Watch this history buff bring old fat bikes back to life in Montreal

When Paul Gauthier rides his bike through the streets of Montreal, people stop and stare.

Gauthier said strangers often flag him down to ask questions. Pedestrians pull out their phones and take pictures. The cars slow down to let him pass, perplexed.

“They say, who is this guy? Is this like some kind of advertisement? And they’re not sure, but it’s just me riding the bike,” he laughed.

His bike, of course, stands out in the crowd. Gauthier, a self-proclaimed history buff, rides on a dime – the big-wheeled, high-framed bicycles of the 1800s.

Gauthier says it’s not just a showpiece: he uses the bike to run errands or ride around his neighborhood. Most recently, he completed the Tour de l’Île — a 36-kilometre course through downtown Montreal — all at the top of his penny.

“The moment people see you, they’re like, ‘Oh, the story is coming,'” he said.

A piece of history

Gauthier said getting the bike was an impulsive decision. During the pandemic, he had researched the Victorian era in his spare time and wondered if it was still possible to get a bike like this.

It proved easy to get an accurate replica online, so he ordered it on a whim.

“[When it arrived] I watched it for a good hour in my living room and thought, ‘what did I do?'” he said.

Paul Gauthier said buying the bike was an impulsive decision, and despite the challenges, he doesn’t regret trying the penny. (Simon Martel/Radio-Canada)

Gauthier said he had to search for videos online to learn how to fly it. Boarding is complicated: you have to climb onto the saddle by stepping on a post on the frame, while driving. Meanwhile, its rubber wheel means there’s little shock absorption, earning it the nickname boneshaker.

Also, it has no brakes. The hills in particular can be a challenge, he said.

“Your center of gravity is very high…so you have to be careful when you go down,” he said. Otherwise, you can feel the rear wheel lift off the ground, leading to the penny-farthing’s notorious ability to launch riders headfirst over the handlebars. (Wearing a helmet is recommended.)

“Usually if there’s a bad incline, I walk down it,” he said. “But you can go up without any problem!”

On the road, Gauthier said driving the penny-farthing requires heightened awareness, but he usually has no issues. Both riders and drivers tend to slow down and give him space, as if he’s respecting the bike, he said.

“I think they’re saying, like, ‘If this guy is crazy enough to ride this, let him. Let’s step aside and let him do his thing,” he said with a laugh.

Looking ahead in the past

Now Gauthier gives lessons in how to ride a bike through his association for penny farthing fans, Boneshaker MTL, so others can experience it for themselves.

Xavier Marine, also a history buff, is one of those who have tried Gauthier’s bike. He loved it so much that he now owns his own penny-farthing and also teaches through Boneshaker.

“The idea is to make people feel the same feeling that we do. To be happy and that feeling of freedom – we want to give that to people,” he said. “And what I like is that people are still afraid of cycling!”

“It’s like skydiving, the first time you do it. It’s scary, but then you want to do it again – it’s the same feeling.”

Paul Gauthier rides his penny through the streets of the Old Port. He said the bike “sort of disappeared from history” and he hopes to start a revival. (Simon Martel/Radio-Canada)

That’s also how people would have felt back then, when the concept of the bike itself was still brand new, he said.

“That gave birth to the regular bike that we have now. So that’s a big part of history and of course it’s a big part of Montreal history,” he said.

Gauthier and Marine say remembering this history and honoring it is a big part of why they do what they do.

But Gauthier also has another motive. The penny “sort of disappeared from history,” he said – replaced, in part, by the car.

The mere presence of the penny raises the question of who the streets of Montreal were made for, he said. Gautier points out that the first road map of Montreal was actually a map for cyclists, and many of these routes exist where there are bike paths today.

WATCH | Take a look at Montreal’s first road map for cyclists:

Why Montreal’s first road map is a bike path map

It turns out that bike paths existed in Montreal before car lanes. Paul Gauthier, penny-farthing rider and Victorian history buff, explains why the first Montreal road map was a cycling map.

“Bicycles predate the automobile,” he said. “We have to show people that we had our place on the street – and we have to try to reclaim it.”

Especially in the face of climate change, he said he wanted to encourage people to look to a time before fossil fuels for inspiration.

His hope is to one day see a band rolling together through the streets on penny-farthings, like they did 150 years ago.

For those unsure if they can handle the bike, Gauthier encourages them to take the plunge, saying the penny has been life changing.

“It’s one of the best rides ever,” he said. “You feel like you’re flying… don’t forget there’s no brakes! »