You're Never Going to 
Ride That Thing
Excerpts from a speech by Paul Niquette
Internet Version
Copyright ©2005 by Paul Niquette, all rights reserved.


The Three Problems

As you have heard [in the introduction], I have the honor of owning the 64-inch Columbia Expert Ordinary, built in 1886 -- the largest bicycle in the world, according the the Guinness Book of World Records.  The acquisition resulted from the concerted efforts of many fine members of The Wheelmen [international organization of antique bicycle collectors], most especially Carl Wiedman, bicycle historian par excellence, and Jim Spillane, world-renowned restoration expert.

It all started with this problem: finding a high-wheel bicycle large enough for me to ride.  The 300 or so specimens in collections were all too small.  My legs would get jammed between the handlebar and the pedals.  For months, Jim Spillane kept reassuring me of eventual success.  "Don't worry," he told me repeatedly, "we'll find you a bike big enough for you to ride."  That turned out to be merely the first problem.

In May of 1976, Carl Wiedman discovered the 64-inch Columbia in Columbus, Nebraska, and that immediately led to the second problem: I had to outbid all the collectors in the world to get it.  That's another story.  Suffice it to say, it took my life savings.  Carl called from his home in Michigan and congratulated me.  I told him, I was determined to ride my new treasure at the Bicentennial celebration in Philadelphia.

"Mark Twain took more than six weeks to acquire 'competence of the wheel'," said Carl. "You're never going to ride that thing."

So, then, it seems there was a third problem, and that's subject of this story.

The crate arrived at my home in Connecticut from Nebraska a week before the parade. Jim Spillane drove to New Canaan for the unpacking ceremony and took his first look.

"We found you a big bike, all right," he exulted. "But..." Spillane shook his head. "You're never going to ride that thing."

Jim Spillane loaded the old relic on his truck and rushed it to his workshop in New Haven for replacement of spokes in the front wheel.   Wood and leather and rubber had also suffered a century's decay.  For the next seven days, a team of experts worked 'round the clock to craft handlegrips and saddle and tyres. I engaged a tailor to fashion the requisite knickerbockers and began waxing my moustache.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, would you like to see the largest bicycle in the world?


The Wheelmen Meet

For the Bicentennial, the Wheelmen held its National Meet at Cabrini College on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Magnificent old bicycles arrived at the campus in padded vans from all over the country. Their owners swaggered across the parking lot greeting one other with affectionate insults.

The Largest Bicycle in the World stood amidst a crowd of admirers. Devoted craftsmen led by Jim Spillane labored earnestly to prepare the mighty machine for the parade the following morning. I kept my distance and took in the double-takes.

The occasion called for each new arrival to be asked the same question: "Ever see anything like that?"

Each would shake his head then frown at me.  "You're never going to ride that thing."

A group of 27 high-wheelers rode in from Dearborn, Michigan, a distance of 725 miles. The trip took 14 days and produced a hundred stories, some apocryphal. One exceptional yarn had to do with a run-away bicycle that passed a truck on a down-grade.

"You're not going to believe this, Good Buddy," said the truck driver over his CB rig in one version of the story. "But I just seen an old guy on one of them old-fashioned high-wheel bicycles. He come by me doin' more'n 70!"

That hapless Wheelman, a 58-year-old eye surgeon, rode the last 25 miles in the back of a stationwagon. Both his arms were in casts. He had other injuries, too. The man shuffled toward me, legs wide apart and took one look at my bicycle. A disconcerting smile gripped his countenance. I could see why: it was a result of the facial sutures.

"You're never going to ride that thing," he said.

The Dead Line

Fourth of July, 1976. The City of Brotherly Love was all turned out, gleaming for the Bicentennial. A hundred and thirty-six high-wheelers rode in the parade. There was I among them, still wobbly on my first ride, bringing up the rear, overwhelmed by the adulation of the crowd that lined our route. The experience filled me with a sense of...

But I'm getting ahead of my story.

