Watch this history buff bring big antique bikes back to life in Montreal

·4 min read
Paul Gauthier said getting the bike was a spur of the moment decision, and despite the challenges, he doesn't regret giving the penny-farthing a try. (Simon Martel/CBC - image credit)
Paul Gauthier said getting the bike was a spur of the moment decision, and despite the challenges, he doesn't regret giving the penny-farthing a try. (Simon Martel/CBC - image credit)

When Paul Gauthier rides his bike through the streets of Montreal, people stop and stare.

Gauthier said strangers often flag him down to ask questions. Pedestrians whip out their phones and snap pictures. Cars slow down to let him pass, perplexed.

"They're like: who is this guy? Is this like some kind of advertising? And they're not sure, but it's just me riding my bike," he said, laughing.

His bike, admittedly, stands out in a crowd. Gauthier, a self-described history buff, rides a penny-farthing — the large-wheeled, tall-framed bikes from the 1800s.

Gauthier said it's not just a showpiece: he uses the bike to run errands or take a ride around his neighbourhood. Most recently, he completed the Tour de l'Île — a 36-kilometre route through downtown Montreal — all atop his penny-farthing.

"From the moment people see you, they're like, 'oh, history is coming,'" he said.

A piece of history

Gauthier said getting the bike was a spur of the moment decision. During the pandemic, he'd been researching the Victorian era in his spare time and wondered if it was still possible to get a bike like that.

It turned out to be easy to get an accurate replica online, so he ordered it on a whim.

"[When it arrived] I looked at it for a good hour in my living room and I was like: 'what have I done?'" he said.

Simon Martel/CBC
Simon Martel/CBC

Gauthier said he had to look up videos online to learn how to ride it. Just getting on is complicated: you need to hoist yourself onto the seat by stepping onto a peg on the frame, all while the bike is in motion. Meanwhile, its rubber wheel means there's little shock absorption. (The wooden predecessor to the penny-farthing earned the nickname 'the boneshaker' due to the bumpy ride.)

Also, it has no brakes. Hills especially can be a challenge, he said.

"Your centre of gravity is super high … so you have to be careful when you go down," he said. Otherwise, you can feel the back wheel lifting off the ground, leading to the penny-farthing's notorious ability to pitch riders headfirst over the handlebars. (Helmets are recommended.)

"Usually if there is a bad hill, I just walk it down," he said. "But you can go uphill no problem!"

On the road, Gauthier said riding the penny-farthing requires a heightened awareness, but he doesn't usually have any problems. Cyclists and drivers both tend to slow down and give him space, as if respecting the bike, he said.

"I think they're saying, like: 'If this guy is crazy enough to ride this, let's just let him do it. Let's get out of the way and let him do his thing,'" he said, laughing.

Looking to the future in the past

Now, Gauthier gives classes on how to ride the bike through his association for penny-farthing fans, Boneshaker MTL, so others can experience it for themselves.

Xavier Marine, also a history buff, is one of the ones who tried Gauthier's bike. He loved it so much he now owns his own penny-farthing and also gives lessons through Boneshaker.

"The idea is to make people have the same feeling we had. Being happy and that sense of freedom — we want to give that to people," he said. "And the thing I love is people are always scared of the bike!"

"It's like skydiving, the first time you do it. It's scary, but then you want to do it again — it's the same feeling."

Simon Martel/CBC
Simon Martel/CBC

It's also how people back then would have felt, when the concept of the bike itself was still brand new, he said.

"This gave birth to the regular bike we have now. So it's an important part of history and of course, it's a big part of the history of Montreal," he said.

Gauthier and Marine say remembering that history, and paying homage to it, is a big part of why they do what they do.

But Gauthier has another motive, too. The penny-farthing "kind of disappeared from history," he said — replaced, in part, by the car.

Just the presence of the penny-farthing raises the question of whom Montreal's streets were made for, he said. Gautier points to the fact that Montreal's first road map was actually a map for cyclists, and many of those routes exist where bike paths are today.

WATCH | Take a look at Montreal's first road map for cyclists: 

"Bicycles predated the automobile," he said. "We should show people that we used to have our place in the streets — and we should try to gain it back."

Especially in the face of climate change, he said he wants to encourage people to look to a time before fossil fuels for inspiration.

His hope is to one day see a group riding through the streets on penny-farthings together, like they used to 150 years ago.

For those unsure if they can handle the bike, Gauthier encourages them to take the plunge, saying the penny-farthing has been a "life-changer."

"It's one of the best rides ever," he said. "You feel like you're flying … just mind that there's no brakes!"

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