Pedal back in time at the Frederick high-wheel race

Susan Kim

Competitors fly through Frederick on high-wheelers with no brakes during the National Clustered Spires High Wheel Race.

On Aug. 12, some cyclists will ride in the Maryland summer heat wearing knickers, vests, and bowties. Each rider will be sitting 9 feet off the ground on a bike that looks like a unicycle with a teeny auxiliary wheel.

Oh, and these gizmos from the 1800s they’ll be riding have no brakes.

It’s the National Clustered Spires High Wheel Race. Who wouldn’t want to watch this spectacle?

Lest you think these are goofy contraptions, these “penny-farthings,” or high-wheelers, hold a vaunted place in biking history: They’re the first machines to be actually be called “bicycles.” (The penny-farthing nickname comes from the British penny and farthing coins, one much larger than the other.)

During the race, high-wheel riders from across the world hit a .4-mile loop multiple times through downtown Frederick.

High-wheeling isn’t for the faint of heart. As seasoned rider Nick Ackermann noted, there are no brakes and no coasting, plus there’s the constant flexing of the rider’s arm muscles to counter the tendency of the pedaling force to make the big wheel turn to the left or right. 

So, how do you stop? “Either plan ahead, or have an emergency,” Ackermann said.

Last year, spectators could observe the harrowing ride from any point alongside the roped-off course.

Or, even better, they could enjoy watching the bicyclists from the comfort of a beer garden — complete with craft beer from Brewers Alley and snacks — located in Frederick’s City Hall courtyard.

Insider tip: If you want a good spot for spectating, arrive in the morning. With two qualifying heats and a final race, high-wheeling goes on all afternoon. The streets close an hour before the race starts and there are parking garages within an easy walk.

You can check out the race course at

There’s “normal” biking in Frederick, too

Frederick — both the city and the surrounding county — offer plenty of biking opportunities, many of which involve absorbing beautiful countryside and local history dating back to the 1700s.

The Frederick History Bike Loop takes you through a 10-mile exploration of the streets, alleys, and paths of historic downtown Frederick. A casual ride with many stops, it allows riders to go at their own pace.

While some of the historic sites, such as the Francis Scott Key Monument, are more well-known, other more-obscure stops are just as interesting. The simply named “Memorial Park” is the only park in Maryland that commemorates members of the state’s armed forces who fought in every American conflict from the French and Indian War to the Gulf War.

Insider tip: Park in the garage near the visitor center on the edge of town for three hours of free parking, plus access to the restrooms in the center.

For more challenging routes, check out the Heritage Bicycle Tours. With five different rides, including the City of Frederick Campaign Ride, North County Bridge Sampler, Transportation Heritage Trail, Catoctin Mountain Challenge, and Spirits of Burkittsville ride, the routes offer everything from flat easy pedaling to serious off-road climbs.

You can find itineraries on the county tourism website.


Community and ‘cama-ride-erie’

The Bicycle Escape in Frederick, designated as “America’s Best Bike Shop” by the National Bicycle Dealers Association, hosts group rides full of camaraderie (or is that “cama-ride-erie”?), and sometimes even wine.

The shop hosts a weekly road ride on Sundays that leaves from Utica Park, rolling out at 1:30pm.

Expect a 20- to 40-mile ride at 16 to 19 miles per hour.

Two upcoming rides:

Women & Friends Wine & Ride, May 14, 2:00pm.

Pick a distance — 5, 15, 20, or more miles. Ride road bikes or hybrids, fast or slow. Guys are welcome, but this ride caters to women.

The ride starts and ends at Catoctin Breeze Vineyard, where participants can take in a fabulous view while toasting the long-

awaited spring. The event is free, but riders do need to register.

C&O Canal Excellent Adventure, June 9–11

This is a three-day, two-night, ride-at-your-own-pace group camping adventure stretching over 110 miles of the flat C&O Canal. Participants won’t have to lug gear, find a campground, make meals, or decide what’s happening next, because most of the food and logistics are taken care of.

Register by May 9 for a discount.


Learn more:

Frederick Co. Tourism:


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