At about nine, the night before the big parade, one of the mechanics suggested the use of a space-age material -- epoxy -- for the handle-grips. A couple of workers squeeled away in a pickup, hoping to find a hardware store still open.  After a full day of solemn warnings, I found myself hoping otherwise. By and by, the workers returned triumphant, having bribed a store owner to re-open.

Spillane and his crew, toiled into the night. A circle of pickup trucks, engines idling, cast their headlights on the workplace. The silhouette of spoke and spine reminded me of a rocket gantry, "T minus 12 hours and counting."

Just before midnight, a cheer rang out.  The 64-inch Columbia was whole again and ready to ride. One by one the men gathered up their tools. For the first time I held the bike by its backbone and contemplated the perilous task I faced.

All around me stood Men of the Wheel from every part of the country. I scanned their unsmiling faces and felt the ultimate in peer pressure.  Resigning myself to pay the price, I lifted my foot to the mounting step on the left side of the backbone and reached upward for the handle-grips.

"Better give the epoxy time to set," Spillane cautioned.


The Big Day

All through the night, I tossed fitfully in my bunk in the Cabrini dormatory, rehearsing the procedure: left foot on the mounting step, push off with right foot, pull with both arms, vault onto saddle, catch pedal with right foot.

Mark Twain appeared, chuckling. "You're never going to ride that thing."

Dawn, the day of the parade. While fellow Wheelmen slumbered, I slipped into my riding garments and crept out of the dormatory, wheeling the big bike. I stood shivering for a time. A handful of stars held their places in the brightening sky, a polite reminder of the insignificance of all human endeavors.  I mounted the Largest Bicycle in the World.

And rode that thing.

Giddy with the conquest of a basic fear, I pedalled silently along the road leading out of the campus and down a slight hill.  A sharp bend lay dead ahead.

"Take-offs are optional," goes the old aviation saying. "Landings are mandatory."

In an attempt to reverse the mounting procedure, I reached back with my left foot and vainly sought the mounting step. The right pedal, driven relentlessly by the big wheel, jammed against my foot. With right knee unwittingly locked, I felt myself shoved backwards off the saddle. I fell straight to the ground and somersaulted.

The bike continued its majestic roll. Scrambling at once to my feet, I caught up and lay hold of my priceless treasure, lest it strike the curbstone. Laughter from behind me.

"Care for some pointers?" asked Jim Spillane.

After breakfast, I showed off my torn knickerbockers and wobbly proficiency to the Wheelmen. They exchanged glances and authorized me to ride in the parade -- but following well behind, where I would have plenty of room to practice my dismount.

The Big Parade

A singular adventure was mine that day. All along the ten-mile route, thousands cheered the Wheelmen, and a crescendo of spontaneous adulation greeted my arrival at the rear of the parade in wave upon wave. I experienced a curious sense of -- well, a sense of undeserved grandeur. Cameras clicked. Perched atop the old bicycle, floating above the streets of Philadelphia, I judged myself to be single-handedly responsible for a one-point rise in Kodak stock.

Periodically the marching band ahead would stop. At a bugler's command, the riders ahead dismounted with a flourish.  I dismounted, too, but without the flourish.  I would stand beside my nickel-plated treasure catching my breath.

On one occasion, a silver-haired man from the crowd stepped off the curb and came toward me, eyes glistening.

He spoke with an accent of indefinite origin.  "When equestrians come along, I see horses," he exclaimed.  "The marching band, I hear music -- but you!"  He pointed at me.  "I see a man suspended aloft, propelled by his own effort.  I felt it first in the soles of my shoes and now here!"  The man thumped his chest with his fist.  "You have made me proud to have lived my life -- as a man!"  He reached out and took my hand in both of his.  "Thank you!Ē

I was overwhelmed by the manís exuberance.   Popes and queens receive daily doses of comments like that -- seldom more extravagant.  They would know how to reply. I did not.

I cleared my throat. "You're welcome."

The bugle sounded. Time to mount up.

Grasping the handlebars, I pushed off.  When I looked over my shoulder, the silver-haired man had disappeared into a blur of people.

I decided that day to forgive each person for his or her sins.

The glory would end suddenly.

