Interview: the Londoner riding the Spring Classics…on a penny farthing

Round-the-world ace Joff Summerfield celebrates London Tour de France stage with gruelling challenge

Quirky, unusual and eccentric – all terms fondly used for penny farthing riders, which they themselves would no doubt accept. But how about endurance hard-man, round-the-world cyclist and Classics rider?

Londoner Joff Summerfield made his name in 2006 when he circumnavigated the globe on a hand-built penny farthing – only the second man ever to do so after Brit Thomas Stevens in 1884.

Joff Summerfield will tackle the Spring Classics sportives on his beloved penny farthing (Pic: David Parry/PA Wire)

And now he is to tackle the sportives of five of the Spring Classics, starting with the cobbles of the Tour of Flanders and pavè of Paris-Roubaix.

All of which begs one very obvious question – why?

“These rides, as you know, are famous, historical rides and to be given the opportunity to ride them on my penny is fantastic,” Summerfield, who is using the ride to promote London hosting the finish of stage three of this year’s Tour de France, told RoadCyclingUK.

“And to be able to promote London and the Tour coming to London is a brilliant opportunity. For me, it can only be a ride on my penny – that’s my thing so I have to do it on that. It’s a great challenge as well.”

On his trip around the globe, Summerfield took in Tibet, the Taj Mahal, the Himalayas – including Mount Everest’s base camp – and many more of the world’s most iconic landmarks.

But as fans of the Classics will know, the pavè of northern France and Belgium is like nothing else.

The pros will hit the Ronde well-equipped to tackle the fearsome cobbles – Scottish veteran David Millar (Garmin-Sharp) is equipped with the Cervelo S3, while WorldTour team have Lapierre’s new Pulsium.

But with one fixed gear there is not a lot Joff – who will ride the short route sportives at all the Spring Classics – can do to modify a penny farthing for the challenges awaiting – there is certainly no ‘shock-absorbing elastomer ring’ like that on the Pulsium.

Joff rides in front of Buckingham Palace – the third stage of the Tour de France will finish on the Mall in July (Pic: David Parry/PA Wire)

Not that it will be putting him off. He said: “I’ve ridden in Belgium before, but I’ve never ridden on Belgian cobbles.

“I’m kind of hoping they will be a bit smoother and flatter than your typical London cobble but I have put a larger, softer tyre on the bike to take account of them and I’ll also be wearing about three sets of shorts as well!

“I rode on all sorts of terrain on my world trip. I did a length of the Himalayas and there was no road there. No cobbles, but no tarmac.

“I’ve ridden through Eastern Europe in the small towns too, which I believe will be similar to the routes I go on tomorrow {Saturday, for the Tour of Flanders sportive].

“But you just never know until you actually get there and you’re on the road. It’s going to be dry though apparently, which is a good thing. It won’t be slippy for me.”

Summerfield, who builds penny farthings, is not alone in enjoying the quaint attraction of riding the most iconic of bicycles.

Anybody who has visited the London Nocturne will have seen the madness of the penny farthing race on the Smithfield Market circuit.

And Joff admits he loves seeing the reaction of the public when he heads out on his own beloved penny.

Joff, who is riding to promote the third stage of the Tour de France, insists riding a penny is easy once you get used to it (Pic: David Parry/PA Wire)

“The riding’s not so difficult,” he explained. “It’s more the learning to get on and off. It usually takes people about half a day to learn how to ride one but once you’ve had some practice it’s not so bad.

“The reaction you get from people on the road is one of the great things about it. You’ll always produce smiles from people.

“Everybody loves them, they all know what they are which is really nice. It makes people laugh – it makes people lie on their sides in stitches while other people are just surprised to see them in use instead of in a museum.

“At the end of the day, they are meant to be ridden. They are not made to be in museums. That’s what I like about them.”

Joff’s latest heroics are in celebration of London’s Tour de France stage when the peloton arrives from Cambridge for a finish on The Mall.

Taking in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the Tower of London and St. James’ Park the Tour is being given a spectacular send-off before the peloton heads to France.

London will host three official Tour de France fan parks – in Green Park, Trafalgar Square and the Olympic Park – where live big-screen action, a French-style food market, Tour museum, interactive activities and celebrity appearances will all be happening.

For Joff however, he will already be off on his next challenge by then – another world trip.

Joff, who will start his second world trip in May, claims the reaction of the public is one of the best parts of riding a penny (Pic: David Parry/PA Wire)

He added: “I’m doing five of the Spring Classic routes in all and then at the end of May I’m heading off around the world again. I’m really excited. Hopefully this will be a great warm-up for another world trip.

“Last time I went east, this time I’m heading west. It will be across the States and then once I get to Washington I turn left and keep going south until I get to the bottom – that’s the route planning done!

“You just never know what will happen though – because you are going so slowly, things change. Political situations change. I like to wing it a bit.”

But of course, you would never have expected a penny farthing rider – let alone one who plans to cycle around the world – to stick to the norm anyway, would you?

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