounting and dismount-ing takes place by way of a small step on the backbone, Summerfield explains: "Just scoot along and up you hop." This is a drill that can prove quite wearisome at traffic lights. "You need to time the green," he says. "Either that or lean against a truck."

Next month, he will attend an event considered by enthusiasts as the de facto penny-farthing world championships, the Evandale Village Fair, held annually at Evandale, in Tasmania, for the past 24 years. Summerfield fancies his chances in the 30km road-race event, thanks to a training schedule of 40 miles a day for the past eight months.

Should he make it, he might consider himself lucky to be there at all. While he was riding through Greece last year, high winds caused him to lose his balance on a busy road and he was thrown to the ground, where only his helmet separated his head from the front tyre of an advancing truck.

"The driver thought he'd killed me," he says calmly, "but the only damage was a black streak of rubber on my pith helmet."

Then there was what he refers to as "the Turkish incident". When a shortage of water in the south-east of the country forced him to drink from an agri-cultural irrigation system, he was laid low by a bout of dysentery. Having recovered, he was then forced to accept an escort from a Turkish army unit concerned about the threat from Kurdish separatists who contest Turkish sovereignty in the region.

From New Zealand he will head to Beijing, before which he will need to reacquaint himself with the art of "blagging" his bike aboard a plane. "The key," he says, "is not to call the airline in advance. They think the bike is the size of a house, whereas in fact the seat is only about chest height."

Upon landing, he will, of course, find himself in the world's most populous nation, the majority of whom, so cycle touring lore has it, enjoying travel by bike at precisely the same time.

If, as he hopes, Summerfield is allowed into Tibet some time in June, sur-mounting the Himalayas could take a while. "The highest mountain I've climbed so far is Nemrut Dagi [in Turkey], which stands at around 8,000ft. It took me three days, and the Himalayas are three times the height; it should be interesting."

Nothing like as interesting as the descent, however. To avoid hazardous crashes when going downhill, riders of the Victorian era came up with the rum idea of placing their feet over the handlebars. The idea was that rather than take a header should the bike topple forward, the rider would, in theory at least, hit the ground running. "I found the idea in an old user's manual from the period," says Summerfield. "It also suggested that if you lost control, you should try aiming for a hedge. That or a fat woman."

Summerfield's one regret to date is that, having travelled so far, he missed Cornthwaite "by about 100 yards" after he spotted the skateboarder's support vehicle on a road north of Sydney.

So what do the Aussies make of us Brits conquering their continent by such idiosyncratic means?

"They've been fantastic," says Summerfield. "Probably because it's all the conquering we have been doing lately."

THE COMPACT GUIDE

FURTHER INFORMATION:

For the latest news of Joff Summerfield's round-the-world trip, or to make a donation to the Born Free Foundation, the wildlife charity the trip is promoting: pennyfarthingworldtour.com. The National Penny Farthing Championships will be held at Evandale in Tasmania on 24 February. For race schedules and more information: evandalevillagefair.com

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home