The Big Demonstration

The Bicentennial parade ended at Fairmont Park in Philadelphia. Wheelmen rode grandly into a huge quadrangle surrounded by thousands of cheering people.

From my vantage point at the rear of the procession, I could see rank upon rank of high-wheel bicycles with their uniformed riders forming up. Our bugler gave the call to dismount. I sprung uneasily from the pedals and dropped to the pavement without tumbling.

Applause mixed with cries of greeting filled the air. A network television crew dollied closer. Glad to have survived my first ride, I tilted my cap to the nearby exuberants.

    "Good afternooon, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls," bellowed a voice over the public address system. "We are the Wheelmen, a worldwide organization dedicated to preserving the traditions of bicycling."
The announcer's rounded tones echoed through the park. Using Victorian diction, he described the various riding machines of the 19th Century, which were there arrayed in the quadrangle -- velocipedes, ordinaries, safeties. At a pre-arranged signal, the Wheelmen pulled back to the perimeter and merged with the audience, making space for the riding exhibition.

Once again I was merely part of a crowd, the status to which I was born. I tugged at my tie and relaxed.

The show began with demonstrations of mounting and dismounting, accompanied by explanations blended with historical notes, elegant and informative. The television crew maneuvered for advantage as selected Wheelmen were called upon by name to operate the various riding machines.

    "The 'serpentine'!" said the announcer, as a half dozen high-wheelers zig-zagged single-file past the spectators. "Observe the precarious action of pedal and wheel, the rider perched ever upright so as to avert calamity. 'Header,' it is called, a term that is altogether self-descriptive (laughter). No headers will be demonstrated today -- intentionally, that is. (laughter) And now, if you please, give your attention -- photographic devices at the ready -- the 'shoulder brace'!"
Two trios of Wheelmen locked arms and stopped momentarily. After a dramatic hesitation, they moved ahead and separated, finally halting with a "parade dismount" and bowing in unison, caps off.

The people around me clapped with gusto, and I joined in, glad to be standing securely on the ground no longer the object of attention by the multitudes. The narrator waited for quiet. He lowered his voice, giving his next comment greater significance.

    "Perhaps you noticed, these bicycles are not all fashioned in the same size."
Uh-oh, I muttered to myself.
    "Ordinaries were crafted in a range of dimensions to match those of their owners. The diameter of the front wheel is so important, it is always given as the 'first name' of the bicycle. For example, the 50-inch Rudge, which was ridden by a brave lady -- "
A young woman in tight-fitting knickerbockers pushed her nickel-plated bicycle out into the center of the quadrangle and stood at attention, receiving a round of applause.
    " -- named Annie Sylvester, who in 1883 raced the high-wheel bicycle, not without success. Now, the smallest wheel we have here today is the 36-inch Columbia, ridden by a young admirer of the most famous Wheelman of all -- "
A 10-year-old boy wearing riding breaches and a ruffled shirt trotted out to the center of the quadrangle, guiding a miniature ordinary.
    " -- there he is, Mr. Thomas Stevens, who in 1884 journeyed alone on his bicycle around the world -- "
"Ah," intoned the people in the park.

Well, I thought to myself, if all I have to do is stand there...

    "And today, for the first time, the Wheelmen are proud to present a unique bicycling treasure, which was recently rescued from a barn in Nebraska and restored to riding condition -- just in time for today's celebration... Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls: the Largest Bicycle in the World! -- the 64-inch Columbia Expert -- "
Face crimson, I stepped forward in a trance-like state.
    " -- ridden by its owner, Connecticut Industrialist, Mr. -- "
A great roar filled my ears. The television crew crouched beside me, shooting through the spokes of the bike. I took my place beside the young woman. She was applauding, too. The boy reached out and shook my hand.

Overwhelmed beyond my poor powers to describe, I experienced a blast of self importance mixed with a curious foreboding.

    "And now," the announcer exclaimed. "Would you like to see them ride?"

It was for such an occasion that a certain expletive was invented.  It begins with the letter s.

