One of the fixed gear cyclists was holding a trackstand, a maneuver where the rider sits on his bike seat and keeps it upright and balanced without going anywhere. Since our bikes were also fixed, the original version where the pedals connect directly to the wheel without a chain or sprockets in between, the trackstand on a HiWheel was once an important skill to learn. Though few present day HiWheelers take the time to master being able to do so, I found this ability important to my being able to enjoy a Car Free lifestyle on my Ordinary (another name for the traditional tall wheel).
Learning to trackstand gave me a better mastery over my high bike in crowded areas. Some examples of where this skill was helpful included gridlocked streets, busy shopping districts, even the Critical Mass or San Jose Bike Party rides that I liked to attend. With what looks like a trick to most, I did not have to get off and on the bike at traffic lights or for whatever other stops the congestion in my path could otherwise force me to make. I could even stop and hold a stand to have a brief conversation with people along my way.
I had spent many hours learning to trackstand. In doing so, I had had to endure a lot of bumps, bruises and cuts, even many embarrassing falls. But just as I was getting more and more confident and better, the Eagle appeared. While rumor has it that a trackstand is possible on one, I suspect that I will always be so consumed with looking for ways to get places faster or more efficiently on the Eagle, that I may not even try to see if a controlled stall is even possible on one.
The few dozen times I did try, I always went off the back end once I got the bike delayed. This is because in order to keep from getting launched into the sometimes fatal header that made conventional HiWeel bikes so dangerous, the Eagle’s center of gravity was placed behind the rider. As a result, the Eagle cyclist is always in a gentle struggle to keep the front wheel from popping off the ground. If that were to happen, if his mind were to wander from the task at hand, for instance, he could easily slide off the rear of the machine and probably crash.
I also can’t seem to ride with no hands on the Eagle. Nor is such a skill all about show when one is actually trying to get places on the conventional HWheel. Since two hands are often needed to put on or take off a jacket, adjust a helmet or sunglasses or peel the wrapper off an energy bar, for example, one can keep pedaling while performing all these taks on an Ordinary if he can ride one with no hands. The exciting on the road performance of the Eagle, however, makes up for my not being able to trackstand or ride it hands free.
One worthy trade-off is that I can climb hills with fervor on the Eagle. Unlike the traditional HiWheel cyclist, long known to have walked both sides of a mountain, the Eagle rider can climb out of the saddle to get up inclines. In being able to jockey the bike back and forth while ascending, besides being able to add leverage, he also won’t find himself sitting on a wheel that “burns rubber” as it goes nowhere. When riding the typical tall seat of the 19th Century, I always found the steeper the pitch, if I was even moving at all, the more the wheel used to slip out on me.
Once the summit is reached, the Eagle can also be used to descend in style as well as comfort. Since the pedals never stop on a Penny Farthing, being able to cross one’s feet in front of the steer tube is easy to do when descending on an Eagle. It is also a great way to relax. On the traditional HiWheel, however, one must get his legs over the top of the handlebars in order to be free of the spinning pedals. A difficult position to get into, it also puts its rider in a dangerous position that is then hard to escape from should the need arise.
When I Eagled from San Francisco to Salt Lake City in 2009, in climbing the Sierras and across the most mountainous state in the Union, Nevada, it was easy and safe to stay on the bike whether going up or coming down. The fact that mine was the first high bike to ever have been actually pedaled over these Ranges, does not mean I was any more fit than any of the others on HiWheels before me. It just shows how superior the Eagle is for hill (mountain) work.
Even on the flats, the Eagle is far more efficient than the traditional HiWheel. Because the Eagle cyclist does not pedal the same wheel he is steering, like one does on the normal Penny Farthing, he can ankle. What this means is that he can take advantage of the full pedal stroke by pulling up as well as pushing down on the pedals. This also means, not only can more force be generated but that the steering itself is not affected by what the stronger and far more powerful legs are doing.
Pulling up on the pedals on a standard HiWheel is improper technique. This is so because you involve your arms as they fight to make those corrections needed to keep you going straight. To illustrate, if you are riding no hands on a standard HiWheel, how unswerving you go is in direct proportion to how well you only push down on the pedals.
There are certain actions that make the Eagle exciting to be around. It is always easy to get a crowd together to watch me start. While my climbing out of the saddle to accelerate also turns heads, if I really want to hold people’s attention, I can jump off the back of the bike to make it stop. In doing so, the smaller front wheel shoots six feet above the street. This as I do a wide plant with my feet while holding the handlebars at shoulder height.
A bike that came about during the last two years of the HiWheel era (1869-1892), the Eagle is likely what we’d all be riding if the pneumatic tire and refinements in the chain had not made the smaller wheels of today possible. Blessed with the honor of riding Jim Spillane’s celebrated and near exact re-creation of the 1891 Eagle, regularly affirms for me why I feel the Eagle was the highest art form of the Industrial Revolution that shaped the America we know.
Palo Alto Daily 2009
Follow me and the Eagle in Ireland