A penny-farthing cycle, also known as a high-wheeler, was the first machine to be called a bicycle and became popular across the world between the 1870s and 1880s. But this bicycle is unlike others, in that it has one large wheel in the front, a smaller one at the back, and has no chain connecting the two.
The experience of riding it is understandably very different, and sometimes even dangerous, as compared to riding a modern bicycle. With the pedals placed over the front, going at high speeds could make it hard to manoeuvre this cycle.
But, PK Kumar, a resident of Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, learned how to ride this bike in just a few weeks. Not only did he manage to ride it downhill, through uneven roads in the Ponmudi range but also has found himself a place in the Guiness Book of Records. He completed the journey through the range, a distance of 12.7 kilometers, in 1 hour 13 minutes.
“I enjoy learning new activities and being creative with everything I do,” begins Kumar, a Physiotherapist and personality development teacher. He adds, “In 2009, after I was given an award for rendering a speech at a government school in Kerala and being an inspiration to children, many started referring to me as ‘Inspire Kumar’. It was this title that prompted me to keep trying creative activities that can set me apart from the crowd.”
Riding the Penny Farthing
Kumar’s journey with penny-farthing cycles began in 2019 when he was visiting a Just Buy Cycles outlet at Thiruvananthapuram to purchase a bicycle for his daughters and saw the unique cycle on display. He shares, “The penny-farthing cycle was placed against the wall as a showpiece, and I asked the store manager if he would take it down so I could try it out. He disagreed, even after I expressed my eagerness to learn to ride such a bike. Instead he suggested that I reach out to the general manager of the store and request their permission instead. I had to send a few emails and provide my identification proof to the organisation before being handed the cycle.”
S Vijayakumar, the general manager of the store says that the company was inspired to place a penny-farthing cycle in their store after Firefox bikes, a leading brand of cycle manufacturers, introduced the model to India in the 1870s. “There were two penny-farthing cycles on display—one in Thiruvananthapuram and another in Chennai. When Kumar approached me with his request, initially I wanted to ensure his safety. So we let him use it on a trial basis. But, after he managed to get the hang of it, we let him purchase it at a discounted price,” says Vijayakumar.
The challenges of riding a penny farthing cycle, Kumar says, were plenty. As the seat is placed above the large front wheel, while hitting the brakes, sometimes, the rear wheel would lift up above the ground. Though, being a fitness enthusiast and an avid cyclist he was able to get the hang of it soon.
Creating a world record
In the first week of March 2020, Kumar decided that he wanted to challenge himself and create a world record in the process. He rode up and down the Ponmudi hill, which is 1100 metres above sea level, with 22 hairpin bends—a 180 degree turning on mountain roads that helps vehicles slow down—on his penny-farthing.
“I completed that ride of 12.7 km in one hour 13 minutes and 55 seconds. I did not face too many challenges because my fitness levels were good and I had already mastered how to manoeuvre the penny-farthing,” says Kumar.
However, Kumar also has other quirky mentions in the World Book of Records including one for making 226 hand rotations in the clockwise and anticlockwise direction within one minute. He attempted this in January 2018 and won the title. He also holds a title for doing the same while jogging.
Another achievement he holds to his name is for riding 21.3 km on a backward brain cycle—one that resembles a regular cycle but turns right when the handlebar is turned to the left and vice versa—across the Marina Beach stretch in Chennai, Tamilnadu.
A family of record holders
At the Kumar residence, holding a world record is a sort of family tradition. PK Kumar’s wife, S Vijayalekshmi, and daughters—V K Karthika and V K Devika, also bagged the world record for doing the most number of hand rotations in the clockwise and anticlockwise direction simultaneously in 2019.
But it was not only to create world records, Kumar and his family want to spread awareness about the importance of undertaking creative activities such as cycling, running or hand rotations to prevent lifestyle disorders like diabetes or cholesterol, and also to keep the human mind sharp.
“We chose to practise hand rotations in the clockwise and anticlockwise direction because it is an activity that activates both the left and right side of the brain. Apart from that, doing these rotations for one minute boosts morale and elevates the mood of an individual,”says Vijayalekshmi, who works as the chief dietician at Cosmopolitan Hospital in Thiruvananthapuram.