Paul Brekus is used to the gazes, the waves, the heads tilting in wonderment, eyes bulging out of people’s heads like in a cartoon, as he rides through the neighborhood on his strange, wonderful contraption.
“Look! Look at that!” a mother said to her daughter on one November day, grabbing the young girl’s attention on a nearby park bench.
“Man, that looks dangerous as (expletive),” a teen said aloud as Brekus cruised past.
A police officer gave a giant thumbs-up out his cruiser window. An older woman waved enthusiastically from a bus stop outside a senior living facility. Children and adults mouthed the same phrase: “What… is that thing?”
If you live in north Denver, you probably already know Brekus — or at least have smiled and waved as he biked merrily past you, perched atop his replica of an 1885 Victor penny-farthing bicycle. It’s from up there, high above traffic, pedestrians and the rest of humanity, that Brekus observes the world turn.
“There’s an old saying,” Brekus said on a warm November afternoon. “The world smiles when you’re on a penny-farthing.”
It’s hard not to grin when you see Brekus ease past on his vintage ride — the giant 60-inch front wheel leading the way, the 20-inch back wheel trailing obediently like a younger sibling following his older brother wherever he goes.
The 67-year-old retired IT professional first got into penny-farthings in 2000, “because I’m nuts,” he said with a smile. It was a match made in two-wheeled heaven for the antique enthusiast, who also collects phonographs and telegraph machines and runs a record-cutting business on the side.
These bikes were commonplace in the late 1800s, which explains why they’re called “standard” bikes (at least in Brekus’s world). That fancy road bike sitting in your garage? “That’s a ‘safety bike,’” Brekus said, adding that he doesn’t appreciate when people call penny-farthings “big-wheel bikes.”
The most common question he gets: “How do you get on (or off) that thing?”
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The short answer: It’s a production in motion. Brekus first gets the penny-farthing moving slowly, since he’d fall off if he got on like a normal bike. He pushes the bicycle from behind, moving into a slow jog, before he lifts his foot onto a small step on the back of the bike, catapulting his 6-foot-2 frame onto the seat and into the pedals.
It takes about 15 minutes to learn and roughly an hour to get comfortable riding a penny-farthing, Brekus said. He’s a fan of the “emergency dismount,” which essentially means jumping off the back of the bike like it’s on fire.
“It’s falling with style!” he said, quoting the Buzz Lightyear phrase.
The penny-farthing isn’t for the faint of heart, however. Brekus has gotten into two crashes — including one 20 years ago on Interstate 80 that sent him to the hospital. His two front teeth paid the price, and he still sports a scar under his mustache.
Brekus, though, mostly cruises around town, disappointed if he doesn’t hit 100 miles by week’s end. The Berkeley resident loves the Clear Creek and Cherry Creek bike paths, and often does loops around Washington Park. He’s proud to say he’s gone up Lookout Mountain three times, though the descent made him think, “I’m gonna die.” Brekus once did 116 miles in a day, trekking to and from Palmer Lake.
The old-school bicycle is actually pretty comfortable once you’re up there — that is, “until you fall,” Brekus said with a grin. But it’s the smiles and reactions from people around him that give him the greatest joy.
“You have to check your ego often,” Brekus said. “They’re excited by the bike, not you.”
He remembers riding near the intersection of 15th and Larimer streets in downtown Denver, when a Rastafarian yelled: “Thank you for messing with my fragile sense of reality!”
“I almost fell off my bike,” Brekus said with a laugh.
On a recent ride through Sunnyside, Brekus turned heads at every intersection. He wore a “Popeye the Sailor Man” bike jersey and sports a white handlebar mustache befitting a man who rides a bike popular when Grover Cleveland sat in the Oval Office.
A pair of teens hopped off their scooters to take a video on the Cherry Creek trail as Brekus ducked to avoid hitting his head on a bridge — something that has happened before, he said. A man passing on his bike muttered, “That’s (expletive) sick.”
At 67, Brekus is just hoping to keep riding until he can’t.
“I’ve always joked that the way I want to go out is getting broadsided by a steam engine,” he said, smiling.
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