By Marie Autrey
PHOTO: ERIN WILLIAMS
“So, how do you get up on that thing?” If I had a dollar for every time I’d been asked that question, I could buy a new bike. But a new bike really isn’t the point at a race where the hot set-up is twice as old as your grandfather, and almost as tall.
You’ve seen antique bicycles with enormous front wheels in the fourth of July parade. They’re not just for Shriners, though. In fact, twenty-one riders, skillful and brave, (plus me, who is neither) gathered in suburban Maryland not just to ride these bikes, but to race the hell out of them.
Organizer Eric Rhodes brought the sky-high anachronisms to his home of Frederick, Maryland. Eric’s no living-in-the-past Luddite. At 37, he’s got the enthusiasm of a puppy with a new ball. He’d traveled to England for the Knutsford Great Race, and returned with a new high-wheeler and the desire to race it in America.
The Frederick Race is one of only four “opens” in the world: one in Tasmania and two in England (including the Knutsford, which is held just once per decade). Antique bike organizations such as The Wheelmen and the Veteran-Cycle Club may have races at their meetings, but these are available to members only. The farthest-ranging entrant drove from Phoenix, and the winner from Missouri. Racers looped two city blocks for an hour. Overall winner Rick Stumpff made 42 laps, while women’s champ Sheryl “Wool Socks” Kennedy logged 37.
Greg LeMond, another big wheel from a bygone era, acted as celebrity spokesman, flagging the start and even mounting up for the victory lap. LeMond does charity work on behalf of victims of sexual abuse; the Tour de Frederick, of which this race formed a part, benefits these victims.
Competitors brought a range of bikes ranging from low-end reproductions to 130-year-old antiques. The antiques often displayed a rat-rod aesthetic, mixing ancient with high-tech in jarring ways. Tangerine-colored Chris King headsets, Flite saddles, and carbon fiber bars stand out against paint brushed on a century ago. One bike sported a trispoke rear wheel, and another, a BMX knobby. With authentic repair parts vanishingly rare, enthusiasts keep the wheels turning by whatever means necessary.
Riders were encouraged to dress in period attire. The winner chose black wool shorts and a timeless Brooks jersey. Others kitted themselves with neckties and ye olde knickers. Women competitors let their imaginations dictate their fashion choices, as varied as pirate blouses and jockey silks. Modern helmets were required, which rider Alison Torpey credits with saving her life. She was clipped by a passing rider on the bell lap and fell hard, sustaining multiple injuries.
One reproduction bike has changed hands four times within the local Washington, D.C. club, as riders are attracted by its low price, then repelled by its handling. Members refer to it as the “gateway drug.” Repros start around $900 new and plateau at $3,500 for high-performance examples. For antiques, the price can go as high as you want.
If you wanna party like it’s 1899, organizer Eric plans to reprise the race next year. He says, “I think we’re onto something huge...and classy.”