On one Saturday each July, thousands of revelers line the streets in downtown Frederick to cheer on the bicyclists entered in the National Clustered Spires High Wheel Race, the only race of its kind in the United States.
High wheel bicycles, also known as penny farthings and ordinarys, have an up to 5-foot tall front wheel and a tiny rear wheel. They were popular for a brief period in the late 1800s before the safety bicycle and its equal-sized wheels assumed the widespread appeal it maintains today. With its whimsical appearance, the high wheel is the vehicle of choice for circus clowns. But they are more than just novelties to a small contingent of thrill-seeking riders who race both vintage and reproduction high wheels—many of which lack brakes.
Just mounting a high wheel is a skill in itself. A small step at the rear of the bikes provides a foothold as riders heave themselves up to the seat above the front wheel. The wheel is turned by moving the waist-level handlebars, and the bike is propelled forward by pumping the pedals to either side of the big wheel. The bikes can reach a speed of about 20 miles per hour.
Jeanne and Eric Rhodes organized the first Clustered Spires race in 2012 after Eric competed in England’s Knutsford Great Race, a high-wheel race held every ten years, and sought to establish a race on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Most Clustered Spires entrants hail from Maryland and adjacent states, but a handful of participants travel to Frederick from across the nation and as far away as Sweden and Uruguay.
“Our racers love coming to Frederick not only because of the beautiful downtown area but the people have been so welcoming to them,” Jeanne Rhodes said. “Everyone’s friendly [and] asking questions—and they just love the attention.”
A few riders wear modern cycling gear, but many dress in retro clothing such as bowties, suspenders, and knickers. And a few veer off script with their race wear. “The crowd loves watching people in the unique outfits, so we’ve had people that will look like a pirate or ‘Where’s Waldo’ in a striped shirt,” Jeanne Rhodes said. “I think that’s how the spectators decide their favorites.”
The 0.4-mile course loops around North Market Street, West 2nd Street, Record Street, and West Church Street, which are all closed to traffic and cleared of parked vehicles. Crashes do occur, and the straw bales stacked at the four turns attempt to ease the fall for riders who may lose control. The most popular spot to watch the race is the start and finish line on North Market Street. But there is no poor vantage point along the course because the cyclists are elevated so high.
Race day begins with a pair of 15-minute long qualifying heats to winnow down the field of dozens of racers. The top half of the competitors advance to the final where the cyclist who completes the most laps in 30 minutes wins. A male and female champion are crowned at the awards ceremony.
The annual high wheel race is a beloved Frederick event and has made the city a hub of high-wheel cycling. “If back in 2009 in Frederick someone said, ‘I saw this guy riding this weird bicycle,’ I was 100 percent sure it was my husband,” Jeanne Rhodes said. “But now if someone says that to me, he could be anyone—we’ve really grown the people who ride the bike locally.”
If you go
Stop in for a cold beer or a bite to eat at Brewers Alley, which has sponsored the race from the beginning and is located at the start and finish line at 124 N. Market Street. For more Frederick recommendations, check out our articles on downtown Frederick eats, historic sites to visit, dog-friendly spots around the county, vintage shops, and walking and driving tours.
Lead Photo: André Chung