Meet the Man Who Bikes Around the World on a Penny-Farthing
To call Joff Summerfield an avid cyclist would be an understatement. Not only has he built his own penny-farthing, he's also traveled 38,000 miles around the world - and that matters. Imagine a front wheel 4 feet high, without chain and solid rubber tires. It is a penny-farthing bicycle (circa 1870, before someone invented gears, […]

To call Joff Summerfield an avid cyclist would be an understatement. Not only has he built his own penny-farthing, he's also traveled 38,000 miles around the world - and that matters.

Imagine a front wheel 4 feet high, without chain and solid rubber tires. It is a penny-farthing bicycle (circa 1870, before someone invented gears, chains or tires). We chatted with maybe the best rider in the world, Joff summerfield, who has traveled over 38,000 miles around the world on his own.

Not only that, he built his own.

Certainly, he is not the first to face a crazy challenge in cycle tourism. But in our opinion, the number of kilometers this cyclist has racked up on his penny takes the cake.

Q&A with Penny-Farthing cyclist Joff Summerfield

GearJunkie: How did you get into penny-farthings? And when did you get into bikepacking?

Summerfield: My first bikepacking trip was a 5 day drive from Calais, France, to Amsterdam, the Netherlands. I did this on a 1940s BSA Parachute bike. That's when I realized I loved it. I wanted to see the world by bike.

Now I like to do things so of course I wanted to make my own bike. Making a touring bike seemed too simple, a mountain bike too normal. The craziest thing I could think of was building a dime.

What do you do for a living?

My initial profession was that of a racing engine builder. I worked in Formula 1 for 5 years before I started building penny bikes. I did this until 2014, when I left again to tour the world.

2021 is going to be a change for me as I take a new workshop to start building money again.

How many countries have you been to? How many have you traveled (or around)?

I cycled my dime in 31 countries including the United States. Denmark is the only country I have visited where I did not go with my bike.

What specific changes have you made to your penny for long distance bikepacking?

As for the design of the bike, it was all about learning how to make the bike both strong and light. The only way to find out was to get out and ride the miles on a loaded bike. In 2000 I drove from Lands End to John O'Groats [which is 1,100 miles from the southernmost point of England to the northernmost point of Scotland]. [That trip] was on my MK-2 version, which weighed around 32 pounds.

The MK-2 was much easier to fly, and I gave it a good kick (until it broke). Fortunately, I was able to make repairs using two welders from different farms as I went.

Touring Iceland with a penny - what was it like?

Iceland is an amazing country. It always feels like you're on the set of "Game of Thrones" (of course, a lot was filmed there). The landscape is so diverse and beautiful.

The biggest challenge for the penny is the wind, and he enjoys blowing a gale in Iceland. You sit up very straight and grab all the force if you roll in it. Crosswinds can also catch the wheel and guide you down the road. The gusty crosswinds in Iceland were particularly exciting.

Tell us about the build - and how you get on the bike in the first place.

joff penny farthing grand canyon
The Summerfield Dime at the Grand Canyon

The mounting peg sits above the rear wheel on the left, and as the name suggests [this] is the way you get on and off the bike. Forks and bars are traditional [for a] penny-farthing, the bars being solid steel for strength.

As for the brakes, you only use them to moderate your speed when going down a hill. This is bad news if you pull on it hard, as the rear wheel will lift off the ground and send you over the bars.

As for the bag, the best setup is to have two normal front panniers behind the saddle - with a tent tucked in between - a bar bag for the kitchen and a small backpack for the cameras.

Can you talk about the first bike you built?

My MK-1 penny was a bit of a beast. I took something very simple and made it way too complicated. The wheel I built around a Sturmey Archer three speed hub, with leaf spring suspension [and a] heavy steel frame - I built it like a tank. He weighed 76 pounds!

When I rode this bike in Paris, I also took on way too much kit so my weight was around 120 pounds. I learned a lot about penny travel during this trip.

