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Original Issue

Big Wheels Keep On Turnin'

Proud owners of antique bicycles rolled into the IVCA world championships for vintage racing

A millisecond after Steve Carter had flown over the handlebars and landed on his helmeted head on the macadam track five feet below, he watched his hard-tire highwheel bicycle gyrate farthing over penny above him and sail out of view. Carter wondered whether he had made a mistake by riding a 100-year-old, prizewinning showpiece in this 200-meter sprint. But these were the 11th International Veteran Cycle Association (IVCA) World Championships, and racing antique bikes was the reason that Carter and 62 other competitors from 11 countries had come to Findlay, Ohio, for five days in June. Besides, their bikes were built to last.

Carter fell into his predicament after placing third in a 200-meter heat. Michael Gabrick, who was fourth in the heat, was in Lane 1, just inside Carter, when they crossed the finish line. As the two riders approached the first curve on the University of Findlay's 400-meter running track, Carter says, Gabrick apparently failed to start his turn quickly enough, and his pedal met Carter's spokes, resulting in a spectacular sprawl of century-old technology and somewhat younger humanity.

A few minutes later an unscathed Gabrick offered his apologies to Carter, who was still lying supine on the track but was only slightly bloodied. "How are our bikes?" he asked Gabrick, still unaware that the five-foot-tall front wheel of his highwheeler now looked like a soft pretzel and would cost $300 to fix. Carter's hopes of competing in the following race were dashed when officials started it sooner than he could gather his wits and another bike.

Not that Carter hadn't already made the most of the week. A 47-year-old assistant fire chief from Plainfield, Ind., he had ridden the 240 miles to Findlay on the highwheeler he would use in the 200. Known as the penny-farthing in England (because of the large wheel in the front and a small one in the rear) and as the Ordinary in the U.S. (because it was so commonly used), this model had its heyday from 1880 to 1890.

Carter's wife, Carolyn, a real estate broker, drove from Plainfield on Wednesday with one antique tricycle and seven two-wheelers from their collection of pre-1917 cycles, which they planned to ride in a full slate of races, parades and games associated with the IVCA championships and the concurrent annual meeting of The Wheelmen. One thousand members strong, The Wheelmen is a 24-year-old organization dedicated to preserving the history and tradition of high-wheelers and other antique bikes.

On Thursday, 66 collectors gathered for the Century Ride, a 100-mile rally on hard-tire (as opposed to inflatable-tire) highwheelers. After the trek from Plain-field, Carter decided to skip the Century to save his energy for the two days of competition to come.

As it turned out, that wasn't a bad idea. High winds and 92° heat caused all but 29 of the cyclists to drop out of the Century, which took place on a rural circuit just outside Findlay. Jacques Graber, 39, a geologist and environmental specialist with the California Lands Commission, finished first on one of the five highwheelers in his collection of 101 classic bikes. In 1990, Graber set the Australasian century record with a time of seven hours and 48 minutes, and in 1989 he set the German double-century (200-mile) mark with a time of 14:30 for what actually turned out to be a 206-mile ride. But on this steams day, Graber was happy to complete the 100-miler in 8:30.

The first race of the championships was the 30K on Friday, and it took place on the same roads outside Findlay. Eleven competitors rode safety bikes (with wheels of equal size, safeties are the precursors of today's models), 12 riders were on Ordinaries, and two rode Eagles, another type of highwheeler. Ordinaries and Eagles both have one enormous wheel and one small one, but on the Eagle the big wheel is in the rear. An Ordinary obliges the rider to pedal as well as steer the unwieldy large wheel, whereas an Eagle has rear-wheel drive and front-wheel steering. Eagles thus tend to be some-what faster and more maneuverable than Ordinaries.

The pneumatic-tire safeties would start first, followed in two minutes by the hard-lire safeties. After another three minutes the hard-tire highwheelers would set out. Hard-tire bikes ride considerably less swiftly and comfortably than their pneumatic-tire counterparts, a fact that Carolyn Carter, one of the two hard-tire safety riders entered, attested to as she waited to start. "You don't have to worry about me lapping any of those pea-new-matics," she told the spectators. She was right, but she still finished a respectable 10 minutes after Keith Pariani, who rode the other hard-tire safety. Pariani's time of 1:27:30 was a half hour off those of the top pneumatic bikers.

Phil Scott, 40, a former decathlete from Dayton, was powerful enough to break the wind for the five-man pneumatic safety peloton throughout much of the 30K and sustain an agonizingly long sprint to win in 57:28. Scott showed his fidelity to his hometown by riding the 1904 Dayton safety bike that he had finished restoring only the day before. Steve Carter placed third, 11 seconds back.