The Big Fiasco

Annie Sylvester leaped onto her bicycle and pedalled about in loops and turns, waving her cap and beaming. She concluded by floating to the ground and bowing, in one graceful motion. Applause came in resounding waves.

Young Thomas Stevens did the same, adding hands-off riding and an 'over-the-handlebar' dismount. That left the Connecticut Industrialist standing in the middle of the quadrangle, mouth dry.

An expectant hush from the crowd. The television crew pulled back to make room.

My eyes focussed no more than 10 feet ahead. I straightened my cap and grasped the handle-grips. With my foot on the mounting step, I pushed off.

Not hard enough.

The big bicycle rolled forward and slowed. By then I was high in the air, having demonstrated my incompetence by vaulting upward with excessive force. Feet sought pedals and found spokes instead. Deprived of headway, the huge machine ponderously surrendered to gravity, capsizing like a schooner in a squall.

The 64-inch wheel, the Largest in the World, locked in a deadly embrace with foot and fork, suddenly losing its circularity. The collapse was accompanied by the release of tension in all 82 spokes at once joined by multitudinous gasp from the crowd. On the way down, I took notice of something that gave me increased distress.

The Steel Steed

Over the years, I have referred to the high-wheel bicycle as "the steel steed -- ever saddled, never needing a feeding." Indeed, the horse was the precursor to the bicycle. Riders of both sat on saddles, wore pith helmets, and sounded cavalry bugles.

The bicycle affords much improved transportation. A man or woman can travel a-wheel many times farther in a day, there being no need to feed and to water and to curry the machine.

Now, the horse also practices an impolite function, which leaves reliable evidence of recent attendance. For corroboration, one might consult the musicians in any marching band.

While concluding my brief riding demonstration at the Bicentennial, I observed five contemporaneous events:

  1. a thousand voices joined in sympathetic utterance,
  2. a television crew moving in for a shot of my face,
  3. a cheerful narration by the announcer,
  4. a viscous, aromatic substance imbedding itself in my torn clothing, and
  5. a pain from every part of my body that starts with a vowel.
The Wheel-Snap

Arising from the shambles and oblivious to the surrounding tumult, I lifted my treasured relic and gaped at the damage. The wheel had taken the shape of a Pringle potato chip. The spokes hung limp. I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was one of the New Jersey Wheelmen.

"I'm all right," said I, pulling away.

"We don't care about you," he hollered above the din.

Three others joined him and wrested the crippled bicycle from my hands. The voice over the loudspeaker explained what was happening for the benefit of the on-lookers -- which included me.

    " -- causing the wheel to collapse." The announcer was continuing his explanation to the crowd. "Now, if you watch closely, you will see the four Wheelmen from New Jersey form a circle and grasp the wheel, then carefully coordinating their effort..."
"Are you ready," shouted the first Wheelmen.


"On three, then."

Standing back with no small amount of astonishment, I watched the Wheelmen brace themselves.

"One, two, three!"

"Thwonng!" snapped the wheel, spokes ringing.

    "...the Wheelmen twist the wheel back to its original condition! That's how it was done a hundred years ago. Let's give a well-deserved round of applause for today's demonstration of...the 'wheel-snap'!"
The four New Jersey Wheelmen stood the big bike upright and took a bow. Someone was brushing off my clothes. I reached out for the bicycle, its wheel perfectly round and huge and beautiful.
    "Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, that concludes our demonstration. On behalf of the Wheelmen, -- "
I held up my hand.

The Big Moment

"No!" shouted someone in the crowd. Others pointed at me and raised their voices as one. "No!"

    "What's that?" asked the announcer. "Oh, will you get a load of that!" he said, dropping the 19th Century elocution. "Hey, you're never going to ride that thing."
"Yes!" exclaimed the joyous throng.

Bruised and sullied, I lifted my foot, pushed off. And rode that thing.

Once around the quadrangle and I knew what it must feel like to pitch a no-hitter in the World Series.

The people in the park went home hoarse.

Two days later, I arrived at my home in New Canaan. As I unlocked the front door, I heard the phone ringing. It was my father, calling from Grants Pass in Oregon.

"You dumb shit," he said.

The Big Bike
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