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Can you explain a bit how riding a dime is different from a traditional bike?

The main difference between riding a dime and a normal bike is efficiency. The penny has solid rubber tires, and you feel all the bumps, the vibrations. I mounted the solid tires on a regular bicycle for a direct comparison, and it felt like I was riding in syrup.

Pedaling uphill is also a bit of a problem, as you can't get up on the pedals and use your body weight. You have to [just] use your legs.

Also, because you're sitting very straight, you catch a headwind very badly, and you can't really lean too far forward to get aerodynamic.

Was it difficult to find workshops to help you with parts and repairs along the way?

Nothing on my bike is standard except the saddle and pedals. So yes, bike shops can't help.

How many bikes have you built to date? Are you making pennies the same or playing around with the design?

In total, I have probably made about sixty bikes. I haven't done one since 2014, but I hope I will be back in production in 2021. From a design point of view, I was up to the task [my fifth] model, and each new version was accompanied by incremental improvements.

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There's this fantastic video on your YouTube channel: You descend into Death Valley on your tour across the United States, and you're perched on the bike with your legs and feet hooked to the bars. Can you explain why?

It's the safest way to get off. when you have [an] accident on a Penny it's called a header. Essentially it's when you step forward and pivot on the bars, before hitting the bridge. By putting your legs above the bars, the idea is that when you have your accident you start to run through the air and land on your feet.

If you hang your legs, it is [also] uncomfortable, then the cranks turning are likely at some point to snap on your shins.

The steepest roads you've been on and the worst accident? Injuries over the years?

Himalayas were the steepest, worst conditions, and highest elevation at around 15,500 feet, and posed the biggest challenge on all fronts. I had to push the bike most of them but still got off. Going down the Oxy Pass in Iceland was the only time I had to walk on a road.

My worst accident was during an indoor race in London. I came to a corner [and] take a beautiful header, resulting in a fractured elbow and wrist. You tend to break your wrists first, then your elbows, then your teeth. I only did my wrists and elbows - four times each.

Do you remember the coldest or hottest weather you encountered on your trip around the world?

In Tibet, I got stuck halfway through a pass in a sleet storm. In the tent to stay warm, I put on my dry clothes for camping that night. The next morning I had to put all the wet clothes back on - couldn't risk having nothing dry to wear in the tent the next night.

As soon as I started moving, I was frozen. I rode for 10 minutes before I could no longer grip the bars, my hands were numb. After about an hour of walking I came across a small house [with] smoke coming out of a dilapidated chimney. [A] beautiful family made me sit in front of the stove to dry myself.

For the hottest weather, heading south-eastern Turkey, the heat was blowing from the Syrian desert. I had filled my spring water along the way, [but on] this opportunity, there was none. 40 degrees Celsius heat and I had run out of water - a big mistake. I tried sucking on a small stone to help quench my thirst; I had read about it in an old survival book.

As the day wore on, I started to hallucinate. A few hours later, a peasant irrigation tank appeared. It was the best drink I have ever tasted and it was also the worst drink I have ever tasted. It turned into full-blown dysentery and stopped me in my tracks for 10 days in Diyarbakır.

Where do you plan to travel next?

Unaware of COVID-19, I think a tour of Italy is long overdue.

Do you think penny-farthings will ever come back?

They have made a comeback, albeit in a very small niche. There are now people making pennies all over the world, and it's a great community that I'm happy to be a part of.

'Modern penny-farthings' is exactly the term I'm happy to use - they don't take anything away from historic motorcycles, just share the fun with a whole new generation.

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Rock climbing is everywhere these days. From the Dawn Wall to your Instagram feed to the new gym going up in town, climbing is no longer the fringe sport it once was. Kids are starting to climb almost before they can walk, and now more than ever, there’s no reason for you not to give it a try as well. However, climbing can be one of those intimidating hobbies to begin. Many ask, “How do I get started ? ” citing fear and feeling overwhelmed with gear and safety as huge barriers to entry. We get it, and so what follows is everything you need to know to get out on the rock.

