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Meet Arlington’s Penny-Farthing Commuter

by ARLnow.com August 10, 2011 at 2:15 pm 7,848 54 Comments

Ken Matthews actually doesn’t like attention.

You just wouldn’t know it if you saw him riding down the street on his 1891 Columbia Light Roadster “penny-farthing” bicycle, a bike so old that the only replacement tires you can find for it are sold by the Amish.

Matthews, an employee in the Arlington County communications department and self-professed lover of “old stuff,” has been riding a bike to work every day for 10 years now. For a couple of days last week, Matthews caused a bit of a stir when he started commuting from his home in Falls Church to the county government building in Courthouse on the penny-farthing, instead of on his usual, low-key 1972 Peugeot three-speed. Tweets and emails started coming in to ARLnow.com, asking what was up with the guy pedaling through Ballston on the old-school, high-wheel bike.

As it turns out, the Peugeot had been stolen — like two other bikes before it — and the penny-farthing was the only working-order bike in Matthews’ sizable vintage bicycle collection. The married father of two says he doesn’t ordinarily commute on the penny-farthing, largely due to the fact that it takes twice as long to get wherever he’s going since he is constantly stopped by curious strangers who want to take photos and ask questions. That’s not to say, however, that Matthews doesn’t like the occasional ride on the 120-year-old bike, which weighs 35 pounds and requires little maintenance due to the lack of parts like chains or inner-tubes.

“Keeping it well-oiled is pretty much all you have to do,” he said. “It’s bombproof.”

Matthews’ 2- and 4-year-old also enjoy rides on the penny-farthing, made possible by the fact that his Cannondale children’s bike trailer can attach to the penny-farthing’s “backbone” (the pole that holds the smaller wheel).

You won’t be seeing much of the penny-farthing from here on out, since Matthews has fixed up another vintage bike as his every-day commuter. But the penny-farthing will still make occasional appearances. The bike, which could fetch as much as $2,000 at auction, technically belongs to one of Matthews’ friends, who rides it in parades. The friend has let Matthews ride the penny-farthing in exchange for storing it for the past several years — since the nearly 5-foot tall bike won’t fit in the friend’s home.

  • PikerShorts

    Bad ass

  • Tabby

    He’s totally hot.

    • Duder

      I find the girl in the red shorts (background) pretty hot.

      • Man in blue shirt with paunch

        I was checking her out too!

        • Tabby

          The woman with the white hat has arms that are unreal! Kudos to her on the awesomeness of her arms.

  • For the record, Ken says he’s only wiped out on the penny-farthing once. And the leather seat is original.

    • E-Ross

      Dang, I’ll bet the wipe-out would hurt! That’s a long way to fall… Great article and good pics, though, answering the random questions about him last week!

  • SouthArlJD

    Awesome. So old school it’s way cooler than anything newer.

    • FrenchyB

      Indeed, much better than all the ‘fixie’ hipsters.

      • Hipster

        That really is a “fixie”

  • TGEoA

    Where is his helmet and Lycra?

    • JamesE

      No skin tight team discovery shirt for him

    • normal

      What about his handlebar mustache?

      • Tabby


    • I got that PMA

      Yeah, I am in shock, a guy on a bike in arlington with out his helmet and skin tight shorts? haha
      Vamos Atlético Madrid!

      • ken_matthews

        vamos – arriba los colchoneros!

  • CW

    I see he’s on the sidewalk because he’s near the county offices in Court House (and thus presumably dismounting to go into work), but does he ride the thing on the Wilson/Clarendon bike lanes? That would take stones. Also, can he get up some of the hills on the Custis trail or does he have to walk it? There are some steep ones.

    • He can go up hills, just not steep hills. And yes, I think he does use the bike lanes on Wilson/Clarendon.

    • normal

      He probably doesn’t take the Custis. And I’ll bet cars slow way down to pass him, so they can get a look.

      • CW

        What else would he take from falls church? W&OD to Bluemont and then a fairly hairy section of Wilson before the bike lanes start? Idk.

        • normal

          The Bluemont Junction trail goes from Bluemont Park to Fairfax Drive, avoiding that stretch of Wilson entirely. Fairfax Dr. is easy street and has bike lanes. It would take him into Clarendon and join up to the Wilson bike lane.

          But he might just take the Custis. He might have the thighs of a buffalo.

        • JamesE


        • Just heard from Ken, here’s his route:

          “I cross rte. 50 on Manchester going into Bluemont Park, cut through and come out the other side on Bluemont Junction, then take Fairfax Dr. (not Wilson) to Clarendon Blvd.”

          • CW

            Wow, learn something new every day. I always thought that the Bluemont trail died at Wilson and George Mason. Had no idea that it went diagonally across that intersection. I’ve been doing it all wrong for years…guess I never thought to look over by the firehouse.

