Learning to Ride the Ordinary

Bulletin #2
Revised: 1994-01-01
With additions and comments by Robert Balcomb

If authorities of old are to be believed, every gentleman should know how to ride the Ordinary bicycle with elegance and grace. They do not, however, tell you of the difficulty you may encounter in attempting to do so. In reality, this accomplishment is akin to fine equitation or dancing the Lancer’s Quadrille. Riding the Ordinary requires concentration and relaxed vigilance, else your ventures on it will be fraught with physical danger to yourself and your machine. Ridden with due respect, however, the Ordinary bicycle brings its rider the utmost pleasure and sense of accomplishment.

This bulletin will concentrate on instructions regarding the fundamentals of riding the machine. Once those basics are a normal part of your riding routine, you are ready to learn the fine aspects of graceful and elegant bearing while on your Ordinary. Only fools leap into the saddle and attempt to learn these fundamentals entirely on their own without the benefits of some guidelines. To attempt to do so can only lead to dangerous spills. For the sake of your machine and your safety record, we ask that you adopt a cautious learning progression.

Before you ever mount any Ordinary, check that it is mechanically safe. Are the tires tight on the rims? Do the wheels spin freely? Pull on the handlebars to be sure that they won’t shift when you place your full weight against them. Check the seat leather, the trouser guard, and the foot step. Try the brake to insure that it operates freely. When you are certain that all of these components are in such a condition as to make your Ordinary safe to ride, you are ready to go.

First you should practice mounting and dismounting. This may be performed indoors or out, but the close quarters found inside generally make outdoor practice preferable. While practicing the mounting and dismounting, have someone stand in front and to the side of the machine to hold it upright and steady while you perform this first step.

In mounting, you first stand astride the machine, hands on the handles and arms out straight. You then place your left foot on the step and swing the handlebars to insure that the front wheel will clear your toe. Many machines have very little clearance between the front tire and the mounting step, and should your toe extend too far forward, it will interfere with the travel of the wheel and could result in a painful fall. With your toe on the step, place your right thigh across the seat, and pull on the handlebar so that you gently slide into place on the seat. In a live mount, it will help if you coast with your thigh across the seat until the right pedal comes up to your foot. By then letting your foot follow the pedal in its downward travel you will be gently pulled onto the seat.

See a video on how to mount an Ordinary.

If your knees jam the handlebars when the pedals are in their topmost position, do not ride the machine. If this interference is not corrected by setting the pedals inward a notch or two on the pedal crank, you will have to find a larger wheel for safe riding. Although some Wheelmen can successfully ride a wide range of sizes of Ordinaries, the following will give you an idea of size most likely best suited to you:

Your Inseam Wheel Size
31” 48”
32” 50”
33” 52”
34” 54”
35” 56”
36” 56”

Emergency dismounting can be practiced at the same time as the mounting exercises. There are a number of methods of dismounting from the Ordinary, but there is only one acceptable method that is both rapid and safe. This first method to be learned is simply to go off the back of the seat, but this method requires practice to perfect before actually trying it from a moving machine.

In an emergency, you dismount by pushing straight back on the handles and sliding off the seat, making sure you land on tip toes with arms and legs straight. It helps if you can also get a backward push on the pedals, but this is not always possible. By landing relaxed, so that you will bounce, you can insure that you will still be moving forward with the machine so as to bring it to a quick stop without allowing it to fall. As stated earlier, this is the fastest and safest way to dismount should cars pull in front of you or mechanical trouble develop with your Ordinary. It will also save handles and arms when you see that you are going to fall during a U-turn.

This method of dismounting should be practiced at least twenty times, or until you are certain that you can do it completely automatically. Under emergency conditions, you may become confused so that it is necessary that your muscles react on their own to perform this maneuver in safety.

Another intermediate step, which you may want to try before “soloing” would be to practice steering while coasting with your foot on the mounting step. Make sure that the wheel clears your foot, to allow you to be able to turn the wheel freely. Shove off and coast, riding it like a scooter.

When you are certain that you have practiced mounting, dismounting, and steering sufficiently to ride your “wheel” in safety, for it and yourself, you are ready to try live riding.

Wheel your machine to an area that is smooth and trouble free, preferably paved. It will be easier if the area is also slightly downhill. A grassy area is acceptable for the Star or Eagle bicycle, but is too difficult for a beginner on the common Ordinary.