The term “rock climbing” encompasses a great number of techniques, from bouldering to big wall climbing, to mountain climbing and mountaineering. Before you begin, it might be important to first identify what style of climbing you are interested in, or perhaps to ask, “Why do I want to climb ? ” Do you want to summit peaks, boulder at your local gym, or perhaps learn to lead climb at the local crag ? Do you want to make friends, be outdoors, or get in shape ( or all three ) ? Once these questions are answered, you can work out the potential steps you’ll need to take to get there. Below ( in the Sport vs. trad vs. bouldering section ) we attempt to inform this decision by breaking down the various styles of climbing; each has its own specific culture, gear, and learning curve.

Climbing is a complex sport : it’s potentially expensive to get into, difficult to find mentors, and can be dangerous if not done correctly. With the evolution of climbing gyms, however, it’s easier than ever to give climbing a try : just grab a friend and head to the nearest gym, rent a pair of shoes and a harness, and jump on the bouldering wall. However, if and when your progression leads you to climbing on ropes and outside, technical skills become essential to safety. Many choose to learn from friends; however, safety is so important that we recommend enrolling in a formal chic. The easiest and best way to learn the essential skills, which include belaying and tying proper knots, is by taking an introductory course at your local gym. Or, if you’re interested in climbing outside or even more specifically climbing in the mountains, seek out a class either through your gym or a local guide.

The first indoor climbing gym opened in Seattle in 1987. Now just 30 years later, there are 430 gyms across the nation, with over 50 more in construction at the time of writing. Areas like the Denver metropolis have as many as 10 gyms, all stuffed to capacity each day. Whereas climbers used to be a tiny community of mostly adult men with access to the wilderness, the climbing gym revolution has brought climbing to the masses. It’s safe to say that more people now climb indoors than outdoors. The climbing gym has developed its own culture, and climbing inside - “pulling on plastic, ” as climbers often say - is vastly different from climbing outdoors. It is arguably safer, much more convenient to access, and far more social; for these reasons, the gym is an super place to begin climbing. Gym passes cost anywhere from $6 to $30/day, with monthly memberships being the best option for those who go regularly. Outdoor climbing takes place on boulders, on cliff bands, and in mountains - anywhere where there is solid rock'n'roll, climbers can be found. Some of the most popular genres of rock'n'roll to climb include granite, sandstone, limestone, basalt, and conglomerate blends. Each of these kinds of rock has its own style of climbing, from overhanging jugs much like gym climbs, to technical slabs, to splitter cracks. Climbing outdoors demands a higher level of spécialité than climbing in the gym, as there are more variables and risques on real rock'n'roll. Weather can be a factor, as well as rock fall. Climbers will also need to possess a great deal more gear to climb outside, including their own rope and harness, quickdraws or other protection, a personal anchor and locking carabiner, and a helmet. Although many climbers begin in the gym, some learn to climb immediately outside, most commonly with the help of a guide or an instructional course.

Rock climbing is generally broken down into three categories : sport climbing, traditional ( trad ) climbing, and bouldering. Climbers tend to specialize in or prefer one discipline over the others, though many climbers participate in all three. Sport climbing is a style of climbing where the leader attaches quickdraws to pre-existing bolts, looping the rope through the quickdraws for protection while ascending the cliff. Sport climbs are often one-pitch climbs where the leader then comes back to the ground after fixing the rope to the anchor, though in some cases these climbs might continue up larger faces for multiple pitches. As a discipline, sport climbing focuses on difficult movement, résistance, learning to face fears, and risking a fall ( and being caught by the rope, bien sûr ! ). Trad climbing is the most rootsy and historical form of climbing, in which the leader climbs weaknesses in the rock ( generally, cracks ) and places gear in these weaknesses that will hold the rope in the case of a fall. Although trad climbs can be single-pitch routes like the majority of sport climbs, they often ascend features that are more than one rope length and end at a summit ( these are called “multi-pitch climbs” ). Trad climbers generally love long and adventurous days of climbing in wilderness areas, focusing on movement, logistics, technical rope and gear skills, and partnership. Bouldering is perhaps the most modern form of climbing, and certainly the fastest-growing. Boulderers ascend boulders or bermuda cliffs ( generally 20 feet and under ), using pads and spotters at the base for protection instead of ropes. Bouldering is a form of climbing that focuses on difficult movement and problem solving, and is more social than the other disciplines. We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention a few other forms of climbing : aid climbing, alpine rock climbing, speed climbing, and deep water soloing. Pick your poison ( or shall we say passion ) : each has its own set of joys and challenges !