          • Daniel

            just watch out for the brick pavers that are in disarray by the Holiday Inn

  • Nice Shirt

    Atletico Madrid fans are so cutting edge!

  • Pam

    Yes he is hot!

  • Love the break.

  • CrystalMikey

    I’ve seen another guy riding something like this on the Mt. Vernon trail near Reagan.

    • Michael H.

      I’ve seen that guy on the trail too. Apparently one of these guys also rode the penny-farthing at the Air Force Cycling Classic-Crystal Ride.

  • Guiness

    I’m gonna water ballon him the next time I see him…

    • normal

      He’ll probably appreciate that.

  • KalashniKEV

    A total goofball that works for the County Government?

    I’m shocked…

    • PikerShorts

      What is goofball about it? He was riding it because his old Peugeot bike was stolen. Now he’s back to a normal bike after fixing up one himself. Some people collect Star Wars-themed pornography and some like old bikes.

      Sounds like a hard worker in great shape who saves money on gas and parking to spend on something else.

      • Duder

        If you have the one with Leia and the Ewoks, let me know.

    • ed

      I’m shocked it took you an hour to spew your dime-store vitriol about this.

      • Maria

        God forbid Ken was homeless…

        But if he had a concealed carry permit, he’d be golden!

    • Michael H.

      Oh no! Someone who is doing something a little different, but not attacking anyone or damaging someone else’s property. Lock him up!

  • woo

    i know this guy, this is not something a normal person could do. ken has the energy of a 5 year old on crack. it’s really awesome to see and would probably make lance armstrong jealous. i’ve gone running with him and he seriously runs circles around you, talks the entire time and then dashes off at the end to play soccer like it’s no big deal that he just ran 5 miles. i bet he doesn’t even sleep at night. and to make you feel like a serious underachiever, he plays at least 5 different instruments. sometimes even an acordion while he’s riding one of his bikes. and he’s nice. if i did all that, i’d be pretty mean.

  • Sandra

    Hahaha! Go Ken! (He’s a friend of mine.)

  • Tom Smart

    great story. you can actually buy new ones like this model and they are made a little more modern, better tires, etc.

  • BoredHouseWife

    like a boss

  • Stew Magnuson

    Commuted on my bike alongside him thru Ballston and the Bluemont trail a few weeks ago. He was indeed getting stopped a lot. I was thinking that it was a long way down to not have a helmet. I don’t like helmets, but while riding thru Ballston at rush hour, I feel like I need body armor.

  • realist

    “Ken Matthews actually doesn’t like attention.”

    no chance.

  • BlueSkies

    I’m glad he’s having fun with this. It’s a very cool story!

    Would love to read the comments, though, if the person hit on the bike trail/N. Lynn St. in Rosslyn today had been on a penny-farthing. Willing to bet that if that had happened to someone on a cool vintage bike, we’d have seen fewer snap judgments about what the cyclist may have done to cause the accident.

  • Charles

    He’s cute. I want to have his baby, or at least try.

    • Tabby

      Good call, Charles.

      • Maria

        Hey, he said “try.”

  • Deb

    I saw 4 of these bikes on the Saturday of July 4th weekend in the area of Madison Manor. It was such a surprise! One does not see this often (actually that was the ONLY time !)! It was awesome!

  • jjbug1

    Elegant control of this old-fashioned vehicle!
    My grandfather rode his high-wheeler from Providence to New York ca 1905 with friends. (The auto-traffic was a little different then!)
    This inspired my brother to ride ca 1946 a 2 wheeler from north of Boston to DC for a semester job exploration when he was a Northeastern University student. He also rode back!
    My husband & I enjoyed our biking along the WOD trail including a ride from Arl to Leesburg for our 40th anniversary.
    Clinging to the ability to ride a bike is life-enhancing! Please give all those who try to keep this ability space on the streets. I was delighted to read today that Arl. has a program to encourage children with challenges to learn how to ride bikes without training wheels! Mostly supported by energetic older youth volunteers, this offers struggling children a chance to see themselves achieve mastery of a skill that improves their lifestyle.
    Bikes are not insignificant inventions in the human experience.

  • Rosslyner

    jj – the program is called Lose the Training Wheels. It’s a national program that uses bikes specially outfitted for this purpose vs. bikes fitted w traditional training wheels. Participants ideally graduate from bikes like those shown on this page to regular bikes during the week long program. Each participant spends only an hour a day and the results are positive. My niece volunteered with 4 participants for the week. 3 lost their training wheels and the 4th, who I believe is the youngest, may return next year when the program, with the customized bikes, returns.

    On the Lynn/Lee intersection, keep your heads up and eyes open out there. I for one make mistakes from time to time whether on 2 or 4 wheels or on foot. I’m thinking bike lanes that are painted green instead of just outlined in white might help and that’s probably cheap compared to biker signals at intersections (which would also be great). Thoughts?

  • YTK

    scuze me but your bicycle is farthing.

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