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.
On November 16, 1880, the Czech Velocipedists’ Association was established in a brewery in Smíchov. The young men who founded it were particularly fond of the bicycle known as the “penny farthing”, on which the front wheel is enormous, while the rear wheel is much smaller.
This bicycle, also known as an “ordinary” or a “high wheeler”, gets its name from the penny and farthing coins in the United Kingdom; a side view of this cycle looks vaguely like a penny pulling a farthing behind it.
The Czech Velocipedists’ Association was only the second such organization in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the first in Bohemia.
The first outing of the fledgling association was a day trip to Loděnice the residence of its chairman, Jindřich Cífka, on April 24, 1881.
Many cyclists ranged far abroad; the longest trip that year was undertaken by Jan Kohout (a shareholder in the brewery in which the association was formed), who traveled to Bavaria and Upper Austria.
In 1882, the association changed its name slightly, to the Czech Velocipedists’ Club. A clubhouse was built on the brewery grounds, and three members of the club took part in cycling races in Vienna. Enthusiasm for penny-farthings spread, leading to the formation of more clubs in Bohemia.
On September 28 and 29, 1883, the Czech Velocipedists’ Club held its first Great International Races, in Prague’s Karlín district. It was a smashing success, followed by another international race in 1884.
Cycle race tracks were created across Prague, as well as other locations in Bohemia and Moravia. As the decade wore on, a magazine for cycling enthusiasts was established, with the first edition being released in 1888.
By now, cycling was not only a favorite pastime, but a popular spectator sport. International races were held in both Prague and Plzeň. More tracks had been created.
Then, on September 3 through 6, the Vltava River burst its banks and created widespread devastation; the water rose so fast that nobody had time to rescue even one of the 90 bicycles in the Smíchov clubhouse.
The bicycles and the clubhouse were swept away by the floodwaters. The club gradually fell apart in the final decade of the 19th century.
Now, the club has been reborn, holding an annual “autumnal ride”. Men in 19th-century style clothing mount their penny farthings and ride placidly through Letna park, hearkening back to a more innocent era.