To call Joff Summerfield a bike fanatic would be an understatement. Not only did he build his own penny farthing, but he rode 38,000 miles around the world – and counted.
Imagine a 4 foot high front wheel, no chain and solid rubber tires. This is a high wheel (circa 1870, in front of someone) invented gears, Chains or pneumatic tires). We spoke to perhaps the best high cyclist in the world. Joff Summerfieldwho has driven more than 38,000 miles around the world on his.
Not only that, he built his own.
Granted, he’s not the first to take on you crazy challenge while cycling. But in our opinion, the sheer amount of miles this cyclist has accumulated on his penny is crucial.
Q&A with penny farthing cyclist Joff Summerfield
GearJunkie: How did you get into Penny Farthings? And when did you start bikepacking for the first time?
Sommerfeld: My first Bikepacking trip was a 5 day drive from Calais, France to Amsterdam, Netherlands. I did this on a BSA parachute bike from the 1940s. That’s when I realized I loved it. I wanted to see the world by bike.
Now I like doing things so of course I wanted to build my own bike. Building a touring bike seemed too easy, a mountain bike too normal. The craziest thing I could think of was building a penny farthing.
What you do for a living?
My original job was as a racing engine builder. I worked in Formula 1 for 5 years before I started building pennies. I did that until 2014 when I cycled around the world again.
2021 will be a change for me as I take over a new workshop to start building pennies again.
How many countries have you been to? How many have you driven through (or around)?
I have ridden my penny farthing in 31 countries including the United States. Denmark is the only country I have visited that I haven’t been to on my bike.
What specific changes have you made to your long distance bikepacking penny?
The design of the bike was about learning how to make the bike both strong and light. The only way to find out was to get out and collect the miles on a loaded bike. In 2000 I drove Lands End to John O’Groats [which is 1,100 miles from the southernmost point of England to the northernmost point of Scotland]. [That trip] was on my MK-2 version which was about 32 pounds.
The MK-2 was a lot easier to drive and I hit it well (until it broke). Fortunately, over time I was able to do repairs with welders from different farms.
Go around Iceland with a cent – how was that?
Iceland is an incredible country. You always feel like you’re on the set of Game of Thrones (of course a lot of it was shot there). The landscape is so diverse and beautiful.
The Penny’s biggest challenge is the wind, and he likes to blow a storm in Iceland. You sit very upright and capture your full force as you drive into it. Cross winds can also catch the bike and steer you across the road. The gusty cross winds in Iceland were particularly exciting.
Tell us about the building – and how you even get on the bike.
Summerfield’s penny farthing at the Grand Canyon
The mounting pin is on the left above the rear wheel and as the name suggests [this] How to get in and out. Forks and poles are traditional [for a] High wheel, the bars are made of solid steel for strength.
As for the brake, only use it to slow your speed when going downhill. Pulling hard on it is bad news as the rear wheel lifts off the ground and sends you over the bars.
In terms of bag, the best configuration is to have two normal front pockets behind the saddle – with a tent pressed in between – a bar bag for cooking and a small backpack for cameras.
Can you talk about the first bike you built?
My MK-1 penny was a bit of a beast. I took something very simple and made it way too complicated. The bike I built around a Sturmey Archer three-speed hub with leaf spring suspension [and a] heavy steel frame – I built it like a tank. It weighed 76 pounds!
When I went to Paris by bike, I also took way too much equipment with me, so my weight was around 120 pounds. I learned a lot about traveling with a penny on this trip.
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Can you explain a little how riding a penny farthing is different from riding a traditional bike?
The main difference between a penny farthing and a regular bike is efficiency. The Penny has solid rubber tires and you can feel all the bumps and vibrations. I mounted the solid tires on a regular bike for a head-to-head comparison and it felt like I was riding through syrup.
Going uphill is also a problem as you cannot stand on the pedals and use your body weight. You need to [just] use your legs.
Since you are sitting very upright, you will also get a lot of headwind and not be able to lean too far forward to get aero.
Was it difficult to find stores that could help with parts and repairs?
Nothing about my bike is standard except for the saddle and pedals. So yeah, bike shops can’t help.
How many bikes have you built so far? Are you still making the pennies the same or are you playing around with the design?
In total, I have probably built around 60 motorcycles. I haven’t done any since 2014 but hopefully I will be In production again in 2021. In terms of design, I was ready [my fifth] Model, and each new version came with incremental improvements.
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You can find this fantastic video on your YouTube channel: On your tour through the USA you ride downhill to Death Valley and sit with legs and feet over the bars on your bike. Can you explain why
This is the safest way downhill. If you have [an] Accident on a Penny is called Header. Essentially, it does when you step forward and swing over the bars before hitting the deck. When you put your legs on the bars, the idea is that if you have an accident, you will run in mid-air and land on your feet.
If you hang your legs, it is [also] uncomfortable, and then the spinning cranks will likely crack your shin at some point.
Steepest Roads You’ve Driven And Worst Crash? Any injuries over the years?
The Himalayas were the steepest, worst conditions and highest altitude at approximately (15,500 feet) and were the most challenging on all fronts. I had to push most of them up but kept going down. Coming down Oxy Pass in Iceland was the only time I ever had to walk down a street.
My worst fall was an indoor high bike race in London. I came around a corner [and] took a gorgeous headerresulting in a broken elbow and wrist. They tend to break your wrists first, then your elbows, and then your teeth. I only did my wrists and elbows – four times each.
Can you remember the coldest or hottest weather that you experienced on your world tour?
In Tibet, I was stuck halfway up a pass in a snow storm. To stay warm, I dressed in the tent to camp that evening. The next morning I had to put all my wet clothes back on – I couldn’t take the risk of not wearing anything dry in the tent the next evening.
As soon as I started moving, I was frozen. I drove 10 minutes before I couldn’t grip the bars anymore. My hands were numb. After about an hour, I came across a tiny house [with] Smoke comes from a dilapidated chimney. [A] lovely family sat me in front of the stove to dry myself off.
For the hottest weather leading to southeastern Turkey, the heat blew from the Syrian desert. I had refilled my water from the springs on the way [but on] this time there weren’t any. At 40 degrees Celsius I ran out of water – a big mistake. I tried to suck a small stone to quench my thirst. I had read about it in an old survival book.
When the day came, I began to hallucinate. A few hours later, a farmer’s irrigation tank appeared. It was the best drink I have ever tried and it was also the worst drink I have ever tried. It developed into a full blown dysentery and stayed in Diyarbakır for 10 days.
Where are you planning to go next?
If I ignore COVID-19 I think a tour of Italy is long overdue.
Do you think penny farthings will ever make a comeback?
They have made a comeback, albeit in a really small niche way. There are people making pennies all over the world now, and it’s a huge community that I’m happy to be a part of.
“Modern Penny-Farthings” is exactly the term I like to work with – they don’t take anything away from historic motorcycles, they simply share the pleasure with a whole new generation.
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