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Meet The Guy Who Commutes On This Old-Time Penny Farthing Bike

By Alisa Hauser | October 5, 2015 9:01am | Updated on June 15, 2016 3:44pm

[Carfreecommuter/The Chainlink]

WICKER PARK —  A music teacher balanced atop a penny farthing or high wheel bike has been turning heads and creating a stir on social media as he cruises along the Lakefront path, Damen Avenue and the 606's Bloomingdale Trail, among other spots.

"Look who was in front of me on my way home! #ICantMakeThisSh--Up," commented one Instagram user, who captured Joseph Kelley cycling west on North Avenue on his 1870s-era bike, which features a large 48-inch-tall front wheel and a small rear wheel.


With the help of folks from The Chainlink.org, an online cycling community, DNAinfo Chicago tracked down Kelley, a 27-year-old music teacher and Wicker Park resident, last week.

"I have fallen in love with this bike; it's feels pretty normal to me," said Kelley of his bike, which he takes on a 6-mile round-trip commute every weekday to a West side school where he teaches music.

"The students are fascinated by it. The other teachers probably think I'm a little crazy," Kelley said of himself and his chosen mode of transportation: a replica of a high wheel bike made in the 1960s and modeled after an original from a century earlier.

Alisa Hauser says Kelley thought the bike would be a fun challenge:

Kelley bought his bike for $700 in May from a Des Plaines man after first trying to buy a different high wheel bike on display at Quick Release Bike Shop, 1527 N. Ashland Ave. in Wicker Park.

"The guy there told me it was not for sale. I knew old bikes existed but I didn't know people made replicas. I didn't think that was really a possibility and then thought, 'Oh my god I could see myself riding it,' " Kelley said.

At the time he was considering buying a high-wheel bike, Kelley was not riding either of his two road bikes because he was recovering from elbow surgery after being injured in a "dooring" crash in April. 

When asked why he wanted to have such an unconventional bike, Kelley, who does not own a car, said, "Since I ride every day, it's the same reason a person gets a new car to change it up. It's a different feel. I thought it would be fun and challenging."

Kelley who said he was "terrified" at first, watched YouTube videos to learn how to get on and off the bike and trained in a small park near his apartment. "I fell off an estimated 25 or 30 times before I got the hang of it," he said.

Similar to a fixie, the bike has no brakes and requires balance. To brake, a rider needs to slow the wheel down and pedal backwards.

Currently the back wheel of Kelley's bike is wobbling and he is trying to get it fixed. He would have to buy a new wheel from a manufacturer in San Francisco that he learned about from connecting with Cary Williams, a high-wheel rider based in Bridgeport.

"My family is naturally concerned [about safety], one positive of riding a higher wheel is that I am high enough for cars to see me easier and motorists tend to give me more space," Kelley said, adding that he tends to ride "pretty slow."

Kelley said he plans to ride his bike all year round, winter included. If he does not think it's safe enough, will switch to one of his road bikes.

Williams, a 56-year-old Bridgeport resident who is helping Kelley fix his bike, has been riding high-wheel bike for 17 years and recently rode his own authentic 1870s-era bike across France.

"They are marvelous machines to ride; you get a smoother view and I like the history of the bike. It's got a soul," Williams said.

Paul Schmidt, Captain of Wheelman Organization,  a group of antique bike hobbyists, said vintage bikes are gaining more traction along with stronger numbers of folks taking part in "tweed rides," where cyclists dress in knickers and old-style clothes.

"More manufacturers are making replicas and they are more readily available. There is a continuing interest in the biycling community to reenact the old way of doing things," Schmidt said.

Schmidt said that the preferred terms for Kelley's bike is a "high-wheel bicycle" not a penny farthing bike.

"Penny farthing is a British slang term for anything out-of-date. It wasn't the term the bikes were called in their heyday. We prefer high wheel because it is more descriptive and less derogatory," Schmidt said.



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