Put your left foot on the step, check your clearance with the large wheel, give two brisk pushes with your right foot, place your thigh across the seat, and when the right pedal comes up to meet your foot you will be eased into the seat and be off on a glorious adventure; your first live ride on an Ordinary.

It is perfectly normal to have altitude trepidations with your Ordinary, even though you have spent considerable time practicing the mounting and dismounting. Sitting on it while it remains still is not the same as being on it while in motion. Should these fears exist at the time you are ready for your first live ride, there is one easy way to eliminate them almost immediately before you place yourself in the position of riding in total fear of the machine. When attempting your first live ride, do not go all the way into the seat when the right pedal comes up. Instead, just coast a short (very short) distance with your left foot on the step and your thigh across the seat. One or two short ventures in this position will remove any fear you may still harbor about climbing onto the seat.

On your first ride you should expect to hold the handles firmly so that the pushing on the pedals does not wiggle the steering. One must overcome the turning torque that pedaling causes by holding back on the opposite side handlebar. After riding the Ordinary some time, you will develop the ability to more or less relax your grip without the wiggling from your foot pressure. On your first ride, go a hundred feet or so and dismount in the manner practiced. Turn the bicycle around and ride back to where you started. Repeat this procedure twenty times or so, then quit for the day. The next time out you will be ready to try the U-turn.

In making U-turns, there is one important thing to remember. You must keep pushing on the outside pedal or you will rapidly find yourself off balance and falling toward the inside of your turning arc. If your wheel is large you must have the tip of your toe on the outside pedal to reach it. You should also remember that the slower you are moving during the U-turn, the more precarious your balance. Should you find yourself going off balance, you can often correct the situation by exerting greater pressure on the outside pedal, but the wisest move is to dismount immediately via the emergency route.

If you see that you will not clear the curb, or if you start to fall to the side, use the emergency dismount immediately. On most Ordinaries, you cannot possibly fall sideways without hurting yourself and your machine because your legs are literally trapped under the handlebars. The only exception would be with the earlier Ordinaries which had the straight bars, but even then it takes great adeptness to get clear from the machine and still allow it to settle to the ground without damage.

Above all, stay with this mount and dismount system until they have become total habit and you are able to ride your Ordinary relaxed. Use your brake gingerly. Applied with the least bit too much pressure, your brake will slow the wheel enough to cause you to do a “header”, that is, go over the top of the wheel. Whenever possible, lean back when going downhill or approaching a bump. It will also help you in resisting the pedals if you will slide as far as safely possible to the back of the seat, thereby allowing you to start resisting the pedals when they first start their upward path.

Your hill-climbing power will be increased if you will ankle; that is, keep the balls of your feet on the pedals and work your ankles to give a rotary motion and a longer arc of push. This maneuver is easier if you slide forward on the seat.

Downhill riding must be approached with added caution. With an Ordinary it is not unusual to walk down some hills as well as up them. Just as you may not be able to force the pedals down any more when pedaling up a hill, you can get to the point where you cannot hold them back any more with “back pedaling” when going down a hill. The difference between the up and down situations is, of course, that going up, dismounting at a near dead stop is relatively easy, while going down hill “lickety split” is an entirely different matter. As mentioned before, “gingerly” using the brake is all you can do. You just have to let it run free and hope you will be able to ride it out. Even trying to dismount near the top can be hazardous. If you have any appreciable momentum, too strong back pedaling can lift you right out of the saddle and right over the handlebars, for the well-known header.

You cannot be too cautious in avoiding headers. Your Ordinary tips forward very easily. The entire unit pivots with great ease on the axis of the front wheel, and with your legs trapped under the handlebars, you cannot land without doing so on your head. Needless to say, this fall is abrupt, unpleasant, and extremely dangerous. You should not undertake to learn the riding of the Ordinary unless you are willing to ride it with extreme caution and meticulousness at all times. You must be constantly on the alert for obstacles and avoid anything which will stop or seriously impede the travel of the front wheel. Always ride where traffic, road surface, and hills are safe. Walk your machine through any questionable places. Inspect your machine at all stops. If you hear a noise that suggests bearing or tire trouble, dismount immediately. Most headers are caused from hitting road obstacles or from tire, trousers, or stones jamming the small clearance between the fork and the large wheel. Some clubs of the 1880s wore cork lined helmets for just such occasions.

You are now qualified to ride high wheel tours and should do so whenever time permits. The more you ride your Ordinary, the greater the pleasure you will derive from this adventurous feat.

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