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Riding High

A new high-wheel design makes bicycles lighter and faster.

In Britain, after the velocipede craze died away, the search for a better cycle continued, fueled by an enthusiastic sporting and club movement and an active manufacturing industry. By 1870, British cycle makers had come up with a new form of two-wheel velocipede with a much larger front wheel. They made it practical by devising a new way of constructing wheels.

First introduced by Reynolds and May on their “Phantom” (810205), suspension wheels had wire spokes, which made them lighter, and rims covered with rubber, which absorbed more vibration and made them easier to propel.

The first cycle maker to take advantage of the suspension principle to build bigger wheels was James Starley. His 1870 “Ariel” (810206) had a 50-inch (127-cm) front wheel.

Ariel, 1871

The rider had to sit right over the front hub to reach the pedals. Starley reduced the size of the back wheel to save weight. This basic design was copied by most other cycle builders and soon buyers could choose from a variety of 60-inch (152.5-cm) bicycles. Even with the increased size, makers were able to reduce the overall weight by building frames from steel tubing, which was available by the late 1870s.

Within a few years, tubular frames were standard on most bicycles, making them faster and lighter than ever before. The Museum’s Humber racing bicycle (810209) is a good example of high-wheel design and construction at their height.

Humber racing model, 1885