Benoît the big bicycle man - Pedalling to the pictures - CycleBlaze

Benoît the big bicycle man


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IT'S NOT UNUSUAL to find cyclists at a cycling festival. It is less probable to find one on a penny-farthing.

  Benoît Guerre is medium height with short-cropped hair. You'd consider "swarthy" and then decide against. In his mid-40s, I'd say, although I never found out.

  He pats the bike. "It does tend to stop the traffic in town," he says with a slow grin. "They don't know what to make of you."

  We agree that coming up behind what most people consider a circus act wouldn't escape observation. And it would call for some concentration.

  I ask whether he has heard crashing metal as drivers going the other way pay more attention to him than those in front. He smiles slowly again and says "Not yet."

  He bought his penny-farthing from a man in England who makes them. North of Brighton, on the south coast, he says, but I don't recognise the town he tries to remember. I think he just fancied having one. And since buying it, he has ridden it for fun and to raise money for children with blood disorders

  "It's traffic lights that I don't like. If you stop, you have to get right off and stand on the road. That takes space that may not be there. You can't just put a foot on the ground. And then you have to run with the bike to get started again."

  Every junction, therefore, becomes a slow-bicycle race, a perpetual calculation of whether the lights will change. If they don't, it's an awful long way down to the ground.

  He's ridden over a lot of France and into neighbouring Belgium, sometimes with his son on a mountain bike and his father in a van behind them. His next destination is Holland.

  A penny-farthing wheel can be no larger from hub to tyre than the length of your inside leg. He has to turn the pedals quickly to get any speed. I joke that he'll be under-geared for the Dutch polders.

  "It's not the climbs or descents that bother me," he retorts. "It's the wind. Especially a cross-wind." And there can be a lot of those in Holland, sweeping in from the North Sea.

  In most countries, gear sizes are expressed in the distance covered by a single turn of the pedals. But not in Anglophone countries. I struggle to explain that English-speaking nations cling to a bizarre method that expresses gear sizes in what they would have been had the rider - Benoît for instance - been on a penny-farthing. The size of a wheel they no longer have, in other words.

  Benoît listens politely but I see the idea strikes him as too absurd to understand. He shrugs. "Angleterre," he says, "they do everything strangely over there, don't they?"

  We pass to what could have been a trickier subject, because Benoît's bicycle has no brakes. He can push back on the pedals to slow down, as racers still do on the track, but the law says he must have a conventional brake as well.

  He grins. "The gendarmes have never noticed." Probably because the idea of a penny-farthing strikes them as too eccentric for the law book. And perhaps because they tell themselves "France, they do everything strangely here, don't they?"

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