One of the first things you’ll learn when starting to climb is how to choose a route that suits your ability level. In the gym, climbs generally are labeled with a difficulty rating; outside, climbers use guidebooks and often a phone app called Mountain Project to identify the difficulty of climbs. In the U. S., climbs are rated using the Yosemite Decimal System; in bermuda, 5. 3 is a very beginner climb, and 5. 15 is an expert-level route. These ratings do not denote danger, only difficulty. As a beginner, you’ll most likely be choosing routes 5. 7 and under, and often routes that can be top-roped. Top-roping means that the climber establishes an anchor from the top of the climb so that the rope is already in place, rather than leading the route from the bottom. Many routes in the gym are set up with top ropes; outside, climbers can often hike to the top of the cliff or feature to drop a rope down over the climb.

Each discipline of climbing necessitates a different set of gear. For all types of climbing, however, a beginner will need a pair of climbing shoes. For just starting out in the sport, we recommend finding a comfortable pair of climbing shoes ( don’t be persuaded by the salesperson at your local gear shop to purchase painfully tight shoes ). Delicate footwork will come later in your climbing career; for now you will just be developing an ability to stand on your feet and trust the rubber of your new shoes. All climbers will generally want to carry a chalk bag and chalk as well, which they will either wear around their waist or keep on the ground ( sometimes the case while bouldering ). Climbers dip their hands into chalk to dry off sweat and keep them from slipping off the rock. Boulderers will need the above two pieces of gear, in addition to a bouldering pad ( and friends with bouldering pads ! ). Bouldering pads are placed in the fall zone of a boulder problem, and the more the merrier ( and safer ! ). tera climb on ropes both in a gym or outside, climbers will need a climbing harness. Climbing harnesses come in a range of weights and specifications - some for sport climbing in particular, some with larger gear loops or more padding for trad climbing. Harnesses need to be replaced every few years for safety reasons, so we again recommend purchasing an affordable harness and replacing it when you have a better understanding of your needs. Along with a climbing harness, it is essential to own a belay device and locking carabiner. This equipment will enable you to belay your partner in the gym or outside, and rappel if needed. If climbing outside, a helmet is extremely important in case of rock fall. The above-mentioned gear provides the basics for personal gear needed for a day of climbing or bouldering, either in the gym or with an experienced and well-equipped partner. If you are looking to buy gear so that you can be fully self-sufficient ( and not need a partner or a group with shared gear ) you’ll want to also purchase a climbing-specific rope ( 60-70 meters, 9-10mm in diameter, dynamic ), a personal anchor ( PAC ) or daisy chain, extra locking carabiners, cams, nuts, quickdraws, and slings. It is extremely important to buy new gear or to know the history and age of the gear if acquiring used. Both soft materials and metals degrade over time and with wear and should be carefully assessed before using.

We wholeheartedly recommend taking a course taught by professionals before attempting to climb or belay on your own. Climbing is inherently dangerous, though when done correctly can be very safe. After all of the proper skills have been learned, it is still incredibly important to stay on top of safety at every moment. Before leaving the ground, or transitioning from climbing to lowering/rappelling, there are a number of safety checks that must be completed.


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