"A mile from the finish," said a winded Scott afterward, "I saw all these people up ahead on highwheelers, and I thought they were spectators at the finish line. So I started my sprint!" The highwheelers were actually some of the stragglers completing their second of three 10K laps.

Ten minutes after Scott's victory, five highwheelers streaked toward the finish, each rider's body bent far over his handlebars as he strained for additional speed. A heated Ordinary-versus-Eagle battle developed as Ross Hill, a 39-year-old manager of product engineering for the Motor Wheel Corporation in Lansing. Mich., furiously pedaled his Ordinary to the finish against Jamie Woodward, a Digital Equipment computer engineer from Merrimack, N.H. The techie on the Eagle won by a second, but Hill still took Ordinary honors.

Woodward's wife, Lora, also a computer engineer, placed eighth overall, and first among the women, in the highwheel category. The Woodwards' is the ideal Wheelmen romance. They were introduced by their parents, all of whom are avid antique bike collectors and riders.

While exuberance over bike collecting predominates at Wheelmen and IVCA events, the element of competition is what gives them grit. After his disappointing second-place finish to Hill in the Ordinary division of the 30K, Graber not only expounded on the joy of riding old bikes but also rationalized his defeat.

"I drove here from Sacramento, and I want to do everything I can," said Graber, who pointed out with a smile that while he was grinding it out in the Century the previous day, Hill was resting. Other healthy rivalries would be revealed the next day.

Saturday began with the 1,200-meter men's hard-tire safety race. Walter Branche, a bike historian who works for Schwinn, held a 40-meter lead most of the way. But then Pariani came roaring off the final turn, passed Branche with 20 meters to go and earned his second victory. Afterward Pariani, a swimming-pool builder from Lake Helen, Fla., said, "I've known Branche since 1969, and he and I are tremendously competitive."

"He's the one who competes." said Branche with a sniff. "I just give him someone to compete against."

As Branche spoke, Tammy Haley, a 36-year-old phys-ed teacher, used his bike to beat her Plainfield neighbor and friend Carolyn Carter in the women's 1,200-meter hard-tire safety race. When asked whether he would take part in other races, Branche replied, "I have a machine. It's that red boneshaker there. But I'm not going to race it."

So it was that the 1,200-meter boneshaker race featured only one entrant—Steve Carter. Boneshakers, made in the late 1860s and early '70s, were the first pedal-driven bicycles and were so called because of the torturous ride their wooden wheels provided. But Carter's three solo laps in the boneshaker event were surely a treat compared with the skullshaker awaiting him in the 200.

The six highwheel sprints combined high wheels with high speed to create high drama and, as anyone who saw Carter's spill would acknowledge, high anxiety. The four cyclists in the 1,600-meter Eagle Flying Start began the race in mounted position and already in motion. Within a few seconds Jamie Woodward opened a huge lead, and he went on to victory, beating Dean Nicholson by 200 meters. In his next event Woodward rode an Ordinary to win the 200 heat that was the downfall of Carter and Gabrick. Meanwhile, Lora Woodward, who was also riding an Ordinary, won the women's 200 meters and the women's one-mile race.

Last on the schedule was the IVCA championships" showcase event, the men's one-mile Ordinary final. The six-rider field jockeyed for position in a three-by-three pack for the first three laps. Then, at the bell, 44-year-old Zbynek Simek of Czechoslovakia, by far the smallest man (5'6") in the field and hence riding the smallest bike, broke away to beat Jack Castor by 30 yards. Graber, who apparently never stops pedaling, came in third.

An equipment manager at the Faculty of Sport in Brno, Simek was a member of the Czechoslovakian national cycling team in 1971. His victory in Findlay augurs well for the 1993 world championships and rally, which will take place in Prague, where the IVCA member club that will host the event is 110 years old. In the meantime the Wheelmen will gather next summer in White River Junction, Vt., for their annual meet.

Steve Carter, who won the Hard Luck Award in Findlay and is perhaps a little wiser for wear, is looking forward to the gathering. "This year I took 10 bikes to the rally, and I hardly had any time to socialize," he says. "Next year I'm going to ride to White River Junction and just socialize and relax."

Believe that when you see it.



In the 30K, Graber (left) and Hill (right) were Ordinary bikers; Woodward flew on an Eagle.



The Carters have Wheelmen wardrobes and 25 antique bikes; nine went to Ohio.