This year marks the bicentennial of the first two-wheeled human vehicle – the draisine – that pre-dates the first bicycle. And an antique bike club is also celebrating that as well as a milestone of its own this weekend.
They’re called the Wheelmen – made up of bicycle enthusiasts from local chapters across the U.S., including in Delaware - and abroad. And they first got together 50 years ago.
“Sort of trying to recreate the glory days of bicycles," said Eric Knight, the Wheelmen’s newly appointed leader. Those glory days began in the late 1800s, with the invention of what are known as “high wheelers” – characterized by their very large front wheels.
“People always ask – why did they make that wheel so big? That seems like a crazy idea, why would you do that? Generally, the reason is that they wanted to go faster and they hadn’t thought of chain drive and the leverage you can get out of a chain drive," Knight said. "So, the only way to go faster was to have a bigger wheel.”
This weekend, Wheelmen from across the country like Connecticut resident Nyle Blanck will be hopping on their high wheelers in the First State. At least once every 10 years since the group’s founding, it’s tradition to take what’s called the Founders Ride: a 10-mile bike ride from Kennett Square, PA to Hoopes Reservoir, where the group’s bylaws were finalized.
Some, including Blanck, are making an extra 100-mile trek on their historic bikes, called the Century ride. For that long of a trek, I had to ask: how’s the ride?
“It’s actually not too bad to ride, it’s just a long way down if you fall," Blanck said.
But from what Knight told me of the braking system, it’s pretty easy to fly off – and over - the handlebars.
Diane Blake traveled to the meet with both high wheelers and a pink draisine she rode through Europe earlier this summer.
“They [draisines] are not very practical," Blake said. "They’re cheaper than a horse but not as fast and just about as hard to deal with. There’re no pedals, you actually walk it. So you sit on it and you just stride it.”
Blake also manufactures reproductions of 1880s high wheeler Victor bicycles that run about $4,000 each.
The public is invited to attend the Wheelmen’s public demonstration on the evolution of bicycle technology at the Wilmington & Western’s Greenbank Station Saturday at 2 p.m.