Am I stuck in a time warp? Men sitting bolt upright steadily pedalling their penny farthings while women in voluminous skirts chatter of local life in elegant tea rooms. Life among the creamy Oamaru whitestone (a kind of limestone) buildings, north of Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island has a feel of a life museum. Today these wonderful Victorian building have been revived as art galleries, cafes, museums, craft shops, a bakery, bar, a historic bookbinder and various other businesses adding a lively feel to this historic Kiwi city.
Dave’s Wilson’s Oamaru Cycle Workswho has been collecting, building, promoting and riding antique style bicycles since 1994. Among the treasure trove in his modest shop are rows of penny farthings with their characteristic huge front wheel and tiny rear wheel, early wheelchairs, tricycles, a pedal-less wooden bike propelled by running your feet along the ground and a fascinating assortment of old bike of all shapes, sizes and styles (some looking very impractical indeed) showcasing the development of the bicycle through its earlier days.
The shop also acts as the headquarters of the Oamaru Ordinary Cycle Club, a group of like-minded hobbyists who organise rides around the country on historic bicycles.
Impressively, Dave cycled a penny farthing the full length of New Zealand from Stewart Island in the south to the most northerly point of the North Island over three months.
Dave recreates these yesteryear bicycles from scratch, shaping components, rolling his own rims and fitting solid rubber tyres (not the modern air-filled variety), chatting with infectious enthusiasm, his handlebar moustache wriggling across his top lip like a jiving caterpillar.
Even better is that in an area near the shop for just a few dollars, you can ride a few lapson a couple of Dave’s penny farthings. Maybe I didn’t look the most likely of cyclists but Dave encouraged me to trial a smaller penny farthing for starters without the exaggerated front wheel of the typical models. After a few laps with increasing steadiness, I feel ready to launch my limited cycling skills at the full model.
Hurling myself forward onto the uncushioned leather seat(while carefully supported by Dave), mounting (and dis-mounting) is a difficult manoeuvre. Finally sitting aboard the trusty metallic steed, I lurched forward with a few uncomfortable pedals, Dave clinging to the frame to steady the frame.
Steering is strange, every tiny movement and wobble being immediately transferred and magnified to the immense wheel directly below. Sitting so high and upright on a bike of ridiculous proportions is an unnerving feeling at first though the ride is surprisingly smooth on the solid galvanised rubber tyres. With the pedal directly connected to the axle of the front wheel, your legs turn with the front wheel while cornering creating a bit of a balance challenge.
Speeding up (and with Dave bravely letting go) makes riding easier, one smooth pedal stroke covering quite a distance (this is the reason that they made the front wheels as large as possible) though trying to pedal more vigorously starts the bicycle on a weaving zig-zag path as body weight subtly moves from side to side.
Wander the streets of Oamaru and check in on the Oamaru Cycle Works and ride a part of Victorian history. It’s not just like riding a bike…