I first found out about the Knutsford great race two years ago when I called in at the penny farthing museum in Knutsford when on route up to the start of the Sustrans coast to coast bike route, which I was riding on my penny farthing. The museum offers riders who turn up on a penny farthing free tea and the owner, Mr Glynn Stockdale, was keen to tell me all about the great race. I left that day thinking, wouldn't it be great to win that, I'd get to keep the trophy for ten years!
At the time I was unsure if I would even be competitive so when I got home I started to research the results of the previous race. From what I could find out It was going to be hard but not impossible for me to get close to the top step of the podium. The previous race was won by a guy called Jim Brailsford, on a horridly wet day he managed to average about 15 mph around the tight lap.
Thoughts of the race largely left my mind for the next 18 months but then earlier this year I received an email from Mr Stockdale asking if I was going to enter, he also said that he had heard I was quite fast on my penny farthing and that he thought I would do quite well. So my entry was sent off and I started riding my penny farthing a little more seriously.
I did a couple of practice runs at my estimated race effort on the Ketch 19.5 mile tt course. My best time was 1 hour 17 minutes, an average speed of 15.2 mph. At this stage of my preparation my legs, heart and lungs were coping fine but the saddle on the penny farthing was really painful after 90 minutes or so. The main problem on a penny is that you can't stand up or freewheel now and again to reposition and get more comfortable. Also as the handle bars are right by your hips all of your body weight is going on to the saddle.
I came up with a reasonable solution to the saddle problem by cutting up an old camping mat into the shape of a standard bike seat. I then taped this to the seat on the penny, it wasn't perfect and it looked horrid but it was a big improvement.
For the final part of my preparation I rode the penny on the broadheath 10 mile tt course and then raced it up Church street in a hill climb organised by Steve Price of Vc Sevale. The hill climb is a great event and I would recommend people try to ride it next year.
So to Knutsford. At the pre race party talk of who had a chance to win the race dominated and one name kept coming up. Josef Zimovcak, a Czech rider with a formidable reputation. In 2005 he rode the entire Tour De France route on his penny farthing, starting each stage just one day before the peloton. On one mountain stage he fell, breaking some ribs and his jaw. He was taken to hospital but discharged himself and continued to ride on, finishing the tour in just 3 weeks! As if this wasn't enough in 2006 he rode the Giro route and in 2007 he rode the Vuelta route. Other riders were basically telling me to keep out of his way as he gives way for nobody! One of the other riders told me a story of how he raced Josef in a track race on penny farthings. It was a mile race and Josef actually dipped for the line in order to secure the win. He dipped so hard he went over the handlebars and crashed, but he did win and proudly picked himself up, popped into the first aid tent and came out bandaged up and smiling to receive his trophy. Basically he wants to win at any cost, nothing else matters.
Josef was clearly the man to beat but there were other riders who had achieved incredible things on their penny farthings. One guy, Joff Summerfield has ridden his round the world, to date he has clocked up 25500 miles on his penny farthing. There were also some serious athletes in the race including people who had done Ironman triathlons. Then there was Jim Brailsford, he won the Knutsford great race in 2000 and he was also one of only 8 riders out of a field of 48 to finish a 3700 mile, off road, coast to coast, mountain bike race across Australia. Even in this company, a few people had heard that I was fairly fast and it was nice to be introduced to Josef and the other fast guys by the organiser of the race.
On race day Knutsford was packed, it was estimated that 5000 people were there to watch the race. As the course was a short lap of less than half a mile the crowds looked massive, 4 or 5 deep most of the way round the lap. After my bike was fitted with a lap counting transponder I went for a few practice laps. The course was quite narrow but I did a couple of laps at a pace that I thought I could maintain for the 3 hours. I averaged 15.5 miles per hour.
Before I knew it I was on the start line, The first couple of laps were to be ridden behind a pace car, so that everyone could get a feel for the course and then there would be a rolling start. The start was signalled by the firing of a Napoleonic Cannon! Word has it that Mr Stockdale had asked the relevant authorities for permission to use this and they had said no. Mr Stockdale used it anyway, good man, there is no place for heath and safety at a penny farthing race!
I rode the first couple of laps next to a friend of mine, Kat, who was one half of a team. I was riding the race as a solo rider. Teams could swap riders as many times as they liked during the race. When the lead car pulled off the pace picked up and I was soon passing slower riders. It was hard to tell exactly what position I was in as the lap was so short and I was soon lapping people. Friends who had come to watch were able to tell me my position now and again as the bikes had all been fitted with transponders so a computer could keep track of the race. After 30 minutes I was in 4th position and feeling good. My saddle modifications were working well and I was averaging 15.5 mph.
Then at about 35 minutes into the race I was about to get lapped. I was also about to move up to 3rd place in the race. As I came past the start finish area the marshals shouted to a rider directly behind me. They were trying to get Josef's attention, they were pulling him out of the race. Apparently he was to blame for causing two nasty crashes. He was going so much faster than anyone else he could have picked his moment to pass people and he still would have won the race by miles. Instead he chose to dive past people in very dangerous places, refusing to back off, he knocked at least 3 riders off in the process. Josef continued to ride round for a number of laps, but the message eventually got through.
With Josef out I kept up a decent pace for the next hour or so and I was not passed by anyone, then friends shouted to me that I was up to 2nd place and only 28seconds behind Jim Brailsford! Unfortunately my seat was now getting really uncomfortable and I knew my second half of the race was going to be slower than my first half. Sure enough 2nd was as high as I got, that became 3rd place with about 40 minutes to go and then 4th place a few minutes later. It wasn't that I had started too fast, it was just that my seat was so uncomfortable that I just couldn't sit far enough forward to create good power. I had to sit back and just hang on for 4th place solo rider and 5th overall.
I just about managed this, finishing 2 laps in front of a hard charging 5th place solo rider. Another 10 minutes and he probably would have caught me.
My Friend Kat and her team mate Charlotte rode an awesome race and finished as the first team, beaten only by Jim Brailsford who won the race for the second time. There was a mix up with the prize giving though and at the time the wrong team were awarded the team prize. A lot has been written about this on the internet and I am not going to go over it all in detail again. I would like to say that Kat and Charlotte have now been credited with the win, the transponder lap counters show that they covered 9 more laps than the next best placed team!